I write about my subversive thoughts... a lot of them are about those most ungraspable of creatures; faeries. I have a published novel, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", and a second novel is on its way... there'll be many subversive faeries in it...
“Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form, but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go amongst them, and play with them, and combat with them. They are, perhaps, human souls in the crucible — these creatures of whim.” WB Yeats, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1918)
In the 1997 film Photographing Fairies, the faeries were portrayed as small, amorphous humanoids, only rendered visible after the consumption of a white-petalled flower, which brings about the altered state of consciousness necessary to interact with them. The whole film is concerned with death, at many levels, and the faeries role is clearly as arbiters between the material world and transcendence. In the words of Arthur Conan Doyle (who makes an appearance in the film) they are the handmaidens of the eternal. The relationship between faeries and death in folklore and history is rather more nebulous, but the film was drawing on an authentic tradition that connects the faeries with death and/or the land of the dead in a variety of ways. In fact, many of the folktales and anecdotes involving faeries invoke some kind of transcendence from consensual reality (such as the dilation or expansion of the concept of time in faerieland), even if death is not an explicit part of the story. It would seem as if the faeries are with us but not with us at the same time; much like the dead.
The Folkore Roots of the Faeries and Death
One rooted tradition is that the faeries are the Pagan dead (or perhaps post-Purgatory Christians not good enough for heaven but too good for hell), living in a world of limbo, which occasionally coincides with ours. A story that captures this idea well, was collected by the folklorist William Bottrell in Cornwall in the early 1870s. In The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, we find Mr Noy, a farmer in the district of Buryan, becoming lost and bewildered on the moors at night, a common motif in faerie folklore, and which may be an embedded code in the story for the protagonist entering the altered state of consciousness necessary for interacting with a supernatural reality. Noy is missing for three days, before being found by a search-party, sleeping in a ruined ‘bowjie’ (a Cornish term for cow-shed) on Selena Moor with his horse and dogs tied up nearby. Incredulous at the passage of time — he was convinced he had spent no more than a few hours sleeping — he tells the story of what happened to him after becoming disorientated on the moor. After finding himself in an unknown stretch of woodland he heard music and saw lights some way ahead in a clearing…
“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a tambourine, played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him. The revelers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”
The ‘damsel’ turns out to be Grace Hutchens, an old-flame, who had died three years before, after getting lost herself on the moor. Removing Noy from the faerie revels, Grace warns him: “Embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing… People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.”
She continues to tell Noy about her existence with the faeries (sometimes termed sprites in the story), who had trapped her in their reality after she’d eaten a plum (another common motif for capturing mortals in faerieland). Grace’s intriguing descriptions certainly confirm them to be inhabiting a land of the dead: “Their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals — maybe thousands of years ago… ‘For you must remember they are not of our religion, but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them.'”
As the faeries call Grace back to supply them with more cider, she informs Noy that when he dies he will be able to join her again. But he decides to try the old trick of turning his coat inside out and throwing it towards the assembled faeries, which indeed, disperses them into the ether, along with Grace, before the farmer feels a blow to his head and falls asleep. The story adds further testimony from Noy that many of the faeries he saw, “bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”
The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor is one of those folktales with lots of oddly specific delineated features, which suggests that the story Bottrell collected was an amalgamation of a real incident (with Mr Noy operating in a non-usual state of consciousness), and current folk beliefs into the ontology of the faeries in the later 19th century. This ontology was that the faeries were dead people, perhaps sometimes dating back to a pre-Christian epoch, and that faerieland was a transcendent land of the dead, which, under special circumstances, could be penetrated by the living.
The Celtic Legend of the Dead and the Faeries
This idea was encountered many times by WY Evans-Wentz as he travelled through the Celtic countries of Britain, Ireland and Brittany between 1907-11, collecting the faerie traditions that he would publish as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. The belief that the faeries were intimately connected to the dead seemed to be especially prevalent in Ireland and Brittany, where time and again Evans-Wentz was given the view that they were one and the same, summed up by an unnamed Dublin engineer talking about the folk traditions in his home county: “The old people in County Armagh seriously believe that the faeries are the spirits of the dead; and they say that if you have many friends deceased you have many friendly faeries, or if you have many enemies deceased you have many faeries looking out to do you harm.”
Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, Co. Clare, used the old tactic of placing her testimony in the past in the face of the folklorist outsider, but again associates the faeries with the dead:
“Old Peggy Gillin, dead these thirty years, who lived a mile beyond Grange, used to cure people with a secret herb shown to her by her brother, dead of a faerie-stroke. He was drowned and taken by the faeries, in the big drowning here during the herring season. She would pull the herb herself and prepare it by mixing spring water with it. Peggy could always talk with her dead relatives and friends, and continually with her brother, and she would tell everybody that they were with the faeries.”
In Brittany the faeries were known as fées or corrigans, and usually seem to have been understood as ancestral spirits, often appearing to warn of, or to predict, death. Evans-Wentz found many folktales about the fées and the dead in and around the village of Carnac, where there are extensive remains of prehistoric megalithic stone rows and burial chambers. M. Goulven Le Scour was a source of many traditions, although once again, her testimonies were usually drawn from the past:
“My grandmother, Marie Le Bras, had related to me that one evening an old fée arrived in my village, Kerouledic (Finistère), and asked for hospitality. It was about the year 1830. The fée was received; and before going to bed she predicted that the little daughter whom the mother was dressing in night-clothes would be found dead in the cradle the next day. This prediction was only laughed at; but in the morning the little one was dead in her cradle, her eyes raised toward Heaven, The fée, who had slept in the stable, was gone.”
There are many more testimonies along these lines in all the regions visited by Evans-Wentz. They are often confused and ambiguous, and some of his interviewees deny any connection between the faeries and the dead. But there is an underlying consistency in the belief, allowing Evans-Wentz to sum up: “The animistic character of the Celtic Legend of the Dead is apparent; and the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and faerieland.”
Burial Mounds and Faerie Hills
The contiguous relationship between the faeries and death also find form in the physical environment. Burial mounds, most often dating from the Bronze Age, exist in great numbers throughout Western Europe, and in Britain and Ireland they can be prominent features in the landscape. They have also become bounded up with faerie folklore, often being seen as the underground dwelling abodes of the faeries. In Ireland the association is made explicit; the faeries (aes sídhe) are ‘the people of the mounds’. Jeremy Harte makes the valid point that faerie hills are not always burial mounds, and that perhaps the folkloric prerogative was to house the faeries under any prominent hill or mound for the purposes of narrative rather than any close correlation between prehistoric burial locations and the faeries. Indeed, two of the most famous faerie hills are natural and not burial mounds. These are Doon Hill at Aberfoyle, where the Rev. Robert Kirk consorted with the faeries and met his death in the late 17th century, and the Faerie Hill of Sithean Moor on Iona, which has a long association with the faeries, and was also the location of the mysterious death of a young occultist by the name of Marie Fornario in 1929.
But throughout Britain, and especially in Ireland there is a direct correlation between prehistoric burial mounds and faerie folklore, usually with the mounds having an appropriate name appended. Leslie Grinsell even produced a distribution map of these sites in his 1976 book Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, with the largest concentration in Scotland. There is no such map yet produced for Ireland, but the number is likely to be in the hundreds. The folklore frequently consists of the burial mounds becoming open to mortals at certain times, whereupon the faeries can be seen and interacted with, usually feasting and making music. A common motif includes people who steal faerie objects from within the mound, the earliest example being recorded by William of Newburgh in the late 12th century, where the mortal finding himself in the midst of a banquet in a faerie mound known as Willy Howe (Humberside), steals a silver cup, then makes off with it after throwing the contents out to disperse the faeries. According to Newburgh the cup ended up being presented to Henry II. Other stories present the mound-dwelling faeries as helpful to humanity. Grinsell recounts several examples of this motif, including one from The Pixies’ Mound at Stogursey, Somerset, where a ploughman on his way to the fields noticed a small broken peel (wooden shovel for baking cakes) on the the mound. He mended it, put it back on the mound, and then when he returned home in the evening found a freshly baked cake in its place.
This apparent close connection between faerie folklore and burial mounds may represent further evidence that the faeries are indeed the dead, and that the stories told about them are to all intents a filtered down form of ancestor worship, with offerings and rituals denuded of their original meaning and rendered into a symbolic folkloric language. This is almost certainly only part of the story when it comes to faerie beliefs, but the folklore does present a consistent theme of the faeries and the dead being intimates, tied together in the collective memory as inseparable concepts, however far distilled, for the purposes of narrative storytelling.
But faeries die too. Those living in the faerieland on Selena Moor were not immortal according to Grace Hutchens’ testimony, and there is a relatively common folklore motif of faerie funerals/burials (Aarne Thompson Index F268.1), which might muddy the waters of the theory that the faeries are the dead. William Blake, a firm believer in the world of faerie, famously claimed to have observed a faerie funeral where he saw “a procession of creatures the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf, which they buried with songs and then disappeared.”
A particularly interesting example was collected in Cornwall by Robert Hunt in 1865, and published in Popular Romances of the West of England. It tells the story of Richard, a fisherman returning home with his catch past Lelant Church, when he heard the bells tolling with a ‘muffled sound’. He peered into a window and saw the dimly illuminated scene of a faerie funeral:
“Richard beheld the bier borne between six — whether men or women he could not tell — but he saw that the face of the corpse was that of a beautiful female, smaller than the smallest child’s doll. It was, Richard said, ‘as if it were a dead seraph,’ — so very lovely did it appear to him. The body was covered with white flowers, and its hair, like gold threads, was tangled amongst the blossoms. The body was placed within the altar; and then a large team of faeries, with picks and spades, began to dig a little hole close by the sacramental table.”
Often the faerie funerals turn out to be predictors of the death of those observing them. A typical example was collected by the folklorist James Bowker and published in Goblin Tales of Lancashire in 1883. In the story Adam and Robin are walking past Langton church on a moonlit night, when they hear the bells peal twenty-six times; the age of Robin. As they approach the avenue of trees leading to the church they see a small, dark figure step out of the churchyard “chanting some mysterious words in a low musical voice as he walked.” They ducked back into the trees…
” … and standing together against the trunk of a large tree, they gazed at the miniature being stepping so lightly over the road, mottled by the stray moonbeams. It was a dainty little object; but although neither Adam nor Robin could comprehend the burden of the song it sang, the unmistakable croon of grief with which each stave ended told the listeners that the faerie was singing a requiem. The men kept perfectly silent, and in a little while the figure paused and turned round, as though in expectation, continuing, however, its mournful notes. By-and-by the voices of other singers were distinguished, and as they grew louder the faerie standing in the roadway ceased to render the verse, and sang only the refrain, and a few minutes afterwards Adam and Robin saw a marvellous cavalcade pass through the gateway. A number of figures, closely resembling the one to which their attention had first been drawn, walked two by two, and behind them others with their caps in their hands, bore a little black coffin, the lid of which was drawn down so as to leave a portion of the contents uncovered. Behind these again others, walking in pairs, completed the procession. All were singing in inexpressibly mournful tones, pausing at regular intervals to allow the voice of the one in advance to be heard, as it chanted the refrain of the song, and when the last couple had passed into the avenue, the gates closed as noiselessly as they had opened. As the bearers of the burden marched past the two watchers, Adam bent down, and, by the help of a stray gleam of moonlight, saw that there was a little corpse in the coffin. ‘Robin, mi lad,’ said he, in a trembling voice and with a scared look, ‘it’s the picture o’ thee as they have in the coffin!'”
Robin is, quite reasonably, freaked out by this turn of events and reaches out to touch the lead faerie. The procession immediately vanishes, and the two men run back home ashen faced. Sure enough, one month later, Robin falls from a hay-rick and is fatally wounded.
This strange projection of a mortal human into the faerie world as a portent of death once again links the folklore to the psychogenesis that created it. These are not simply fireside stories; they are embedded with meaning. In all of the cases discussed, this meaning is our culture’s attempt to understand what death is and who might be around to help us, be with us, or warn us, when death is close or upon us. The folklore is sending us messages that seem to infer that there are metaphysical entities who are more familiar with the land of the dead than we are, and that death is simply an alternative form of consciousness, available to everyone given the right circumstances, and perhaps not something to be afraid of.
Breaching the Consciousness Gap — The Faeries as Arbiters of Death
The folklore that portrays the faeries as inhabiting the land of the dead shows them as representatives of the past and what is gone. In the same way as a memory of someone dead can be conjured up in consciousness before disappearing into the subconscious, so the faeries are able to make appearances in our collective stories that attempt to understand death and its connection with life. Their somewhat wacky behaviour perhaps exemplifies our fear of the unknown — they live in an undiscovered country, and have their own customs and rules. But it’s a place that can be accessed and brought into our comprehension of reality — physically and metaphysically — so as to come to terms with death, both our own and of others.
Accessing the transcendent world of the dead, without dying, and making contact with the faeries, seems dependent on an altered state of consciousness. Many of the previous posts on this site have investigated this in some detail as an essential key to comprehending the faerie phenomenon (here‘s an example). And the folklore we’ve been investigating in this article is usually dependent on the protagonist(s) going through an endogenous transformation of their conscious state through a variety of means, which are coded and embedded in the stories to signpost the listener/reader that something supra-natural is about to happen, such as Mr Noy’s exhausted confusion, or Adam and Robin’s fear. Modern renditions of the faeries as arbiters of death, such as Photographing Fairies, are more at liberty to constitute precise causes of the altered state, in this case the ingestion of a psychoactive flower. But the consistent feature is that the faeries exist in some liminal zone that bridges the gap between material reality and consciousness, and that ultimately once the gap has been fully breached we find ourselves in a transcendent form of consciousness beyond time and space; usually known as Death.
Thanks to Ylenia Viola for permission to use her transcendent artwork in this article. The cover image is A.I.R. from her ‘Enchanted Metamorphosis’ gallery. Ylenia’s artwork can be found at her website: Fairytalesneverdie
There are some very subversive faeries knocking around in the pages of my novel Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. They inhabit the peripheral of the story but can’t resist commenting on the action and sticking their oars in whenever they get the chance. They’re not good, they’re not bad, they just are.
I hope some readers of this blog site might enjoy Set the Controls…
“Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy. It is far richer than fiction would generally lead one to believe and, beyond that, it is a world to enter with extreme caution, for of all things that faeries resent the most it is curious humans blundering about their private domains like so many ill-mannered tourists. So go softly – where the rewards are enchanting, the dangers real.” Betty Ballantine from the foreward to Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee.
This is a chronological trawl through the multifarious artwork that has attempted to visually display the faeries. This art is so diverse and wide-ranging that I can only hope to incorporate a small fraction of the whole, but it will hopefully give a flavour of the changing nature of the artistic representations of these ultra-dimensional entities, that appear to have been flitting around our collective peripheral vision for millennia. Much of it has been produced by people who have, in one way or another, managed to alter their states of consciousness to see beyond the material world, dispatch their rational mindset, and experience the surrogate realities that occasionally coincide with the sensory world we usually presume to be the real one. From prehistoric cave art to modern depictions of amorphous nature spirits… it’s quite a trip…
Prehistoric Cave and Rock Art
Our earliest known artistic portrayals of the world, and how human consciousness interacted with it, come in the form of cave paintings from all parts of the globe, starting c.35,000 BCE (see Shamanic Explorations of Supernatural Realms: Cave Art – The Earliest Folklore for a detailed look at cave paintings as folklore). Many of these cave paintings include humanoids and therianthropes, otherworldly entities that have been recorded alongside geometric imagery, stylised animals and landscapes. But what state of mind were our Palaeolithic ancestors in when they were painting these strange entities in often difficult to access caves and shelters?
The anthropologist David Lewis-Williams has made the convincing argument that these cave and rock-shelter paintings were produced by shamanic cultures to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of Lewis-Williams, and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are hundreds of motifs (such as entoptic swirls, dot patterns and spirals) in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these Palaeolithic cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences on the walls of caves and rock shelters — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings and supernatural humanoids that correlate in many ways with later faerie types.
In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock makes extensive use of Lewis-Williams work, as well as his own ethnographic studies, to investigate further into the concept of cave art as shamanic recording of different realities through altered states of consciousness. Hancock suggests it was no accident that these cave paintings began to
appear when they did, that is between 30-35,000 years ago, just as anatomically and neurologically modern humans asserted their predominance across the Palaeolithic world. He goes as far as to propose that the cultures these peoples instigated were fundamentally predicated on an understanding of the world and reality brought about by mind-altering psychedelic plants and mushrooms. A reductionists’ view would assert that whilst shamanic cultures may be accessing a subjective hallucinogenic reality, this reality is simply delusional, the result of neurophysiological changes brought about by chemical changes in the brain, as a result of the ingestion of psychotropic compounds. The ‘entities’ portrayed in the cave paintings are all simply conjured up by compromised human minds. But recent research (with Graham Hancock at the forefront) disputes this view. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that much historic folklore can be related intimately to the type of stories being told in cave art by Palaeolithic shamans, with which the descriptions are often remarkably similar.
This preliterate artwork could be seen as the earliest folklore, encapsulating stories and experiences now lost to us. The entities represented in caves and rock shelters throughout the world certainly meant something to the artists creating them, and would have been recognised by all who viewed them as part of the reality they inhabited, in whatever state of consciousness that might have been. We can perhaps imagine the caves and rock shelters as places where folk-stories were conveyed, using the imagery as a medium to enhance the tales, made especially effective in some of the caves, where the only light would have been from the flames of torches. The difficulty of access to many of these spaces suggests that whatever these images represent, they must also have had a highly significant ritualised purpose to the people viewing them. Whilst we cannot retrieve the stories they told, we can recognise that the artwork must have been fully integrated into the cultures of which they were a part, especially as we are probably seeing only the surviving fraction of what originally existed.
Classical and Medieval Faeries
In Ancient Greek culture there was a well-classified pantheon of nature spirits, sometimes termed Dryads (Δρυάδες) and Hamadryads (Ἁμαδρυάδες), but often given the general term of Nymphs (νύμφη). They were female tree spirits, that were usually recognised as being one with the tree, protecting it with their vitality and receiving symbiotic protection and life in return. Pausanias, in his 2nd-century Description of Greece, although distancing himself from the belief, says: “Those Dryads who in days of old, according to the story of the poets, grew out of trees and especially out of oaks.” Some Hamadryads life spans were directly related to the trees, and although usually temperate and kind in nature, they would deal retribution on any person destroying or damaging their trees and habitats, often with the help of the gods.
Most surviving depictions of nymphs are from stone reliefs and statues (and occasionally in mosaics), often shown as dancing or in relation to gods and goddesses, most frequently the nature god Pan, whose pan-pipes were even part-fashioned from the shapeshifted nymph Syrinx, who had been turned into a reed by her sisters to avoid his amorous advances.
It is clear the ancient Greeks (followed by the pre-Christian Romans) regarded these named and categorised nature-entities as metaphysical representatives of an otherworld, who would only interact with humanity during certain conditions. In this they are faeries in all but name – seen through the cultural lens of classical Greek and Roman civilisations.
Such statuary and reliefs are important to the radical but intriguing theory put forward by the philosopher Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by many people, such as schizophrenics, who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of the gods or other metaphysical entities, such as the nymphs. In Jaynes’ theory the visual images of otherworldly beings were fundamental as conduits for providing instructions and oracular advice to bicameral people:
“… early civilisations had a profoundly different mentality from our own, that in fact men and women were not conscious as we are, were not responsible for their actions, and therefore cannot be given the credit or blame for anything that was done over this vast millennia of time; that instead each person had a part of his nervous system that was divine, by which he was ordered about like any slave, a voice or voices which indeed were who we call volition and empowered what they commanded and were related to the hallucinated voices of others in a carefully established hierarchy.”
With the Christianisation of Europe in the Middle Ages the faeries became co-opted by the Church as representations of demonic entities on Earth. In order to counter an evident vernacular belief in faeries, the Church’s official line was that the faeries were the result of delusions orchestrated by the Devil and his evil minions for various nefarious purposes. This was (from 1184) reinforced by The Inquisition, which could include questions in its commissions about any interactions with the faeries, aimed at weeding out heretical beliefs and punishing the perpetrators. Hardline preachers were very clear on what people needed to believe when it came to the faeries:
“There are also others who say that they see women and girls dancing by night whom they call elvish folk, or faeries, and they believe that these can transform both men and women or, by leaving others in their place, carry them to elf-land; all of these are mere fantasies bequeathed to them by an evil spirit.” Wycliffite sermon c. 1390.
Richard Firth Green, in his 2016 book Elf Queens and Holy Friars , digs deep into the medieval vernacular belief in faeries, mostly by utilizing the surviving texts of mystery plays, to demonstrate that there was a widespread acceptance of the faeries as a supernatural race of beings who interacted with humans on a regular basis. He makes the convincing argument that this was a popular cultural reaction to the ecclesiastical conception of faeries as minor-demons. Many of the mystery plays (which were performed in villages and towns throughout medieval Europe) incorporated faeries as plot devices, with the assumption that the audience would know exactly who they were, and that they were not demons, but rather arbiters of a supernatural realm that was neither heaven nor hell. However, the faeries rarely made it into medieval artwork without being mutated into demons. It took the Renaissance to reestablish them as an integral species of otherworldly characters within works of art.
Early Modern Faeries and Witches
Between the 16th and 18th centuries both ecclesiastical and secular authorities throughout Europe conducted a concerted effort to prosecute those people deemed to be practicing witchcraft (see Faerie Familiars and Zoomorphic Witches). This persecution generated much artwork devoted to portraying events such as the witches’ sabbath and the various zoomorphic attributes of both the witches and their faerie familiars. Whilst much of this activity appears to have been metaphysical in nature, artists were not shy of outing the underground cult, often delighting in the more macabre details for the purposes of tabloidesque outrage amongst good Christians.
However, despite usually (but not always) being portrayed alongside witches and/or the Devil, the faeries begin to reassert their own artistic space during this period. Alongside the more benign reimagining of faeries in plays such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the faeries of literature – and the artistic visuals that accompanied this literature – begin to appear as autonomous entities, partially removed from demonic connotations. This is nicely illustrated by the 1639 cover to Robin Goodfellow His Mad Prankes and Merry Jests, which matches the japery of the text by portraying a distinctly mellow-looking Devil (complete with comedy codpiece) conducting a faerie circle dance.
This rehabilitation of the faeries began to bring them back into line with their folkloric roots, as supernatural entities with ambiguous morals but a more playful relationship with humanity and consensus reality. However, when we reach the 19th century, the art of faerie becomes transformed, and they become something else altogether.
The 19th-Century Reinvention of the faeries
In fact, the faerie artistic renaissance was underway by the later 18th century, inspired in part by the esoteric artwork of William Blake, who turned Shakespeare’s faeries into “the rulers of the vegetable world.” Blake’s style represented an innovative new representation of the faeries, and is perhaps the earliest (post-Antiquity) artistic rendering of them as sexual beings with an explicit connection to the fertility of the earth.
However, it took another generation of British Victorian artists to bring about the full-blown faerie revival. In her 1999 book Strange and Secret Peoples, Carole Silver details the socio-cultural reasons for this burgeoned interest in extracting the faeries from their shadowy past and putting them in the artistic spotlight:
“That the Victorians were utterly fascinated by the fairies is demonstrated by the art, drama, and literature they created and admired. Their abiding interest shows in the numerous, uniquely British fairy paintings that flourished between the 1830s and the 1870s – pictures in part inspired by nationalism and Shakespeare, in part as protest against the strictly useful and material, but in either case, as attempts to reconnect the actual and the occult.”
The revivalists were firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition, and whilst continuing Blake’s naturalistic visions of the faeries, they began to introduce new elements into their portrayals, not necessarily based on any folk traditions. For the first time the faeries attained wings, associating them with insects (especially butterflies and dragonflies), and many appeared as children, perhaps to accentuate their role as innocents amidst nature. There is a long list of Victorian British artists who jumped on the faerie bandwagon: John Anster Fitzgerald, Thomas Heatherley, Richard Dadd, John Duncan, Sir Joseph Noel Paton, John Atkinson Grimshaw, Richard Doyle (uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) to name just a few. All added their unique slant on things, but there was a consistency in their enchanted imagination, and they were responsible for cementing the idea of what faeries really were in the popular cultural imagination.
In the second half of the 19th century, just as the main phase of the revival was waning, there was a shift to a new style of faerie art. Artists such as Gustave Doré and Aubrey Beardsley began to plug into the Arthurian mythos revival, being made popular in literature at this time by Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne et al. There were plenty of faeries to capture from the legends, and Doré and Beardsley both created their own highly stylised imagery that added a new dimension to faerie art, which locked them into a mythic past, distinctly removed from the Victorian present.
Entering the mythic past was also the remit of the pre-Raphaelite school of painters, although in his concise article ‘Pre-Raphaelite Fairy Painting‘, Richard Schindler suggests they had a consistently more ambiguous relationship with faerie subjects than their more conventional artistic contemporaries. The folkloric qualities were almost entirely removed from this school of painting, making way for darkly sexualised imagery and the celebration of minute detail. In some ways the pre-Raphaelites almost took the faerie out of faerie art.
But at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century one artist in particular recaptured the folkloric realism in faerie art and produced a large and much-loved corpus of art that took the faeries back to their roots. Arthur Rackham was born in 1867 and began illustrating for books such as The Ingoldsby Legends and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in the 1890s. He continued to produce illustrations, mostly in ink and watercolour, for the rest of his life (he died in 1939), many of which portray the faeries from a vast range of folklore sources. His style is immediately recognisable and his copyright-free images can be found illustrating much modern online faerie content, suggesting his authoritative knowledge of traditional faerie-lore, and his ability to render it visually, has continued to strike a chord in the popular imagination. Of particular note are his illustrations for a 1933 edition of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, where he fully realised the hallucinogenic earthy goblin faeries conjured up in this dark and sexually charged piece of literature. They look like emergent nature spirits, who don’t necessarily have the best interests of humans in mind, matching perfectly the ‘slightly dangerous’ faeries of folklore.
20th-Century Flower Faeries
During the early 20th century, however, there was another artistic movement afoot, which managed to derail any Rackhamesque faerie realism by transforming the faeries into characters for children. Taking the lead from some of the more gentle Victorian faerie artwork, artists such as Helen Jacobs and Margaret Rice Oxley turned the faeries into benign entities, fit for children’s faerie-tale book illustrations. The most influential artist of this time was Cicely Mary Barker, whose 1923 publication Flower Fairies, cast the faeries as innocent diminutive children, with each faerie allocated to a type of flower with an associated poem. Ironically, Barker’s illustrations were partly informed by the recent popularity of the Theosophical Society, and its ideas about the faeries as elemental beings essential for the wellbeing of nature and who were contactable through the altered state of consciousness most often known as clairvoyance. But any such metaphysical components were extracted from Barker’s illustrations, and we are left with the charming whimsy of the flower faeries.
It was Barker’s reimagining of the faeries that eventually morphed into the cinematographic faeries unleashed by Disney, and which continue to inform popular ideas about what they are: harmless, benevolent creatures, which exist to teach children morals and to delight us with their twinkly cuteness. Fortunately, on the back of the artistic counter-cultural renaissance of the 1960s, the faeries were rescued from expulsion into children’s books and films by the dynamic imagination of two artists who had rediscovered the folklore connection, and were willing and able to remind us what the faeries were really all about.
Froud and Lee Faeries
In 1978 Brian Froud and Alan Lee published the illustrated book Faeries, basing their descriptions and artwork on the folklorist Katherine Briggs’ An Encyclopaedia of Fairies, which had been published two years earlier. It has since been republished many times, and is without a doubt, the bestselling book about faeries. In the preface to the 2002 edition Brian Froud describes some of his thinking whilst putting together the original version:
“Faeries is a reminder of a world in which we all once lived, where we were connected to the earth itself and could acknowledge its spiritual manifestations. There we recognised the souls of trees and rocks and rivers and had a direct relationship with the faeries – and to do otherwise was to court disaster. Faeries needed to be properly propitiated or else loss would be experienced – loss of objects, loss of time, loss of health, and even loss of life…
There is an intimacy of emotion expressed in the colour washes and a directness of meaning in the pencil and pen lines that delineate the faery forms.”
Faeries does indeed take us back to a naturalistic conception of what these entities are, but it’s also strongly rooted in the centuries old traditions of named and recognised faerie types, giving an encyclopaedic run through the varieties of these metaphysical creatures who have existed beside humanity, but always at the periphery of reality. Their faerie renderings are sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening, and often amusing. But they plug into a deep understanding of a supernatural species that is intimately connected with human consciousness and the way it interacts with the natural environment, perhaps helping us to see that consciousness and external reality are one and the same thing. Froud and Lee’s illustrations have certainly had a far-reaching influence on subsequent artists of faeries as well as filmmakers – Froud has collaborated with Jim Henson, and Lee was drafted in by Peter Jackson to help recreate the creatures, atmosphere, artefacts and architecture of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And modern imaginers of faerie worlds seem to intuitively incorporate many of their stylisms into their art. Perhaps this is because Froud and Lee have gotten closer than any other artists to the reality of the faerie world – they’ve pinned it down for what it really is… or at least as close as we can get to it.
The New Faeries
Froud and Lee’s faeries were primarily taken from British and Irish sources. In the 1992 book The Complete Encyclopaedia of Elves, Goblins and Other Little Creatures by Pierre Dubois, the artists Claudine and Roland Sabatier, evidently inspired by the artwork in Faeries, produced a compendious selection of global faeries. It’s a beautifully playful book that covers faerie traditions from every part of the world, once again claiming back the more sinister and uncomfortable aspects of the faeries. Before the advent of the internet this was the go-to book if you wanted a visual introduction to the faeries outside of Britain and Ireland, and it remains (alongside Faeries) a benchmark for contemporary artists who want to attempt bringing these entities into visual range.
But it is the internet that has facilitated an exponential growth in new faerie art. Type ‘faeries’ into any image search engine and you will be deluged by a massive range of artwork, of every imaginable style, that depicts them as a distinct species of entity. A lot of it will be specifically for children, and often follows in the Flower Fairies tradition, but there is an enormous amount of innovative and charismatic faerie art being produced that looks at the phenomenon from a very wide spectrum. Artists such as Amelia Royce Leonards, Mia Araujo, Josephine Wall and Iris Compiet are helping us to see into the luminous, yet shadowy faerie-world in new ways; always respecting the artwork of the past but also bringing their unique visions to the table. It is a form of disclosure; the faeries being made manifest from the consciousness of talented artists who are able to tap into the metaphysical realm where they exist.
Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without some visionary art by someone who has definitely met otherworldy beings in an altered state of consciousness with the aid of a psychedelic compound, in this case the Amazonian brew Ayahuasca. Pablo Amaringo was a Peruvian shaman (d. 2009) whose talent for illustrating his Ayahuasca experiences is unsurpassed. As Graham Hancock has eloquently described, Ayahuasca takes the human mind to radically different alternate realities, where reside many entities that correspond with faerie types. They exist – we just need to be able to tweak our everyday consciousness in order to interact with them. Fortunately, there have been many artists throughout prehistory and history who have been able to show us who they are and what they are.
“You give DMT to ten people. They’ve never had DMT before, and you tell them only that they might see something. If nine out of ten of them come back with descriptions of elves, and four of them use the word elves unprompted, we think you should investigate the phenomenon of elves seen on DMT.”
Zarkov “Coming Out of Left Field with Gracie and Zarkov”, High Frontiers 3 (1987)
Here’s something a bit different. I found this article on the exemplary Erowid website when I was writing my recent blogpost Altered States of Consciousness and the Faeries. It’s an assessment of ‘entity contact experiences’ taken from people who have tweaked their consciousness with a variety of psychedelic substances, most especially N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. It includes an analysis of encounters culled from the Erowid ‘Experience Vaults’, which demonstrates that many of the entities invoked by these psychonauts match closely the faeries of folklore. It’s a long and detailed piece, but helps, I think, in an understanding of the components of what these metaphysical creatures are, and where they might reside.
It’s written by all-round good bloke Jon Hanna, best known as the producer of Mind States – a conference series that explores various methods for altering consciousness. He has spoken internationally on the topic of visionary art and entheogens, showcasing collections of psychedelic art and hallucinatory animation at events in Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Jamaica, Mexico, Portugal, and Switzerland.
Author of the Psychedelic Resource List, Jon is considered somewhat of a ‘psychedelic consumer advocate’, highlighting reputable vendors as well as exposing companies, events, and individuals that have less than scrupulous records. He has written articles, columns, and reviews for Entheogene Blätter, The Entheogen Review, Erowid, Heads, High Times, the MAPS Bulletin, Morbid Curiosity, The Resonance Project, and Skunk.
More details about Jon and his work can be found at his website mindstates.org Thanks to Jon for his permission to republish the article here at deadbutdreaming…
When writing about spiritual matters, it is important to be upfront about one’s biases from the start. I was raised without religion. My father was an atheist; my mother is agnostic. I can count on one hand the number of times that I went to church as a child. In my teens and early twenties, I became fascinated with studying world religions, looking for clues that might help me better understand my psychedelic experiences. Although I never adopted any specific religion, I resonate most with ideas from Hinduism. There was a time in my life when I probably believed in God, in the idea that humans have souls, and in the concept of karma. These days, I’m a die-hard agnostic and devil’s advocate.
In this chapter, I’ll largely avoid proposing personal theories regarding the origin or meaning of entity contact experiences. I have no idea what the truth of the matter is in these situations. Such experiences are powerful enough that they’ve influenced paradigm shifts in some people who have had them. Speculation and debate about entity encounters have occurred over the years, and I’ve compiled a few interesting articles on the topic in the chapters that follow. Inclusion herein should not be interpreted to imply that I am promoting any particular ideas; I am not.
Throughout history, humanity has described contact with “others”: angels, demons, spirits, elves, aliens, etc. A girl raised on tales of the Brothers Grimm may believe in faeries; a boy brought up on Edgar Allen Poe stories may believe in ghosts. Children of Hindu households may worship a pantheon of deities, while Muslim kids may bow to a single God. Staid atheists may be “born again” into Christianity. And so on. Individuals’ ideas regarding the truth or “reality” of the existence of non-material beings, including gods or God, may change multiple times over the courses of their lives. Such beliefs can fade, disappear entirely, or be replaced by beliefs in the existence of other non-material beings.
Psychedelic plants have been employed for thousands of years as spiritual tools, due to the perception that they can provide an experience of non-material realms–be they heavenly, hellish, or anything in between. Traditional ethnographic use of these plants for such purposes inspired the coining of “entheogen”, a word that means to “generate God within”. It is not uncommon to hear stories of agnostics or atheists “finding God” during their psychedelic trips and subsequently changing their views on the reality of spiritual realms and beings. Direct experience can be mighty persuasive. Even if that experience takes place solely within a mental landscape. Even if one were on drugs at the time. Under the influence of psychoactive plants or drugs, users have reported experiences of watching, receiving messages from, communicating with, and/or interacting with “non-human intelligent beings”, hereafter described as “discarnate entities”.
For some, the word “discarnate” may solely evoke ghostly specters of indistinct form. Here, the word is used to describe perceived beings that do not have a physical body within consensus reality, yet often do have a form that gives an appearance of physicality. Those who perceive them may be able to describe what they look like and/or sound like, sometimes what they feel like, and on rare occasions even how they smell and/or taste. However, a video camera wouldn’t be able to record images or audio of them. “Entities” conveys that for those who perceive them, they seem to be independent beings.
“Discarnate entities” should be considered to encompass angels and aliens, demons and dragons, faeries and felines, elves and insectoids, ghosts and goblins, harlequins and humanoids, plant teachers and other creatures–even morphing machine minds and fractalline Fabergé footballs, as long as they’re non-physical and seem sentient.
In his 2001 book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, author Rick Strassman presents first-person accounts from subjects who participated in his DMT studies between 1990 and 1995. Over the course of his work during these years, Strassman was surprised to discover that “at least half” of his subjects experienced some manner of contact with: “entities,” “beings,” “aliens,” “guides,” and “helpers” […]. The “life-forms” looked like clowns, reptiles, mantises, bees, spiders, cacti, and stick figures.”
Although Strassman located brief mentions of entities in a couple of DMT reports from the scientific literature of the 1950s, he related that he had: “…been unable to locate any similar reports in research subjects taking other psychedelics. Only with DMT do people meet up with “them,” with other beings in a nonmaterial world.”
Strassman’s remarks seem odd, since visions of discarnate entities generated via numerous other psychedelics certainly aren’t absent from writings in the field. In a chapter titled “The World of the Non-Human” from their 1966 book The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, authors Robert Masters and Jean Houston describe such visions: “These images are usually seen with eyes closed. They are almost always vividly colored and the colors typically are described as rich, brilliant, glowing, luminous, or “preternatural”–colors exceeding in their beauty anything the subject has ever seen before.”
The images are most often of persons, animals, architecture, and landscapes. Strange creatures from legend, folklore, myth, and fairy tale appear in wonderful surroundings. Masters and Houston go on to provide several examples of specific visions; one was from a male subject who had consumed the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii): “A platinum snail about twelve feet high and studded with rubies was pulled along on its wheels by a much smaller and brightly painted dwarf carved from wood. The curious couple was closely followed by a host of metallic, gem-covered insects–grasshoppers and beetles, bumblebees, and mosquitoes, all of fabulous size and brilliantly gleaming, gliding or walking or hopping with the precision of wound-up toys. These then were followed by strange creatures from some wildly imaginative bestiary–all converging upon a lush oasis in the golden desert where the foliage seemed to have been created by Rousseau.”
Another example is presented from a four-year-old boy, “S”, who had unwittingly consumed an LSD-dosed sugar cube from his mother’s refrigerator: “Among the first hallucinations to appear were a number of crustaceans, especially (as it could be gathered) crabs and lobsters. […] S also hallucinated a whole array of “monsters”–apparently creatures such as elves, dwarfs, and other small, deformed human-like beings. Fearful at first, he gained confidence when his mother encouraged him to “make friends with the monsters” […]. After some of his anxieties were disposed of, several of the “monsters” came and sat on S’s knees and in the palm of his hand and he talked with them. Others danced around him and made faces. From time to time, S’s fears would return; then, with his mother’s help, he would overcome his fears again and enjoy playing and talking with the hallucinated beings.”
Masters and Houston compare this child’s experience to that of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who took mescaline under the supervision of a psychiatrist. At one point Sartre described that he was: “…fighting a losing battle with a devil fish and [he] mentioned a number of other disturbing experiences. He reported umbrellas changing into vultures and shoes changing into skeletons, faces became hideous, and crabs, polyps, and “grimacing things” that he saw from the corner of his eye.”
Even after the drug had worn off, some weeks later Sartre complained of being “on the edge of a chronic hallucinatory psychosis” and said that he was “being followed by lobsters and crabs” and “assorted other monsters”.
Jerry Richardson, an insurance underwriter from San Francisco who participated in Bernard Aaronson’s LSD research in the 1960s, wrote: “I saw goblins in green and yellow and blue; red devils with sinister, twisted faces; and then bodies, faces, ghostlike creatures in white, coming out of nowhere, rushing toward me, tumbling over each other, and disappearing into the back of my mind in a seemingly endless procession of ludicrously grotesque imagery. […] Opening my eyes stopped the mental imagery. Around the room, everything was now bathed in a curious yellowish-warm, glowing radiance. An ordinarily rather nondescript, somewhat messy, and ugly room had been transformed into something out of a fairy tale.”
In his May 12, 1955, lecture “Mescaline and the ‘Other World'”, presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Aldous Huxley commented on the discarnate entities that may populate humanity’s mental geography:
“Through these landscapes and among these living architectures wander strange figures, sometimes of human beings (or even of what seem to be superhuman beings), sometimes of animals or fabulous monsters. Giving a straightforward prose description of what he used to see in his spontaneous visions, William Blake reports that he frequently saw beings, to whom he gave the name of Cherubim. These beings were a hundred and twenty feet high and were engaged (this is characteristic of the personages seen in vision) in doing nothing that could be thought of as being symbolic or dramatic. In this respect the inhabitants of the mind’s Antipodes differ from the figures inhabiting Jung’s archetypal world; for they have nothing to do either with the personal history of the visionary, or even with the age-old problems of the human race. Quite literally, they are the inhabitants of “the Other World”.
This brings me to a very interesting and, I believe, significant point. The visionary experience, whether spontaneous or induced by drugs, hypnosis or any other means, bears a striking resemblance to “the Other World,” as we find it described in the various traditions of religion and folklore. In every culture the abode of the gods and souls in bliss is a country of surpassing beauty, glowing with color, bathed in intense light. In this country are seen buildings of indescribable magnificence, and its inhabitants are fabulous creatures, like the six-winged seraphs of Hebrew tradition, or like the winged bulls, the hawk-headed men, the human-headed lions, the many-armed, or elephant-headed personages of Egyptian, Babylonian and Indian mythology. Among these fabulous creatures move superhuman angels and spirits, who never do anything, but merely enjoy the beatific vision.”
John Lilly, the famous dolphin researcher and inventor of the isolation tank, recounts his first LSD experience: “I saw God on a tall throne as a giant, wise, ancient Man. He was surrounded by angel choruses, cherubim, and seraphim, the saints were moving by his throne in a stately procession. I was there in Heaven, worshiping God, worshiping the angels, worshiping the saints in full and complete transport of religious ecstasy.”
In later experiences, both aided and unaided by drug consumption, Lilly contacted a pair of discarnate entities who told him that they were his guardians and who appeared to give him some instruction on the nature of the universe. In contemplating these experiences, Lilly remarked: “In my own far-out experiences in the isolation tank with LSD and in my close brushes with death I have come upon the two guides. These two guides may be two aspects of my own functioning at the supraself level. They may be entities in other spaces, other universes than our consensus reality. They may be helpful constructs, helpful concepts that I use for my own future evolution. They may be representatives of an esoteric hidden school. They may be concepts functioning in my own human biocomputer at the supraspecies level. They may be members of a civilization a hundred thousand years or so ahead of ours. They may be a tuning in on two networks of communication of a civilization way beyond ours, which is radiating information throughout the galaxy.”
During some of Lilly’s later experiences, under the influence of the drug ketamine, he believed himself to be communicating with discarnate entities who shared with him knowledge about humanity’s future–a time when the planet would be taken over by a malevolent “solid-state entity”. In an interview on May 14, 1998, ketamine researcher Karl Jansen asked the 83-year-old Lilly about his contacts with entities:
Jansen: Many persons do not encounter Beings when they take ketamine, or coincidence control officers. How do you explain this in terms of your theories?
Lilly: You don’t have to have any concept of Beings. When you take the drug you enter into their consciousness. You don’t have to see them or know them as Beings. They engage your mind. Before matter, energy, there was consciousness without an object. Out of that came Beings.
Over his lifetime as an author and lecturer, Terence McKenna often discussed the topic of entity contact in conjunction with the mental effects of high doses (five grams) of psilocybin-containing mushrooms: “Yes, first come the dancing mice, the little candies, the colored grids, and so-forth and so-on. But what eventually happens, quickly, like ten minutes later, is there is an entity in the trance, in the vision. There is a mind there, waiting, that speaks good English, and invites you up into its room. […] And what it is, is it’s a voice in the head […]. I come into a place. It’s hard to describe. It’s a feeling. And the content of the feeling is, “now the elves are near.” But they won’t appear unless I invoke them.”
How often do psychonauts see or interact with entities? Within the framework of documenting the kind and frequency of “religious” images that occurred among their 206 subjects, Masters and Houston reported that 58% saw figures such as Christ, the Buddha, saints, godly figures, and William Blake-type figures, while 49% saw devils and demons, and 7% saw angels.
My Own Entity Encounters
The topic of psychedelic-induced “contact” has interested me since 1987, when I had my own initial discarnate entity encounter while on a couple hits of LSD. I was attending college in Stratford-upon-Avon via a program run through San Francisco City College, where I’d been studying art. As strange chance would have it, I happened to run into a friend from SF who was passing through England on his way to Germany. He slipped me two gel-tabs. One night I dropped both tabs and went out walking with a few new friends from school. Lacking any foreknowledge of how my companions felt about illicit drug use, I kept the fact that I was tripping to myself. The acid came on, and I was enjoying our walk and discussions, during which it came out that one of the women with us was a practicing Wiccan. After we turned down an old deserted Roman road, our group fell quiet for a moment. It was late in the evening, and the only sound was the crunching autumn leaves beneath our feet. As we walked, a wind blew down the road, releasing more leaves from the trees and whirling them into a sort of tunnel above our heads. The Wiccan woman began to sing in Gaelic–a language that I’d never heard before. Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand the words, the minor tones of her song were hauntingly beautiful. At the first note she sang, some of the airborne leaves transformed into about a dozen faeries–exactly the sort of traditional winged pixie-like creatures painted by the artist Brian Froud. I had never seen anything like this before on acid. While luminous and sparkly, they appeared quite solid and each seemed to have an independent existence, as they playfully darted amongst the swirling leaves. It was truly magical. I was transfixed. As the final note of my friend’s song sounded, I watched all the faeries morph back into wind-blown leaves. Being the only one of us on acid at the time (to the best of my knowledge), I presumed that no one else had experienced the profoundly moving vision that I had seen. Our group remained respectfully quiet for a moment. Then someone asked our vocalist the name of the song that she’d just sung, and she replied, “Oh, that one is known as ‘The Song to Call in the Faeries’.”
About a decade later, I was camping with three friends at Island Lake near Nevada City, California. A couple of us decided to take heroic doses of Psilocybe mushrooms one evening. I chewed down four grams, retired to my tent, closed my eyes, and got horizontal on my air mattress. As the effects of the ‘shrooms came on, my inner vision revealed what looked like a dank moss-green hospital emergency waiting room. I seemed to be sitting on a bench in this room, and it occurred to me that it was odd that there were no patients being wheeled in or out. Kinda quiet for an ER. After some time, I noticed a few off-white football-sized larvae floating three or four feet off the ground in various spots. Following one of these with my eyes, I then saw an insectoid entity about the size of a small dog, whose back was facing me. It had a long mosquito-like proboscis that I could only partially see. Suddenly, it turned, and–realizing that I saw it–it made a high-pitched buzzing/shrieking sound. (I got the impression that it was sending out a warning alarm.) The entity then initiated telepathic communication with me, explaining that it was quite surprised that I could see it, as this usually didn’t occur. It said that it lived by extracting human thought/emotion. Human thoughts were both the currency of its species, as well as their sustenance/energy source. (The needle-like proboscis was looking less friendly by the minute.) I was given the impression that–as the coin of its kind–different types of thought/emotion were valued differently; those with a more intense energy charge, such as fear or love, were worth more. The entity explained that it existed in another dimension so that it could feed off of human thought unhindered. (I got a feeling that the relationship wasn’t symbiotic; perhaps these “thought drainers” somehow suck life energy from humans, along with the mental energy.) It claimed that it was the psychic equivalent of an actual insect that feeds on blood, skin, etc., with regard to the extent of any damage it might do to those on whom it fed. Yet I had a nagging feeling that it might not be telling me the whole truth. Maybe these creatures had some influence on inciting wars or disasters in the human realm? The experience left me feeling unsettled for some time afterwards. Indeed, the diversity of “beings” encountered in DMT space leads one to think that everyone can’t really be describing the same “creatures”…
Moving even further into unpleasant entity contact realms, there was my one (and only) trip on 3 mg of DOB (2,5- dimethoxy-4-bromoamphetamine). I was attending Burning Man, where my wife and I had pitched our tent near a camp called Disturbia. In retrospect, the camp’s name should have been a sign that this might not be the right place to first try a potent phenethylamine that can last up to 24 hours. The Disturbia folks had kindly set up a loudly amplified theremin for public use. The theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played by bringing one’s hands into varying proximity to its metal antennas without actually touching them. Manipulated by a novice (and, well, everyone on the playa appeared to be new to the instrument), it sounds like a beehive in a slinky. It was approximately right after the DOB had fully kicked in that I became aware of the theremin, when someone started “playing” it, thereby attracting more folks who wanted to “play” it–for hours on end. It was bumming me out. At one point, when my wife could tell that I was not doing so well, she tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m here, honey. Just focus on me, and you’ll be okay.” As I looked into the eyes of the person I love most in the world, I watched cockroaches crawl out from under her eyelids and swarm over her face. Buoyed by the buzzing theremin, the “bug” theme continued. I was confronted by several human-sized chitinous Gigeresque entities that spent the rest of the evening probing me and performing invasive “physical” experiments on my immobile, unhappy body. It was pretty much the classic alien abduction scenario, sans space ship. After a long night, there was at least a beautiful (and quiet!) sunrise the next morning.
Most of my psychedelic experiences over the past three decades have not featured any manner of discarnate entity contact. In New Orleans, I got a weird ghostly dwarf thing once on the combination of psilocybin-containing mushrooms and Peganum harmala. Nitrous oxide revealed dimensional doppelgangers and WALL-E-style robots. Ketamine has ponied up a pygmy shaman, proto-human ape-like creatures, and some tentacled cephalopods. DPT (dipropyltryptamine) has provided tiny cartoon-like insectoid creatures. Once on the combination of ketamine and DPT, I witnessed two distinctly different discarnate entities seemingly thrust into each others’ realms for the first time. Both of these aliens were infused with a bad-ass attitude reminiscent of denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. They brokered a deal–one of them passing a small unidentifiable item into the other’s hand while mentally shooting me a warning that I had fuck-all idea of what I was dealing with–and I was left with the strong impression that I should consider myself lucky that they let me off the hook, since it was my chemical cocktail that had drawn the three of us together in the first place. On 2C-B, I’ve also sometimes encountered small insectoids. On ayahuasca, I’ve gotten large insectoids. And yes, on smoked DMT, I’ve entered the trans-linguistic alien dimension populated by McKenna’s mercurial and mischievous mutating machine elves. (A realm well-captured by the artists Naoto Hattori, JWA Tucker and Vibrata Chromodoris.) According to McKenna: “It is true, that when you smoke DMT, for example, in a sufficiently high and prepared dose, you get elves–everybody does. All you need do, is inhale deeply three times, and you know… You want contact? You want elves? You want alien intelligence? You’ll have that up the kazoo.”
For some who’ve seen DMT elves, the beings looked similar to traditional faerieland creatures. But many users describe them differently. Indeed, the diversity of “beings” encountered in DMT space leads one to think that everyone can’t really be describing the same “creatures”, and that the space must be populated with a multitude of discarnate entities: typical sci-fi extraterrestrials, humanoids, jellyfish, insectoids, clowns/Pierrots, reptilians, robots, octopods, and other sorts of beings have been mentioned. Author D.M. Turner had apparently catalogued at least nine distinct types of entities that he’d encountered. In discussing these with a fellow DMT psychonaut, Turner found that his friend had experienced four of the exact same entities, plus two others that Turner had never seen. With rigorous review, one might create a Bestiarum Vocabulum, charting which entities appear, and with what frequency, in response to the consumption of various psychedelics.
McKenna was gifted at painting a picture of the DMT entities and proposing theories about what they might mean:
“Trying to describe them isn’t easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jeweled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there’s a cheer! Pink Floyd has a song, “The Gnomes Have Learned a New Way to Say Hooray.” Then they come forward and tell you, “Do not give way to amazement. Do not abandon yourself.” You’re amazingly astonished. The most conservative explanation for these elves, since these things are speaking English and are intelligent, is that they’re some kind of human beings. They’re obviously not like you and me, so they’re either the prenatal or postmortal phase of human existence, or maybe both […].
They are teaching something. Theirs is a higher dimensional language that condenses as a visible syntax. For us, syntax is the structure of meaning; meaning is something heard or felt. In this world, syntax is something you see. There, the boundless meanings of language cause it to overflow the normal audio channels and enter the visual channels. They come bouncing, hopping toward you, and then it’s like–all this is metaphor, they don’t have arms–it’s as though they reach into their intestines and offer you something. They offer you an object so beautiful, so intricately wrought, so something else that cannot be said in English, that just gazing on this thing, you realize such an object is impossible. The best comparison is Faberge eggs. […]
The archetype of DMT is the three-ring circus. The circus is all bright lights, ladies in spangled costumes, and wild animals. But right underneath, it’s some fairly dark expression of Eros and freaks and unrootedness and mystery. DMT is the quintessence of that archetype. The drug is trying to tell us the true nature of the game. Reality is a theatrical illusion.”
In his pioneering article ‘Apparent Communication with Discarnate Entities Induced by Dimethytryptamine (DMT)’, author Peter Meyer presents a number of possible theories regarding the true nature of these experiences. In November 1989, a year before Strassman obtained final government approval to start his DMT studies, Meyer sent a draft of his article to Strassman, sparking a discussion of the topic of communication with the alien DMT entities that some people have reported from their visions. In his response, Strassman agreed that assessing the significance of “alien communication” was important, noting: “I’ve interviewed about 15 people who have smoked DMT, and have found several who describe “alien contact.” I’m not quite sure what to make of such reports.”
While Strassman felt that the phenomenon needed much closer investigation, in a follow-up letter, he remarked: “With respect to the alien contact phenomenon, I do wonder about the power of suggestion. McKenna’s ideas have been so widely promulgated that it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of him or his ideas before smoking DMT. On the other hand, there are many who know McKenna and his ideas well, have smoked a lot of DMT many times, and have had no alien contact experiences.”
On the surface, it is easy to agree with Strassman’s sentiment. McKenna’s comment, “you get elves–everybody does”, is clearly not a universal truth, as evidenced by the following dialogue about the DMT experience between comedian/actor Joe Rogan and author Daniel Pinchbeck:
Rogan: Describing it in words always feels so fake. It’s like, there’s no words that have been invented that are going to describe that experience, you know?
Pinchbeck: You didn’t like “hyper-transforming machine elves”?
Rogan: It wasn’t like that to me, you know…
Pinchbeck: It wasn’t like that to me, either.
Rogan: I heard [them say] some things that McKenna said, like, “look at this”. They say, “look at this” a lot. And I heard them say, “Don’t give in to astonishment”. But I was wondering, is that because I knew that McKenna [had] said that, and…
Pinchbeck: Right, right, right. He set the template. […]
Rogan: But it didn’t seem to me to be like hyper… what did he call them, uhm… self-transforming machine elves. […] They didn’t seem like elves to me. It seemed like… what I always describe them as is these complex geometric patterns that are made out of love. That’s how I describe them, you know. And that means nothing. Those are just a bunch of words. You know what I mean? It’s just like, I try to say it in a way that’s interesting and funny. But you know, [in] reality, what is it? There’s just some incredible patterns that you can’t even really look at. It’s like they’re too beautiful to take in, and they’re changing all the time.
I’ve known numerous people who have never experienced any sort of contact with discarnate entities from smoking DMT. While I don’t know how familiar these people were with McKenna’s descriptions of the experience, by the late 1980s, I had certainly come across mentions of “DMT entities”. It is indeed hard to imagine that many of the “required-to-have-been-experienced-with-psychedelics” subjects volunteering to take DMT in Strassman’s studies wouldn’t have already been aware of the “elf phenomenon” that had been–as Strassman characterized it–“so widely promulgated” by that time. And these days, with ubiquitous Internet access, it seems increasingly unlikely that a DMT user would never have heard sound bites of McKenna on the topic. The belief that McKenna’s ideas have either directly or indirectly affected the kinds of visions that people have, in any case, seems fairly common.
However, after Strassman actually began administering DMT in late 1990, he changed his mind about the scope of awareness of Terence McKenna’s ideas and the power of suggestion as factors influencing reports of discarnate entities among his research subjects: “[…] volunteers were uniformly shy and uncomfortable discussing their strange being encounters. Neither were Terence McKenna’s lectures and writings especially popular when we first started hearing these unusual reports from our research subjects. I often asked volunteers about being familiar with popular accounts of DMT-mediated encounters with elves or insectoid aliens. Few if any were. Thus, I don’t think these reports were a type of mass hysteria or a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman presents a number of intriguing speculations regarding the origin and meaning of discarnate entities. In discussing entity contact, Masters and Houston remarked that: “The hallucinated monsters are the monsters of childhood, the forms fear takes when one regresses to feelings of childlike helplessness.” Within that context, consider the following DMT trip report:
“[…] I arrive in a place filled with intense white light where hideous, bodiless, pointed-eared, purple and green entities bound toward me and they laugh, jeer and ridicule me; where these grotesque elf, joker or clown-like caricatures rush at me one at a time and in clusters; where they curl their hideous, clown-like mouths and wag their tongues in my face; where I relive every real and imagined humiliation I suffered in childhood; where a great sorrow and disappointment fills me as they come at me faster and faster; where I start to crumble under their onslaught, so I open my eyes but still they come; where I realize I have to face them, so I close my eyes and focus on my breathing, and the demonic forces back off […].”
Psychedelic researchers Bernard Aaronson and Humphry Osmond have stated that these drugs “make available exotic and forbidden landscapes. In these landscapes, the images of nightmare from which we have fled since childhood, move and take shape.” If true, this could go some way toward explaining the current preponderance of visions featuring extraterrestrial beings and advanced technology. Since the 1980s, the scare stories from fairylands have been solidly supplemented with alien abductions and tales of Transformers. Science fiction is widely accepted as a more plausible genre than fantasy. Contemporary society’s fears have been captured in movies such as the Alien series (1979-2012), They Live (1988), The Lawnmower Man (1992), eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix series (1999-2003), and TV shows such as Doctor Who (1963-2013) and The X-Files (1993-2002).
Several times, Strassman mentions a “nursery/playroom theme” brought up by his research subjects, and spring-loaded wind-up toys such as the perennially popular Jack-in-the-box may contribute to the common childhood fear of clowns. Fear of arthropods (arachnids, crustaceans, and insects) is widespread, and understandable on a variety of levels. From the warm-blooded perspective of fuzzy mammals, arthropods seem hard, cold, unfeeling, parasitic, robotic, and alien. A universal symbol for death is the human skull–all that’s left when the tissue reflecting each of our unique lives has been stripped away. With their fleshless exoskeletons, arthropods inherently carry an intimation of death so fear-inducing to some humans that their gut reaction on seeing a spider, an ant, or some other small arthropod, is to smash and kill it. Beyond their symbolic “otherness”, we have a long history of fighting them off of the crops we’ve cultivated for food, clothing, and shelter. Our species’ battle against arthropods is so prevalent that we’ve come to refer to any small, potentially damaging microorganism (such as a virus or bacteria) as a “bug”–our common name for tiny arthropods. Cold-blooded reptilians and cephalopods are also very “other” to us, so the appearance of discarnate entities resembling such life forms wouldn’t be surprising as additional “forms fear takes”.
Yet fears aren’t the only visionary inspiration to shockingly explode in our mind fields; mental geography is a complex, fractal, holographic space where unconscious “memory” continually serves up amazing realities on the fly. We commonly believe that we see the world as it exists, but–in reality–many of our perceptions of “the world out there” are just approximations filled in from our mind’s unconscious memory. The “double take”, a shift in perception based on the flip from a “fill in” to a more accurate perception of external reality (or vice versa), can happen with any of our five senses.
Consider the viewpoint expressed in “Virtuality” by Teafaerie, wherein she proposes a possibility for her DMT visions that is “simultaneously the most boring and the most exciting explanation” that she could come up with:
“The mind is absolutely dripping with untold processing power, and it can instantly generate a full-scale masterwork alien spaceship from scratch, complete with all the trimmings. It can furthermore simultaneously create and animate a number of fully interactive non-player characters, who are often described as possessing an uncannily intense sense of “presence” (whatever that means). In this model, my amazing brain can do all this while very powerful drugs are scrambling the bejesus out of it, and it can do it without any awareness or deliberation on the part of the hopelessly unsophisticated frontman program that plays the role of the astonished psychonaut. On the surface this one sounds like the most parsimonious hypothesis, and I tend to return to this view in the long intervals between big trips. It’s not all that different from dreaming, I reason, and I don’t have too much trouble believing that my unconscious mind designs most of my dreams. I always end up denouncing this viewpoint from on high, though; somewhere I think that I actually have a recording of myself saying something like, “I’m looking at this stuff right now and I’m TELLING you that there is no…possible…way…that the person who I think of as myself could ever in a million years be generating all of this content this fast. That would be like saying that I could produce all of the most amazing art in the entire world in every single millisecond without even thinking about it…”
What is mind? No matter… What is matter? Never mind
By definition, discarnate entities have no physical bodies. Could this mean that they are only able to exist within minds? Is it possible for several discrete intelligences to inhabit a single brain? Can mind(s) exist without matter? Does curiosity collapse probability into actuality, materializing the meat of the matter, seeding a substrate, creating consciousness, promulgating the paradoxical process, forever and ever, amen? Bootstrapping at its best? Chicken and egg? I have no answers to such questions. Yet my agnosticism doesn’t negatively impact my wonder, amazement, and fascination with the experience of discarnate entities–whether they are only mental or whether they have some external, other-dimensional, or spiritual basis.
Terence McKenna seemed inclined to believe that DMT space is an independent reality populated with intelligent discarnate entities. Peter Meyer appears to have also come to this conclusion. He feels that his collection of 340 DMT Trip Reports provides objective evidence of the existence of entities “within what seems to be an alternate reality.”
Early in the DMT dialogue, Meyer proposed that DMT may provide access to a post-death realm. Of the 340 reports that he’s collected, he has marked 226 of them (66.5%) with an “entities” tag, due to their mentions of “experience of one or more apparently independently-existing beings which interact in an apparently intelligent and intentional way with the observer.” Meyer suggests that folks should read ten reports each day, think about them, and at the end of 34 days reflect on what his collection of first-person accounts implies about the nature of reality. This excellent exercise may result in raised eyebrows from at least a few skeptics.
Yourself, his ET… The elf is yours!
While some of those who “are experienced” lean toward the “external existence”
viewpoint, others find such a perspective illogical and frustrating. Consider Martin Ball’s screed, ‘Terence on DMT: An Entheological Analysis of McKenna’s Experiences in the Tryptamine Mirror of the Self’, published by Reality Sandwich. Ball’s rant against McKenna–as a flawed individual and as the promoter of flawed ideas–is largely a conglomeration of insults, straw-man arguments, and ironic egotism. (Ball’s dogmatic refrain focuses on projections of McKenna’s ego, painfully oblivious to those of his own.) Despite dismal dialectic, Ball brings up a couple of points worth thinking about. The first is that “all contents of entheogenic experiences are projections of the self” (Ball’s remark might win over more supporters if it were expressed as “all contents of entheogenic experiences could be projections of the self”. I’ll refer Ball to the Bill Maher quote above, “Doubt is humble.”). The second point worth contemplating, brought up by Ball only in passing, is his total dismissal of the concept of a “soul”. In a world where some entheogen evangelists would like nothing better than to set their iPhone alarms for the final 8:12 p.m. sunset and fly off through DMT-induced double rainbows on their winged unicorns, Ball’s monism is, at least, a refreshing alternative perspective.
In “The Case Against DMT Elves”, James Kent presents a neurologically based theory regarding the origin of discarnate entities. Kent proposes that these experiences are a product of individual human minds, rather than an interaction with independent external intelligences. However, Kent backpedals a bit, claiming that, “The ‘Gaia consciousness’ that infuses the experience is undeniable,” and entertaining the possibility “that this ancient plant consciousness actually exists and is attempting to make itself known through the DMT-enlightened mammal brain.” He later states, “I also believe in samsara [reincarnation] and the transmigration of souls, which makes the notion that these entities could be ‘disembodied souls’ floating around in hyperspace very tempting to latch onto.” I’m not sure why a theoretical external “plant consciousness” rates as being any more plausible than a theoretical external “elf consciousness”, and within my own discarnate entity encounters I have never experienced anything remotely describable as a: “Gaia consciousness” (although I recognize that some other people have reported this). But I wholeheartedly agree with Kent’s later remark that “none of [what any entities have said to me] points definitively to any deeper truth about what they are or where they come from.”
Setting aside speculations regarding “what they are or where they come from”, a more accessible question may be: How often are entity contact experiences the result of any particular psychedelic?
More Entities on DMT?
Clearly, Strassman’s statement that this phenomenon only occurs with DMT is not accurate. In addition to the few examples provided above, contemporary trip reports published in print, and in numerous places online, bear testament to the fact that this is not solely a phenomenon that occurs with DMT consumption. But is DMT more likely to generate such experiences than other psychedelics?
Strassman stated that at least 30 out of his 60 subjects reported having such experiences. Meyer says that 266 of the 340 DMT trip reports he collected mention some manner of discarnate entities. Together, these two sources suggest that perhaps 50-66.5% of those who consume DMT may experience discarnate entity contact. This falls roughly in line with the 49-58% that Masters and Houston reported8 as having had visions of devils, demons, Christ, the Buddha, saints, godly figures, and William Blake-type figures. However, the Masters and Houston percentage range can’t be compared directly to Strassman’s or Meyer’s percentages for two reasons. First, with a narrower focus on specifically religious entities, the Masters and Houston figure may be slightly lower than it would have been if they had also included other categories of beings. Second, Masters and Houston lump all 206 users of psychedelics together in one group, with no distinction made based on what specific chemical each of them consumed. Presumably at least some of their subjects had their entity experiences as a result of DMT consumption. (Indeed, in one such report included in their book, the DMT user describes encountering “the face of God” as that “of a very wise monkey!”8) Without access to more details from Masters and Houston’s data, it is not possible to know how many of their 206 respondents experienced entities while under the effects of DMT and how many of them experienced entities after taking other psychedelics.
In order to solicit input from “seasoned heads” for this chapter, a handful of people were directed to an online survey. Participation was anonymous, and about half of the people who were contacted responded. Potential participants were believed to either (1) have a solid amount of personal experience with DMT, and/or (2) have “sat” for others experiencing DMT trips. Eight people completed the survey. All of them answered “yes” to the question of whether or not they had ever experienced anything that seemed like contact with a discarnate entity. However, one potential participant, who declined to fill out the survey, did offer:
“I saw all sorts of things in my trips: dancing skeletons, jaguar priestesses, bee aliens, dancing rats, cartoon characters, and so on, for many years. I never thought of them as “discarnate entities”; they were just hallucinations. Then I heard Terence McKenna and began looking for “discarnate entities” in my trips. And suddenly, I began seeing “discarnate entities” instead of hallucinations. My point is, humans are so suggestible, they will believe of their hallucinations whatever you tell them to expect. If I am expecting cartoons, I see cartoon characters. If I am expecting “discarnate entities”, then suddenly those cartoon characters have more “meaning” or “value” because I call them “entities” instead of “cartoons”. In other words, Terence was a master of semantic bullshit.”
To preserve anonymity, questions about gender and age were not included on this survey. Respondents expressed a variety of spiritual beliefs, including atheism. Responses to a question about approximately how many times they had experienced entity contact ranged from 2 to more than 100. Year of first contact experience ranged 46 years, from 1961 to 2007. Four people’s first contact resulted from DMT, one from LSD, one from psilocybin-containing mushrooms, another from mushrooms in combination with Peganum harmala, and the final person’s occurred at age four closely following a head trauma.
When asked to name any substances that had resulted in entity contact experiences, the following drugs were mentioned (number of mentions indicated in brackets): DMT , ayahuasca , psilocybin-containing mushrooms , mescaline , and Salvia divinorum ; 5-MeO-DMT, Brugmansia, Cannabis, ketamine, LSD, nitrous oxide, psilocybin-containing mushrooms with Peganum harmala, S. divinorum, and P. harmala were all mentioned a single time.
The number of times each respondent had smoked/vaporized/injected DMT ranged from “maybe 6” to “probably less than a thousand”. Respondents were also asked how many times they had introduced others to smoked/vaporized/injected DMT; three of the eight answered in the 3-5 range, two answers were in the hundreds, and the rest fell in the middle. When asked how many of the people who they had turned on to DMT had mentioned some manner of “discarnate entities”, the answers were: 1%, somewhere less than 10%, 15%, 30-40%, 50%, 75%, 75%, and there was one non-response. Several questions were asked regarding the possible external reality of discarnate entities. Expressing an opinion shared by a few people, one respondent answered: “It’s made me question my rational, scientific worldview; I had to admit that there’s much we don’t know about these questions; an open mind is needed without abandoning critical thinking.”
Echoing the remark of the person who declined to complete the survey, another respondent asked: “What is meant by “entity” and how is that defined? I’ve met people for whom all voices in their head belong to someone or something else and for whom almost anything they see after using DMT is a McKennaesque entity. Mainly because they read McKenna telling them that this is what [one sees] when [one smokes] DMT. […] For me to think of something as an “entity” there has to be a clear sense of “other”and a clear sense of it being something fully conscious and interactive.”
It is inarguably true that different people will have differing standards for what constitutes contact with discarnate entities. Among the responses to this tiny survey, DMT and ayahuasca were most often associated with entity contact experiences, followed closely by psilocybin-containing mushrooms, with mescaline and Salvia divinorum trailing.
A Larger Data Set
In the Erowid Experience Vaults, entity contact is associated with nearly a hundred different substances, although over half of those substances have only one or two entity-related reports.
The total number of reports for any given substance may, to an extent, represent that substance’s popularity (and availability). However, it is reasonable to presume that people are more likely to be inspired to write experience reports following a powerful experience than they are following a mundane one. For example, there are a large number of daily tobacco smokers, but only a small number of tobacco reports on Erowid. No one would suggest that LSD is consumed by ten times the number of people who use tobacco, despite the fact that the Experience Vaults contain ten times more LSD reports than tobacco reports. At the time this chapter was written, the five drugs with the largest number of experience reports written about them were psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Cannabis, Salvia divinorum, MDMA, and LSD.
As of mid-October 2012, there were 22,640 published experience reports on Erowid. Of these, 1,159 were categorized by Erowid as mentioning Entities/Beings (representing about 5% of all reports).
Correlating the use of any individual psychoactive drug to entity experiences within the Vaults immediately runs into a challenge: psychonauts often consume more than one drug at a time. Common “add on” drugs–such as Cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine–may not be terribly contributive to many entity experiences. But what about an entity experience that occurred while under the influence of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, methoxetamine, and 4-hydroxy-N,N-ethyl-methyltryptamine? Or one induced by nitrous oxide, Salvia divinorum, and 5-MeO-DMT? Or MDMA, dextromethorphan, GHB, cocaine, and mushrooms (plus, of course, Cannabis and alcohol)?
When examining experience reports for mentions of entity contact, those categorized as involving more than a single substance were excluded. Because of their similar chemistry, reports for Brugmansia and Datura species were combined. The number of single-substance reports for each of the ten substances that were analyzed ranged from approximately 150 to approximately 1,300. These substances, sorted by the number of reports mentioning entities [noted in brackets], are: Salvia divinorum , DMT , Brugmansia/Datura , psilocybin-containing mushrooms , ayahuasca , LSD , mescaline-containing cacti , diphenhydramine , ketamine , and dimenhydrinate .
Dividing the number of entity contact reports for a given substance by the total number of reports for that substance provides a rough estimate of the frequency of entity contact by substance: DMT [38%], ayahuasca [36%], Brugmansia/Datura [29%], Salvia divinorum [25%], mescaline-containing cacti [10%], diphenhydramine [9%], ketamine [9%], dimenhydrinate [7%], psilocybin-containing mushrooms [5%], and LSD [3%].
There are limitations to any interpretation of this data. People may be more inclined to write about their DMT experiences, because the effects are both powerful and short. After a grueling voyage on DOB, for example, one may be less inspired to sit down and write a novel about what one went through. Also, entity contact may play a smaller part in a longer psychedelic trip, and it could be that–for the psychonaut–other aspects from their experience seemed more important to record. There are also certainly publication biases; reports with particular keywords or for particular substances may be published sooner than others, or Erowid reviewers may be more likely to focus on topics that they personally find interesting.
Surveying Erowid Visitors
To gain another perspective on the subject of entity contact, I ran three short surveys on
Erowid.org. All three surveys asked for gender and age. After removing invalid responses, there was a variation of 3% or less between surveys: 84% of respondents were male and 15% were female, with 1% transgender. The age ranges were: 18-22 [47%], 23-29 [23%], 15-17 [14%], 30-39 [9%], and 40-79 [7%]. As gender and age were fairly consistent from survey to survey, one might envision the average respondent as a male 18-29 years old, who has computer access and an interest in psychoactive drugs. Right off the bat, this provides an identifiable bias regarding the data generated: Respondents are from a specific niche that does not represent the general population, though the demographics are consistent with the demographics seen in several previous surveys on Erowid.org.
The idea with Survey #1 was to see how often entity contact is reported for a few well-known psychoactive drugs. The first question was, “Have you ever (sober, high, or in any state) experienced contact with a non-human, intelligent, discarnate entity (angel, faerie, alien, spirit)?” This allowed respondents to indicate how often any such contact might have occurred. The second question offered the choice of eight specific drugs that the respondent might have been on when the entity contact happened; respondents could also select “other drug”, “multiple substances”, “multiple occasions with different substances”, “no drug/sober”, “don’t know/not sure”, or “prefer not to answer”. A final question asked about the respondent’s religious inclination.
Among 4,910 valid responses, nearly 37% reported having had contact with discarnate entities, while slightly over 8% said that they didn’t know or weren’t sure whether they had experiences that would qualify. Atheists and agnostics were more likely to report “never” having had an entity contact, whereas the highest percentage of entity contact was reported among people who gave their religious inclination as “other mystical/spiritual”.
Of those who reported having had an entity encounter (either sober or after having taken a drug), and given the option of eight drugs to select from as the drug they may have been on when entity contact occurred, respondents reported: DMT [11.7%], psilocybin-containing mushrooms [9.8%], LSD [9.0%], Salvia divinorum [7.4%], Cannabis [5.7%], ayahuasca [1.5%], ketamine [1.1%], mescaline [0.6%], other drug [9.5%]. Additionally, 15.4% reported they were sober during the experience, 20% said that their experiences happened on multiple occasions with different substances, and 8.4% reported an experience while on multiple substances.
One immediate challenge to this survey is that the results don’t take into consideration how common use of any given substance is among the group being surveyed. Ayahuasca, for example, is widely reported to occasion entity contact. A recent study of 131 North American ayahuasca users, who had a combined total of over 2,267 sessions, found that 74% believed that they had a personal relationship with “the spirit of ayahuasca”, which was “most often described as a wise teacher, grandmother or healer from a higher spiritual dimension and intelligence”; some ayahuasca users also reported a “belief in the sentience in plants and in spirit entities from other realities.”30 Yet because of its relative rarity, only 1.5% of those reporting an entity contact experience in Survey #1 mentioned ayahuasca as an inspiration for that contact. At the same time, the propensity for Cannabis to induce contact with discarnate entities is undoubtedly fairly low, while it certainly has to be the single most-used drug of those that the survey mentioned. Therefore, the 5.7% figure for Cannabis is at least partially the result of a vastly larger number of users and drug exposures than for ayahuasca.
Survey #2 sought more information about which of the above-mentioned drugs are more popular among Erowid users. Of 11,464 valid responses, 96% had used Cannabis, 70% mushrooms, 60% LSD, 28% DMT, 26% ketamine, 17% mescaline, and 6% had used ayahuasca. This survey also asked the approximate numbers of use instances for each of these substances. For example, Cannabis users, who represented around 96% of respondents, were most likely to report (48.6%) that they had used it “1,000 or more” times; whereas only 6% of respondents reported having ever tried ayahuasca and, of those, half said that they had used it a single time, and about a third “2-5 times”. With DMT, there were 1,067 people [9.3%] who said that they had used it “once”, 1,203 people [10.5%] who said they had used it “2-5 times”, and 370 people [3.2%] who said they had used it “6-10 times”. That’s a total of 4,767 DMT trips split between 2,640 people–not even two trips per person on average. Just a handful of people could easily match that number in pot highs.
As noted earlier, 15.4% of respondents were not high at the time of their entity contact experience–a larger percentage than reported for any individual drug. To get a better sense of the sorts of sober situations that result in contact with discarnate entities, Survey #3 entirely avoided mentioning psychoactive drugs. It included an open comments field, to solicit users’ own descriptions of their contacts with discarnate entities.
The question was posed: “Have you ever experienced contact with a non-human, intelligent, discarnate entity (angel, faerie, alien, spirit)?” Among the 5,717 valid responses, 26.9% said they had experienced at least one entity contact, while another 11.7% said that they didn’t know or weren’t sure whether they had experiences that would qualify. Compared to Survey #1, this is a 10% lower reporting of entity encounters along with a 4% rise in uncertainty. The bracketed number following categories of entity or activity below shows how many people mentioned it, based on manual evaluation of the open field comments.
Within Survey #3, discarnate entities in the forms of aliens  and UFOs  were mentioned most often, and the idea that interaction with these provided access to novel information came up repeatedly: “On high doses of psilocybin, I achieve contact and communication with an entity that appears alien. It possesses knowledge beyond my imagination and uses concepts that are vast in scope.”
Contact with God/gods/goddesses  was mentioned at a level similar to aliens: “My most intense and directly revelatory conversation with God was my first, and was of the LSD-inspired variety. I asked God why it created the universe. The answer, “The one became many, that I may know myself.” Six years later, this is still the cornerstone of my faith.”
Ghosts (deceased loved ones/haunted houses)  were reported slightly less frequently than gods; such experiences often occurred when the individual was a young child, or the experiences were related to contact made via dreaming. Contact sometimes happened immediately before, during, or just after sleep , with sleep paralysis, night terrors, out-of-body experiences, nightmares, and lucid dreaming all described as contributing factors. About a dozen reports mentioned astral projection. Sometimes more than one of these sleep-related conditions was presented as being causative: “In my dreams, when I have OBE or when I am lucid during sleep paralysis.”
Many people mentioned seeing a figure standing somewhere near the bed. Such sleep-related accounts sometimes described ghosts, aliens, demons, and angels, though faerie folk were rarely mentioned.
A small number of respondents expressed their opinions that the survey’s focus was either entirely hogwash (i.e.,”none of these things exist”), or at least partially so: “The terms angel and faerie make this question less credible. Aliens objectively exist, however; just ask the government. “Spirit” or “entity” would suffice for the other terms.”
Despite this vocal minority of naysayers, faeries (elves, gnomes, etc.) , angels , and demons  all got a number of mentions: “I saw an angel with a 64-mile-long OG Mudbone erect cock” was less typical than “When I was five an angel took me in my sleep out of my body and showed me the world. Then it dropped me back into bed and said goodbye.”
Several people  expressed the feeling that the entities were guardians or guides that allowed them access to a bigger picture: “It was a being made of light, which I’d describe as a spirit guide. I was floating through the fabric of existence, and it brought me to a viewpoint from which I could observe all of time/space. It was rad. I watched my favorite pornstars take showers.”
Though less common, people also mentioned reptiles/reptilians  and orbs/balls of light , with even fewer describing insects/insectoids , cephalopods , and shadow people . The remaining categorizable discarnate entities were: tree or plant spirits , fractal beings , clowns, jesters, harlequins , felines/cats , Satan/Lucifer , Jesus , white light experiences , Buddha , dragons , Gaia , ancestor spirits , entities wearing all-in-one wet- or motorcycle suits , faceless beings , and machine elves . Many of the entities described did not easily fit into any categories.
Meditation  played a part in some people’s experiences, and a few folks  said that a Ouija board facilitated their contact experience. Several people felt it was important they expressed that they were currently atheists: “I don’t think any of them really happened, but I’ve seen and spoken to God, aliens, demons, sexy demons, 300-foot Frankenstein, and once I saw my dead friend’s rotting corpse behind me in the mirror at a friend’s house. Despite all of that, I’m still not a believer in aliens or UFOs or God or anything supernatural. I love hallucinogens, but I also know it’s a chemical show in your mind, nothing more. I humor myself and interact with my made-up world under the influence, but I understand it’s unreal and of no consequence. Knowing all this lets me stay safe; no matter how much acid I drop, flapping my arms and flying is impossible. Is any of this weird?”
Although the agnostic viewpoint wasn’t entirely missing: “I had a vision of the God of Doubt, who said that I had too much faith in Him. His message was, “Doubt Me.”
While in numerous cases the experiences were described as having happened while the respondent was sober, descriptions specific to certain drugs were more common: With various ayahuasca preparations, entities seem to be either (1) doorway guardians who decide whether one is ready to proceed further, (2) random benign or mischievous entities who happen to drop in to have a look and seem curious about one’s presence in the “space” beyond the doorway, (3) teacher or guiding entities within the ayahuasca space. Ayahuasca entities can be anything from harlequin clown-scary, to laughing goblins attempting to relax [the observer], to angelic ethereal beings, to snakes/spiders who just seem to be there in the background, to alien and indescribably complex insect-like forms. Using chewed Salvia divinorum leaves, the entities can seem to be from childhood; there’s a sense of “having always known them”, and they can be elf-like or take on bizarre qualities for which there are no words/concepts. With psilocybin, there are occasional entities with elf-like essences but a futuristic metallic-like form who tend to be of a guide or teacher type. While there are many forms, it is the subjective feeling of their existence outside of just being a creation of the mind, which is the common feature of all entity encounters.
Drugs mentioned in the comments field of Survey #3, without prompting, included DMT , LSD , Salvia divinorum , psilocybin-containing mushrooms , dextromethorphan , ayahuasca , ketamine , Cannabis , methoxetamine , and mescaline/cacti .
While we might get a general sense of the sort of drugs that are likely to produce such effects by counting which drugs are named most often, as discussed above, such an approach doesn’t control for the fact that some drugs may simply be more popular, more frequently consumed, or more available than others.
Survey #3 also asked the question, “Do you know who Terence McKenna is?” While the notion that McKenna’s ideas have influenced the type or interpretation of visions that other people have probably has some truth to it, almost half of the respondents to the survey would have been 6-10 years old at the time of McKenna’s death in 2000. The audio samples of his lectures in popular electronic music and his strong influence on contemporary authors make it difficult to assess how much influence his views have among current psychedelic users. Strassman’s DMT book, which has sold over 102,000 copies and been made into a documentary, might now have more of an influence on generations coming of age after McKenna’s death.
Including a question about McKenna inspired some comments from individuals less than enamored with his ideas, as well as some comments from his fans. A few people remarked that their own entity experiences “pre-dated [their] knowledge of McKenna and his entities”.
In fact, 54% of survey respondents indicated that they had some knowledge of Terence McKenna. Of the people who had never heard of McKenna, 73% also said that they had never had contact with a discarnate entity. Of the 27% of the survey respondents who indicated that they had experienced contact with a discarnate entity, nearly 69% of those had heard of McKenna. In the end, it’s not clear that this tells us too much.
It feels appropriate to close out this chapter with some text from one respondent’s description of his sole “entity” encounter:
“I was in the woods with two friends, passing along a tale that I’d just heard about Terence McKenna. It was a story about a tree in his back yard with a vine growing on it. He had noticed that the vine wouldn’t grow on one of the dead branches of the tree. As he was observing this, the dead branch fell. It was almost as though the vine knew that this was bound to happen, so it stayed away from that branch. But just as I was telling the exact part of the story about how the branch had fallen from the tree while Terence had been thinking about it, a branch in the tree right next to us simultaneously fell off. I believe it was Terence’s spirit that made this branch fall, as a way of telling me he appreciated that I was sharing his story.”
McKenna was fond of paraquoting the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote in his 1927 book, Possible Worlds (imagine here, Terence’s nasal twang repeating the following): “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
I wholeheartedly concur.
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McKenna TK, Leary TF. “You Get Elves, Everybody Does”. Audio montage sampling unspecified lecture(s); originally aired on The Trip Receptacles radio show, KPFA Berkeley. Web.archive.org/web/20020817175817/www.nvo.com/cd/nss-folder/tripreceptaclemp3s/SH1PT7.MP3. No Date.
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Pinchbeck D. “2012: Time for Change Presents: Joe Rogan”. Reality Sandwich. Posted Apr 6, 2010, Realitysandwich.com/video/2012_tfc_presents. No Date.
Richardson J. “Who Am I, and So What if I Am?”. In: Aaronson B, Osmond H (Eds). Psychedelics: The Uses and Implications of Hallucinogenic Drugs. Anchor Books. 1970. 50-58.
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The original article can be found here on the Erowid website.
Are in old oaks.’ Traditional proverb
In 1452, thirty-four French villagers were questioned by an ecclesiastical commission about a ‘faerie tree’ (arbor fatalism, gallide des fees) in Domrémy, as part of the process of overturning Joan of Arc’s conviction at the hands of the English/Burgundian Gestapo twenty years earlier. In the face of her inquisitors, Joan herself had offset her own belief in the faeries by apportioning it to her godmother, who had apparently seen the faeries gathering at the tree. And, even though the villagers were under no threat from the commission (quite the opposite in fact), none of the thirty-four interviewees would admit to a belief of the faeries, or that they had ever seen them at the tree. Instead, they informed the commissioners that “they had heard that in the old days faeries were said to have been seen there.” As the villagers would have been well aware of the Inquisition’s requirement for questioning of anyone who confessed to a belief in faeries, this was probably understandable. But the fact that there was a ‘faerie tree’ to begin with, suggests that there was an ingrained belief in the faeries and their penchant for gathering at a certain tree, amongst the rural 15th-century French peasantry in Domrémy.
Thomas the Rhymer and his Eildon Tree
An intimate association between faeries and trees is found even further back in the literary tradition, in the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.’ Thomas appears to have been a 13th-century visionary and poet from the Scottish Borders, and his adventures with the faeries, and most especially the faerie queen, can be found in several medieval sources as well as being updated through the 18th and 19th centuries, notably by Sir Walter Scott. In the ballad, the interface between consensus reality and the faerie realm is ‘the Eildon Tree’, a hawthorn where Thomas meets the faeries and is transported into their world. There is much arboreal imagery in the ballad, which makes it clear that the faeries are woodland entities: “At the beginning of each summer, when the milk-white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour, and miles and miles of golden whin adorn the glens and hill-slopes, the faeries come forth in grand procession, headed by the Faerie Queen.”
Scott’s setting of the ballad creates a woodland world, itself a place of magic where the otherworldly faeries are able to slip into reality to coax Thomas to join them from beneath the Eildon Tree:
‘Come with us, mortal, come! a welcome to
Through the moonlit shades of the forest glades,
Where the Faeries meet in their dim retreat,
Come with us, mortal, come!
There the shy dreams creep from the darkness deep
To flutter with noiseless wing,
And the bright-eyed stars ‘mid the branching bars
Of the oak and the elm-tree swing.
Where the merry Fays through the wildwood ways
Dance by the firefly’s light,
Thou shalt read the runes of the silver tunes
That ring through the dewy night.’
Further back still, in Ancient Greece, Dryads (Δρυάδες) and Hamadryads (Ἁμαδρυάδες), often given the general term of Nymphs (νύμφη), were female tree spirits, that were usually recognised as being one with the tree, protecting it with their vitality and receiving symbiotic protection and life in return. Pausanias, in his 2nd-century Description of Greece, although distancing himself from the belief, says: “Those Dryads who in days of old, according to the story of the poets, grew out of trees and especially out of oaks.” Some Hamadryads life spans were directly related to the trees, and although usually temperate and kind in nature, they would deal retribution on any person destroying or damaging their trees and habitats, often with the help of the gods. They frequently also had to appeal to the gods (and sometimes humans) to protect them from satyrs, who would rampage around woodlands, drunk and on the lookout for the alluring arboreal dryads. Many of the Dryads are named in the legends, and it is clear that the Greeks apportioned different characters to different trees. The poet Pherenikos described the Dryads as Nymphs and apportioned their roles to individual trees:
Aigeiros was the nymph of the black poplar (Populus nigra); Ampelos the nymph of the vine–including the wild grape (Vitis silvestris), bryony (Bryonia creticus), black bryony (Tamus communis) and the wrack (Fucus volubilis); Balanis the nymph of oak-trees–such as the holm oak (Quercus ilex) and prickly-cupped oak (Quercus aegilops); Karya the nymph of the nut tree–both the hazel (Corylus avellana) and the walnut (Juglans regia), and perhaps also the sweet chestnut (Castanea vesca); Kraneia the nymph of the cornelian cherry-tree (Cornus mas); Morea the nymph of the mulberry tree (Morus nigra) or else the wild olive; Ptelea the nymph of the European elm tree (Ulmus glabra);
and Syke the nymph of the fig tree (Ficus cardiac).
It is clear the ancient Greeks regarded these named and categorised tree-entities as metaphysical representatives of an otherworld, who would only interact with humanity during certain conditions. In this they are faeries in all but name – seen through the cultural lens of classical Greek civilisation.
The Hawthorn as a Faerie Tree
These historic associations between trees and the faeries are suggestive of a deep folk tradition and belief that tied the two together. It is a connection that remains intact to the present day, where folklore informs a modern belief in the importance of certain trees – most especially solitary trees – as arbiters between this world and an ultra-dimensional
faerieland. This is nicely illustrated by the exploits of the Irish folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan, as captured in the 2000 documentary by John Walker, The Fairy Faith. Eddie was instrumental in persuading Co. Clare council to re-route part of the Newmarket-on-Fergus bypass road at Latoon, in order to avoid the destruction of a faerie hawthorn tree, or sceach, which was initially due for uprooting as part of the road construction. A media campaign garnered the support of local people, and even The New York Times was motivated to write a piece about the plight of the tree. Eddie appealed to the intrinsic folkloric beliefs attached to the hawthorn, suggesting that the centuries-old idea that this particular tree was a focal point for the gathering of supernatural beings should be respected, and not simply ignored for the sake of materialistic expediency. He won – the tree remains to this day, albeit marooned between the highway and the slip road.
There is a very deeply ingrained belief and understanding in Irish culture as to the importance of these solitary hawthorns, which have gathered folk traditions about them, often in relation to the faeries. They go by various names – Wishing Trees, May Bushes, Rag Trees or Faerie Trees – and are frequently found in association with holy wells or
prehistoric forts (raths). They are also regularly festooned with ribbons, rags and trinkets, sometimes known as clotties, which are demonstrative of a continued folk belief in the spiritual ambience eminating from the trees. The clotties were traditionally tied to the trees as an offering to the nature spirits that inhabited it (sometimes Christianised to the spiritual presence of a saint or saints), in the hope that with their decomposition, ailments or bad luck would disappear with them. This tradition continues, and now incorporates a range of beliefs as to what the clotties are supposed to do. They may be tied to the trees as simple offerings with prayers, as wish-fulfillers, or as a recognition that the tree contains a metaphysical consciousness. These be-ribboned hawthorns can be found all over Ireland, perhaps most famously on the western banks of the Iron-Age hillfort that tops the Hill of Tara (Cnoc na Teamhrach) in Co. Meath, where there are two trees, permanently covered with offerings ranging from tiny ribbons to pink surfboards.
This tradition can be found throughout Ireland but also in Britain, where many solitary trees attached to a prehistoric site or next to a holy well, will have its branches decorated with offerings. At the approach to the Neolithic long barrow burial chamber at West
Kennet in Wiltshire there is a tree known as The Guardian Oak. One tradition states that if a ribbon or piece of cloth with personal value is tied to its branches, the faeries will inform you whether it is advisable to continue along the path to the long barrow. If the answer is no, then all is not lost, as you can take a slight diversion to the nearby Swallowhead Spring nestling between field banks, where a hawthorn and oak hang over the spring that feeds the River Kennet, and is covered in clotties left by people who recognise the charged atmosphere of the place.
A Filmic Faerie Oak
The association of faeries with trees is vividly brought to life in the 1997 film Photographing Fairies, where we are presented with a mighty oak acting as a tree where the faeries are to be found. In this case the faeries are small luminescent beings who seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the oak. They can only be seen in and around the tree (always with the aid of a psychoactive flower), which acts as the interface between consensus reality and the world of the faeries. Interestingly, it also acts as a hub for death in the film, with the faeries operating as arbiters between life and death. This plugs into the folkloric concept that faeries are intimately connected to the world of the dead, able to cross over between material reality and a metaphysical reality, where there is nothing but consciousness. It also acts as a shrine for the two little girls, Clara and Anna, after the death of their mother (who falls from the tree in an altered state of consciousness whilst communing with the faeries), linking into the idea discussed above, that faerie trees can be receptors of offerings, mediated by the supernatural entities that reside there.
Nature Spirits and Elementals
Whilst the faeries in the film are not necessarily portrayed as nature spirits, their reliance on the oak tree is implicit throughout, bringing them into line with the concept that what underlies the folktale perception of the faeries is a deeper metaphysical authenticity. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924, the Austrian spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner outlined his concept of these nature spirits (sometimes calling them elementals) and their fundamental role in ensuring the propagation of the natural world, most especially in relation to trees. Steiner took clairvoyance as a given reality, and his descriptions of the inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world is compelling, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognise how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine.
Steiner saw the supersensible as indispensable to the material world in the same way as consciousness is the necessary animating force to the physical bodies of humans. And he saw consciousness as the key to crossing the boundary between our world of the five senses and that of the nature spirits. He insists that ‘thought forms’ are the only way we are able to perceive the elementals and to understand what they are doing in nature, which he likens to unseen electricity bringing life to dormant machinery. To do this, a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic:
‘If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.’ Perception of the Elemental World (1913).
The elementals in the supersensible world exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of trees and vegetation. Steiner divides these into four main types corresponding to earth (gnomic), water (undines), air (sylphs) and heat/light (salamanders). Steiner describes the chthonic nature spirits responsible for the health of trees, which:
‘… send down their roots into the ground. Anyone who can observe what they really send down and can perceive the roots with spiritual vision (for this he must have) sees how the root is everywhere surrounded by the activities of elemental nature spirits. And these elemental spirits, which an old clairvoyant perception designated as gnomes and which we may call the root spirits, can be studied with Imagination and Inspiration, just as human life and animal life can be studied in the physical world. We can look into the soul nature of these elemental spirits, into this world of the spirits of the roots.’ Elemental Spirits and the Plant World (1923).
Steiner’s language and ideas are informed by his involvement with the Theosophist movement, and may grate with a 21st-century reader. But his metaphysics finds common ground with the compelling recent theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:
‘Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.’ Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Fields.
Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are essential in ordering life on earth, something that conventional science accepts in the case of gravitational waves or magnetism, but has a hard time with when it comes to life itself. Steiner’s thesis is that the nature spirits are anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly. Call them what you will, but they exist, and are essential in maintaining reproductive life; they are a form of consciousness responsible for the creation and sustenance of matter. They are the memory of nature.
The Wood Wide Web
With great serendipity, Rupert’s son, Merlin Sheldrake, a scientist specialising in mycorrhizal fungi, has recently put forward the theory that trees and plants are able to communicate through their root systems, mirroring the concept that a form of consciousness is operating to ensure the natural vitality of plant life. This has been nattily titled the Wood Wide Web:
‘For centuries, fungi were widely held to be harmful to plants, parasites that cause disease and dysfunction. More recently, it has become understood that certain kinds of common fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants and trees, bringing about not infection but connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant and tree roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form what is called a mycorrhiza… In this way, individual plants and trees are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.’
Whilst the ‘messaging system’ is physically conveyed through the fungal hyphal network, the actual messages must be generated by a form of consciousness. Could this consciousness be one and the same as Steiner’s nature spirits and Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields? As discussed in a previous blog post, Altered States of Consciousness and the Faeries, certain fungi such as Psilocybin and Amanita Muscaria can allow a direct route into what Steiner would call clairvoyance, potentially opening up a psychedelic state of consciousness that is able to see and interact with the faeries, in whatever form they might take. These mushrooms are part of Sheldrake’s fungal wood wide web, and may be acting as routers; allowing us to collaborate with the fundamental natural consciousness that is being manifested. This manifestation could be partly responsible for what we have come to think of as faeries, nature spirits or elementals, allowing for the cultural coding that will generate what we see and experience.
This faerie experience seems to be especially and intrinsically linked to trees and vegetation in the natural world, whether we are looking at Steiner’s elementals, Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, classical dryads or the faeries of folklore. They have an intimate relationship with trees, and we recognise this even if we don’t properly understand it. But at a metaphysical level maybe we do recognise the relationship, and the clustering of faerie traditions and beliefs around trees is an expression of this. Trees are one of the primary life-forces on the planet – for sound ecological reasons, perhaps we need to respect them, live with them and love them as much as the faeries seem to.
For a breakdown of faerie tree folklore by species, there is a good overview here.
In her 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, and the 2010 follow-up The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, Emma Wilby consolidates, and expands upon, a couple of decades of work by, mostly, continental scholars who had been investigating the possibility that records of medieval and Early Modern witch trials were documenting the survival of a pre-Christian shamanic visionary tradition. Until that point, study of the relatively large numbers of recorded witch trials in Britain had concentrated on the mechanisms of persecution, rather than any examination of the actual beliefs of the persecuted. Indeed, heavy-weight historians such as Hugh Trevor-Roper insisted that the only legitimate interpretation of the evidence from witch trials was as a function of social and cultural attitudes towards an aberrant cult. The voices of the persecuted were conveyed to us exclusively through the lens of the secular and clerical judiciary, and, according to Trevor-Roper and other historians, it was only the attitudes of these cultural elites that could be discerned from the documentation. The actual recorded beliefs of the accused witches were simply ‘disturbances of a psychotic nature’, ‘fantasies of mountain peasants’, and ‘mental rubbish of peasant credulity and feminine hysteria.’ In other words, any suggestion that the phenomenon the accused witches were recorded as describing might have elements of truth to it was baloney. But Wilby, following the lead of Carlo Ginzburg, suggests that if we attempt to excavate the actual words and beliefs of the persecuted witches, we discover that they were describing a remnant of pre-Christian shamanism, alive and well and, until the Inquisition caught up with them, operating under the radar of the Church.
The Witches’ Sabbath
Two of the most important elements of the records from the witch trials were the descriptions of witches’ faerie familiars and the supposed zoomorphic ability of witches to shape-shift into animals for various purposes. The records are replete with descriptions of faerie familiars, which could appear to, and interact with witches as humanoid faeries or as animals of various sorts, and depictions of witches transforming themselves into a diverse range of creatures for disparate objectives.
On the continent, faerie familiars and zoomorphism were usually described as agents of travel, most often to the witches’ sabbath. Ginzburg summarises the basic features of the sabbath that recur in many of the witch trial documents:
‘Male and female witches met at night, generally in solitary places, in fields or on mountains. Sometimes, having anointed their bodies, they flew, arriving astride poles or broomsticks; sometimes they arrived on the back of animals, or transformed into animals themselves. Those who are for the first time had to renounce the Christian faith, desecrate the sacrament and offer homage to the devil, who was present in human or (most often) animal or semi-animal form. There would follow banquets, dancing, sexual orgies. Before returning home the female and male witches received evil ointments made from children’s fat and other ingredients.’
These components, as recorded by the persecutors of the witches, persist as central themes in witch trials through the later Middle Ages in Europe and, in some places, until the 18th century. Tens of thousands of people (men and women) were burnt at the stake for witchcraft during this period.
As early as the 12th century (pre-Inquisition) a document known as the Canon Episcopi warned its readers that: ‘… some wicked women believe and profess themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts, which they keep for the purpose. They ride with [the pagan goddess] Diana and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night, they traverse great spaces of earth.’ There were various animals that could fit the bill as familiars, they could be mice, cats, dogs, birds, insects, horses, bears, foxes, frogs, even hedgehogs, though the most popular were goats – witches riding astride goats were commonly portrayed in medieval and Early Modern illustrations, and even in architectural reliefs, such as at Lyons Cathedral, where a witch is shown riding a goat and holding a hare (shown above).
Amongst the best recorded of European witch cults were the Benandanti in north-east Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. They seem to have utilised animal familiars as well as being able to shape-shift into a variety of creatures themselves, to attend sabbaths, visit faerieland and to do night battles with what they perceived as ‘evil witches’ who were using their own shape-shifting abilities to blight crops and cause illness on targeted individuals. Carlo Ginzburg’s 1966 study The Night Battles, details the complex belief systems of the Benandanti, who were rooted out by the Inquisition over a long period of time. Their trials provide some of the most comprehensive evidence for the ontology of the witches’ sabbath and travels to a faerieland in Early Modern Europe, which their inquisitors insisted to be the work of the Devil.
Members of the Benandanti could also travel to the Otherworld with humanoid faerie familiars. At a witch trial in 1591, one of the accused, Menichino della Nota, confessed that he would travel to Josaphat’s Field (one of the Benandanti’s names for the Otherworld) through the auspices of a faerie lady known as ‘the abbess’. Three decades later (and as usual, under torture), another Benandanti, Maria Canzona, also talked of ‘the abbess’, who she seemed to equate with the Queen of the Faeries. ‘The abbess’ would meet with Maria outside of her village and then they would fly to their destinations together. Other European witches of the period also usually equated humanoid faerie familiars as female. In 16th-century Sicily, in a series of witch trials, all of the female witches confessed to meeting with ‘Night Women’ or ‘The Ladies from Outside’, with who they would fly to far distant meadows to dance and feast at ceremonies presided over by the ‘Wise Sibilla’, another name for the faerie queen. Interestingly, the ‘Night Women’ were described as beautiful, but as having cats’ paws or horses’ hooves.
The zoomorphic quality of witches, to change themselves into metaphysical animal forms, is well attested in European witch trials. The concept has a very long history. In the 2nd century the Platonist philosopher Apuleius, in his extended poem Metamorphoses, described the shape-shifting abilities of female witches in the region of Thessaly, Greece: ‘These atrocious chameleons transform themselves into any kind of animal whatsoever. They disguise themselves as birds, dogs, weasels, mice and even flies.’ Apuleius does not go into detail as to what these women were doing during their zoomorphic state. But by the time of the witch persecutions from the 15th century onwards, the records have much more to say about this. In his 1998 book Witches and the Shamanic Journey, Kenneth Johnson extracts material from the late medieval witch trials from central and northern Europe, where the accused frequently described their transformations into a wide variety of animals:
“… shape-shifting appears as an integral part of the witch trials almost from the very beginning. In the Valais trials, part of the first wave of persecutions, which date from the early 1400s and were centred in the Western Alps, the male witches said that they took the shape of wolves, and that ‘the Devil’ appeared to his devotees in the
shape of a bear or a ram. A half century later, a German demonological text by Ulrich Molitor includes an illustration (below) showing witches on the way to the Sabbath, midway through their transformations into animals.”
Johnson also quotes a 1540 text by Hermann Witekind from Livonia (now Lithuania, and the last part of Europe to be officially converted to Christianity in 1386), who interviewed a male peasant who was awaiting his trial after being imprisoned for witchcraft. Witekind (incredulously) reports that the peasant was dancing around his cell, joyously informing him that the previous night he had been able to escape his captivity by transforming himself into a wolf and bounding across the landscape to ‘an immense river.’ He only returned to the cell ‘because his master wished it.’
British Witches and the Faeries
In Britain, the full-blown witch hunts seen in Europe were resisted until a later date. But by the late 16th century this was being rectified, and even King James VI of Scotland (later James I of a united kingdom with England) himself felt compelled to write Daemonologie(first published in 1597), which acted as a condemnation of the heresies of necromancy and witchcraft, evidently penned with much personal knowledge of the phenomena. Through the 17th century, both the Church and secular authorities made up for lost time, and thousands of witches were prosecuted in England, Wales and Scotland, many of them being burnt, drowned or hung if found guilty. Emma Wilby’s penetrative analyses of the witch trial records from this time finds (as with the records from the continent) much evidence for the hypothesis that the accused witches were practicing an adapted form of pre-Christian shamanism, where faerie familiars and zoomorphism played an essential and consistent role in the tradition they were following.
During a compendious outpouring of confessions during her trial for witchcraft in Scotland in 1662, Isobel Gowdie (for once, without torture, and fully backed-up by her co-accused) told her interrogators that after anointing herself with certain ‘unctions’ she shape-shifted into a hare before flying to the Sabbath. She also chanted an incantation to ensure the transformation:
I shall go into a hare, With sorrow, sigh, and mickle care; And I shall go in the Devil’s name, Aye while I come back again.
Isobel and her fellow accused witches also confessed to combining the use of faerie familiars with zoomorphism to attain their goals, which were sometimes beneficent, and sometimes maleficent. Whatever the objectives of these Scottish witches, their testimonies confirm their belief that in order to interact with a faerie otherworld they were reliant on the aid of familiars, or on their ability to turn themselves into animals. Isobel Gowdie again:
‘I had a little horse, and would say: ‘Horse and hattock, in the Devil’s name!’ And then we would fly away, wherever we would, even as straws would fly upon a highway. And when we would be in the shape of crows, we would be larger than ordinary crows, and would sit upon the branches of trees. We went in the shape of rooks to Mr Donaldson’s house… and went in at the kitchen chimney…’
A decade later, and under more intimidatory cross-examination, the Northumberland witch Anne Armstrong claimed that she was commanded to sing whilst her companion witches: ‘danced in several shapes, first of a hare, then of their own, then in a cat, sometimes a mouse, and several other shapes.’
British faerie familiars took a wide variety of forms. In the trial of Bessie Dunlop in Edinburgh in 1576, she describes what might be seen as a traditional folkloric humanoid faerie, who went by the name of Tom Reid. She described him as a diminutive being who would appear to her only when she was alone. He was:
‘… an elderly man, grey bearded, and had a grey coat with Lombard sleeves of the old fashion, a pair of grey breeches and white stockings gartered above the knee, a black bonnet on his head… with silken laces drawn through the edges thereof, and a white wand in his hand.’
British witch trials, like their European counterparts, were conducted and recorded by the persecuting cultural elite, and much caution is required in taking confessions extorted under duress as evidence of the actual words of the accused. But the consistency, over long periods of time, in descriptions of faerie familiars and the perceived abilities of witches to transform themselves into animals, confirms that we are being handed down testimonies of a genuine visionary tradition. But it is a tradition with an overt metaphysical component. As the narrative from a Taunton witch trial in 1664 states: ‘The witches are carried sometimes in their bodies and clothes, at other times without, and the examiner thinks their bodies are sometimes left behind. Even when their spirits only are present, yet they know one another.’ The Christian prosecutors evidently did not know what to make of this apparent ability of witches to act metaphysically. It would invariably be recognised as the work of the Devil, but the examiners’ understanding of the confessions never involved the recognition of a deep-set visionary tradition being tapped into by the rural peasantry, that was outside of the Christian orthodox belief system.
Physical vs Metaphysicaland the Shamanic Experience
Whilst medieval and Early Modern people who considered themselves (and were considered as) witches, did convene at ritual gatherings in physical reality, for a variety of purposes, the surviving documentation strongly suggests that they were also engaging in a metaphysical reality. Many of their inquisitors and contemporary commentators were incredulous at these testimonies of out of the body travel and animal shape-shifting, and would usually attempt to explain the experiences as the delusional work of the Devil. The Swiss preacher Johann Geiler von Kaiserberg summed up the general view in 1508:
‘What will you tell us about those who travel by night and assemble thus? When they travel to Venus Mountain, or when the witches travel here and there, do they travel, or do they stay, or is it an illusion? As to the first, I say that they do travel here and there but that their bodies remain in one place. They think that they travel, for the Devil can create that delusion in their head.’
What is described as happening to the people involved in witchcraft in these periods, bears many of the hallmarks of shamanistic practice. Shamanism is not an organised religion, it is rather a technique for direct contact with a metaphysical, spiritual reality through the arbitration of individuals able to reach that reality by altering their states of consciousness. This contact with a spiritual, non-physical realm was/is usually conducted to bring back information from that realm, that is deemed useful, such as healing,
premonitions of the future, and advice from ancestral spirits. In his groundbreaking 1951 book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade details the development of shamanism all over the world, coming to the conclusion that the ontological similarities in all forms of shamanism (which is, or was, widespread in every continent) must mean that it has a common prehistoric source datable to the Upper Palaeolithic. Recent work on Palaeolithic cave paintings convincingly demonstrates that many of the images represent shamanic altered states of consciousness, supporting Eliade’s ideas that the stratum of shamanism began at this period and diffused everywhere through time until replaced (or overlain) by formal religions. It was the original human spiritual belief.
Many of the core attributes of shamanism described by Eliade (and by many anthropologists since) find resonance in the practices of pre-modern witches. Through a variety of methods – including ingestion of psychotropic plants and mushrooms, fasting, dance, illness, sensory deprivation – the shaman falls into an ecstatic trance. His/her body is left in a cataleptic state, whilst their consciousness is removed elsewhere, always with the aid of a totem animal. The shaman’s consciousness either becomes the animal or is guided by an animal during their out of body experience, enabling them to travel to a variety of metaphysical realms and bring back the required, or sought information. During these ecstasies, the shaman is able to encounter other shamans (both friendly and hostile), who similarly disassociate their consciousness from their physical selves. These are the basic components of the witches’ ecstasies described through the medium of their Christian persecutors. Whether these visionary episodes were remnants of pre-Christian Eurasian shamanism, or whether they were diffused from marginal societies in parts of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Siberia, where shamanism survived (in various forms) throughout the period, remains equivocal. But the ontological correlations strongly suggest that there was a medieval and Early Modern heretical witch cult in many parts of Europe, existing beneath the prevailing Christian orthodoxy, which utilised aspects of shamanism as its modus operandi.
Unfortunately, inquisitors were rarely interested in the means employed by witches to alter their states of consciousness, and so we are left with ambiguous references to ‘salves’, ‘unctions’ and ‘potions’, used to attain ecstasies. Whilst there is a wealth of direct evidence for the techniques used by shamans around the world, and through time, to reach visionary states, the historic documents used to penetrate the witches’ sabbaths fall short of disclosure. But the documents, despite being so heavily overlain by the value judgements of Christianity, do consistently point to journeys to Sabbaths and faerieland being metaphysical events. Just as this was difficult to stomach for the Christian inquisitors of the witches, it also challenges our own materialistic worldview. But if we want to infiltrate the reality of the witches’ world, we are compelled to consider the shamanic cosmological viewpoint that consciousness is an autonomous non-physical reality, which can be manipulated to act independently and metaphysically for ritual and spiritual purposes. It was an adherence to this principle that cost the lives of so many medieval and Early Modern witches at the hands of their persecutors. They were shamans in all but name, and as such, were unacceptable within the strictures of orthodox Christianity.
Modern Wicca and the Shamanic Component
Modern Wicca seems to be divided on the shamanic component of witchcraft. But there is a growing recognition that the ritualised metaphysical component of witchcraft is fundamental to understanding the spirituality that is at the root of modern Wicca, whichever path is taken. Modern witches owe a lot to their medieval and Early Modern predecessors, who practiced their visionary traditions at risk to their own lives – something that modern witches do not have to worry about. Most especially, the concept of a faerie or animal familiar, and the need to engage in an altered state of consciousness to seek wisdom and healing, has found its way into the structures of modern witchcraft, and it’s usually based on the shamanistic visionary traditions of our ancestors. The excellent website at Witcheslore.com has a powerful piece on Familiars, which articulates the role of the faerie familiar and zoomorphism, and recognises the essential relationship with shamanism and its metaphysical underpinning. The final word is theirs, with an appreciation that the modern witch recognises what their spiritual ancestors would have known instinctively…
‘An altered state of consciousness or trance state, allows the witch to astral project, when this happens the witch’s consciousness leaves the physical body and is able to travel where and as they choose. As faeries live in a spirit realm, a witch often used a faerie as a familiar, this allowed the witch a doorway into the otherworld, witches and faeries were often connected and worked well together. Familiars are powerful healers and are messengers between one world and the other, they are wonderful and loyal companions for a witch. The three types of familiars are, the physical, the spirit and the artificial. The physical familiar is a pet, animal or creature; the spirit is a conscious entity that exists within the otherworld, beyond the land of the living. Magic also is used for the creation of an artificial familiar.’
This is a trip through some of the interpretations that have been cast over the faeries during the last hundred years or so. I get the impression that many folklorists are reluctant, even scared, to pin their true feelings to the mast when it comes to saying what the faeries really are. It’s pretty easy to recount folktales and faerie-stories… but what do they mean, and where do they come from? Some people are more willing than others to stick their necks out… here’s a personal choice of some of the best published interpretations of the faeries. It’s not comprehensive, but I think these works are essential if you’d like to come to some sort of understanding about what the faeries are and why they have persisted in our culture.
A brilliant place to start is with Katherine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairiesfrom 1976. Katherine Briggs (d.1980) was president of the Folklore Society between 1969 and 1972 and wrote extensively about the folklore of the faeries, including An Anatomy of Puck, which was an adaptation of her Oxford D.Litt. thesis on 17th-century faerie literature. An Encyclopedia of Fairies correlates a wealth of (mainly British and Irish) traditions of the faeries, covering both the stories and anecdotes. It’s a skilful overview of the phenomenon, that doesn’t shirk from ontological discussion of subjects such as ‘the origin of the fairies’ and ‘time in fairyland’… not subjects that were much discussed when she was writing in the 1970s, mainly because to do so was to give some credence to the reality of the faeries beyond their folkloric representation. But the main emphasis of the book is to summarise the hundreds of different faerie types and stories. It is authoritative, beautifully written, well referenced, and is a route into a deeper understanding of why the faeries are such an important element of British and Irish folklore. Unfortunately, it’s been out of print for a while and is difficult to find for less than £100. But if you can procure a copy, you’ll soon realise that it is a prime reference book for beginning to understand the faeries and where they come from. The New York Times Book Review said: “If myths are both the food and fruit of the imagination, then Katherine Briggs has prepared a banquet. There seems to be no end to the information in this enchanted almanac.”
More international in scope, and wonderfully illustrated (by Claudine and Roland Sabatier), is The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins and other Little Creatures by Pierre Dubois (1992). Dubois has a very playful style of writing that matches the subject matter perfectly, and he covers an extraordinary range of faerie types from around the world, co-ordinated into sections that describe each entity alongside an illustrative story. The description usually includes the ‘behaviour’ of the faerie in question. Typical of Dubois’ tone is this entry for the behaviour of The Mimi, supernatural entities of the aboriginal Australians…
“As we have seen, these elves from the middle worlds are benevolent, hospitable, and gracious. But they are also amongst those elves with a sensitive, versatile and quick-tempered nature – quite suddenly, they can change a serene environment into a disaster zone if someone has dared to stand on a sacred stone, pick their favourite herb, or dirty the water they came to draw in the evening. The Mimi keep kangaroos, pythons, koalas, opossums, and crocodiles as humans keep cats and dogs. So anyone who lays a finger on them is regarded by the Mimi as damaging their pets.”
Briggs and Dubois are indebted for many of their interpretations of the faeries to the folklorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these was Edwin Sidney Hartland (1848-1927) whose The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology (1891) is one of the first studies that attempts to place the faeries in an anthropological context. Whilst couched in somewhat sonorous Victorian language, this volume dissects various aspects of faerie lore, such as the changeling and faerie midwife stories, and what Hartland calls ‘the supernatural lapse of time in fairyland’. Hartland is happy to recount the requisite folktales in full, but he provides a constant running commentary on the possible meanings and originations of the stories. It’s an essential primer, both for a window into 19th-century views of the faeries, and as the earliest attempt to understand the phenomenon, using the anthropological toolkit of the 1890s.
Two decades later WY Evans-Wentz went one step further by applying his interpretations of the faeries on fieldwork he carried out himself. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countrieswas published in 1911, and was based on Evans-Wentz’s journeys through the Celtic realms of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany, between 1907-11, where he collected stories and anecdotes about the faeries from the rural populations. His language can occasionally seem archaic and quaint, but there is no doubt that he imbued himself in the Celtic communities that he spent time with during his years of travels amongst them. He had the time, that a modern anthropologist/folklorist could only dream of, to visit these communities and spend time with them, soaking up their stories and anecdotes, which revealed so much about the deeply ingrained belief in the faeries and the way these entities interacted with consensual reality. In doing so, he gained a great admiration for the rural people he came across, who would tell it like it was.
“The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition,’ and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial and economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural… they have lost all sympathetic and responsive contact with Nature, because unconsciously they have thus permitted conventionality and unnaturalness to insulate them from it.”
This quote is from the introduction to The Fairy-Faith, and it sets out Evans-Wentz’s stall. He was on the side of the rural peasantry who were the repository of the vast wealth of folklore represented in their tales of the faeries. He recognised the innate importance of what they were conveying, and was not shy about convincing his reader of the authenticity of what they told him, even if it was anathema to the conventual scientific and materialistic wisdom of his age. But by the time Evans-Wentz made his tour of Celtic countries between 1907-11, the general belief in faeries was waning. By cataloguing rural stories, anecdotes and theories about the faeries, just before WWI tore apart many of the traditional ways of life, and by doing it in such an open-minded and empathetic manner, he has left us with a rare treasure mine of Celtic faerie data.
Evans-Wentz spends much time discussing seership and the second-sight that was usually necessary to interact with the faeries. This was taken to another level by the Austrian spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who, in a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924, outlined his concept of the faeries as nature spirits (sometimes calling them elementals) and their fundamental role in ensuring the propagation of the natural world. Steiner called second-sight clairvoyance, and took it as a given reality. His language is sometimes difficult and obtuse, but his descriptions of the inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world is compelling, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognise how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine.
Steiner’s theosophist ideas gained traction through the 20th century, and helped shape a new vision of the faeries as elemental forces of nature, that stripped them somewhat of their folkloric mischievous immorality. By 1952 Geoffrey Hodson was able to take this concept further in his book The Kingdom of the Gods. For readers with a materialistic disposition, this work may be a step too far, and will certainly require a re-tuning of the Western mindset to accept what he is conveying. But Hodson is very clear in his description of a hierarchy of metaphysical beings, which exist alongside physical reality and interact with it. Without this hierarchy there is no life. Hodson uses his clairvoyance to investigate the phenomenon gnostically, and takes us into a dense world of cosmic vitality, introducing several Eastern mystical traditions to explain his direct experiences with nature spirits. One such is Fohat:
“Fohat is the universal constructive Force of Cosmic Electricity and the ultimate hidden power in this universe, the power which charges a universe with Life, with Spirit; it is described as the Will and the Mind, the very Self, of God. This supreme force is in all creatures. When specialized and enclosed within the spinal cord of man it is called Kundalini, or the power that moves in serpentine path; hence its other name the Serpent Fire.”
Also from the mid 20th-century theosophist tradition (although not published in English until 2014) is Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies. Johnson (acting on behalf of the Fairy Investigation Society) collected over 500 anecdotal descriptions from people who claimed to have seen or interacted with faeries, and compiled them together with her own experiences. Some of her correspondents were Theosophists, with an avowed history of clairvoyance. But the majority were not, and their honest appraisals of seeing faeries are usually singular events in their otherwise non-clairvoyant lives. Their subjective anecdotes may be contentious as scientific evidence, but they are a fascinating collection of experience reports. The faeries described range from traditional folkloric types to metaphysical nature spirits, occasionally morphing into the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention.
Perhaps that should be Victorian re-invention. The best overview of what happened to the faeries in popular consciousness during the 19th century is Carole Silver’s Strange and Secret Peoplesfrom 1999. She marshals evidence from a range of sources in an attempt to explain how the pre-Victorian folkloric faerie traditions were appropriated by artists and writers through the 19th century, and remoulded into a new vision of what they were and what they meant. Part of this movement spawned the image of faeries as tiny, incandescent creatures with wings – unknown before the 19th century – which has in turn informed our own disneyfied faeries of modern popular culture… the Tinkerbell effect. But there was much more to the re-invention than this:
“That the Victorians were utterly fascinated by the faeries is demonstrated by the art, drama. and literature they created and admired. Their abiding interest shows in the numerous, uniquely British faerie paintings that flourished between the 1830s and the 1870s – pictures in part inspired by nationalism and Shakespeare, in part as protest against the strictly useful and material, but in either case, as attempts to reconnect the actual and the occult.”
As with most academic studies of the faeries, Silver is willing to go only so far into an investigation of the origins of the faeries themselves, and their potential real presence in the material world. But such restraint is not shown by Carlo Ginzburg in his monumental 1989 book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Whilst the main subject matter is the witches’ sabbath in the medieval and Early Modern periods, Ginzburg recognises the essential role the faeries play in accounts of the sabbath. His use of historical sources to recreate what was really going on at the sabbaths is deeply impressive, and he has single-handedly overturned previous cultural historical theses, that the sabbath was simply an imaginary construct of the ecclesiastic and secular elites to close down on perceived heretics and maintain control over subversive groups. The sabbaths were real, and Ginzburg goes into detail as to how and why the faeries were included in these sacred rituals, facilitating ‘ecstasies’ and accompanying the witches on their metaphysical journeys. This eventually brings us to Ginzburg’s main hypothesis, that the sabbath was a survival of Eurasian prehistoric shamanism. The ‘ecstasies’ were brought about through group altered states of consciousness that enabled the witches to partake in a metaphysical reality for magical purposes… they were travelling to the otherworld, accompanied by their faerie familiars, just as Eurasian shamans had done. Ginzburg convincingly argues the case for continuity from prehistoric shaman to medieval/Early Modern witch.
“Wilby’s hypothesis is that the faerie encounter narratives of cunning folk and witches recorded in the early modern witch trials, evidence a surviving trend of folk beliefs extending unbroken from a pre christian shamanic world view. Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, 2006, the author makes an overwhelming case for the long term existence of an ancient British-Shamanic tradition. She also re-configures our understanding of witches and cunning folk as animist shamans embedded in local communities. This is an iconoclastic reversal of modern academic opinion that witches experience of spirits and their attested narratives were either the product of mental illness or more likely perhaps an enforced or contrived collusion between the often illiterate prisoner and their elite and educated religious inquisitor. That magical practitioners across the length and breadth of Britain had stood up in courtrooms and persisted in telling long and involved stories about faeries despite the fact that in doing so they often knowingly condemned themselves to death, demonstrates in as definite a way as could be possible the conviction, integrity and respect with which the cunning folk regarded their familiar spirits… the faeries.”
Wilby’s work is indeed iconoclastic, and has opened the way for a more esoteric and unconventional take on the faeries amongst academic folklorists and anthropologists. Her 2010 follow up book The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, goes even deeper into the concept of witchcraft as a survival of shamanism, using the compendious records from the trial of the Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie (and her compatriots) in 1662. These records are replete with confessions that talk about faerie familiars and zoomorphic witches, and they give us an unparalleled view into patterns of metaphysical belief in the 17th century. Wilby has an unerring ability to differentiate the real words and beliefs of the accused from witch trial documents, from the presumptions imposed on them by the persecuting Christian elites. Her work makes it very clear that in 17th-century rural communities the faeries were an accepted phenomenon, who played an essential role in the spiritual beliefs and practices of the population; under the radar of Christianity, until the witch hunts caught up with them.
But this metaphysical understanding of the faeries can be taken even further. If we step out of the halls of academia we find some truly cutting-edge interpretations of who the faeries are, and their intimate connection with a prehistoric shamanistic tradition. In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock puts forward the hypothesis that the shamanistic cultures of the Stone Age were interacting with entities that to all intents were the same as the faeries of folkloric tradition. Around 30,000 years ago there was an explosion of symbolism in human culture, primarily represented by cave art. This cave art is usually located in hard to access underground spaces that must have had significant meaning for the artists and those who would have been experiencing these strange images by torchlight. And strange they are. Much of the cave art represents therianthropic beings, that is half human, half animal shape-shifters. Hancock makes the convincing argument that these cave paintings were produced to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of the anthropologists David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are motifs by the hundred in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these stone age cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings that coincide with descriptions of faeries in the historic period.
Hancock was building on work done by the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée, who, in his 1969 book Passport to Magonia, suggested that the folkloric faeries were one and the same as the alien abductors of the 20th (and now the 21st) century. His hypothesis is that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore. He suggests the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. He makes special reference to the regular motifs in faerie-tales of the abduction, by various means, of humans by faeries. There’s a lot of data here – it’s the commonest motif in faerie folklore. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to faerieland in the stories, either as midwives or nurses for faerie children, as servants to the faeries, for sex, as punishment or reward, or just because the faeries feel like it. They were also keen on abducting babies, and replacing them with changelings; wizened old faerie creatures who would usually die before the end of the story if a ruse to return the human baby wasn’t discovered. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the monumentally strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s. Vallée uses a range of evidence to tie-up faerie abductions from folklore and alien abductions from modern reports, and goes as far to state:
“… the modern, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs and lutins of the Middle Ages. Through the observations of unidentified flying objects, we are concerned with an agency our ancestors knew well and regarded with terror: we are prying into the affairs of the Secret Commonwealth.”
The Secret Commonwealth was the term coined for the faeries by the Reverend Robert Kirk in a manuscript of 1691, and Vallée spends much time in the book linking the descriptions given by Kirk of the faeries to the portrayals of aliens from the 1950s onwards. Whatever you may think of the alien abduction phenomenon, it is clear that there is much consistent evidence to support Vallée’s claims. It’s a classic book, written (like Graham Hancock’s books) outside the remits of academia, and therefore free to break free of conventions, and tell us some truths without the constraints of academic orthodoxy.
Serena Roney-Dougal takes this theme of the faeries as external agents of interference in human culture and runs with it in her 2002 book The Faery Faith: An Integration of Science with Spirit, which pulls in a range of interpretations to get to the bottom of who the faeries are and their place in the world. It’s a nice blend of New-Age thinking and science, and covers a wide range of ideas, from Jungian analysis to quantum theory, written in luminous prose and with an evident understanding of the elusive nature of the faeries when we attempt to pin them down to a materialistic existence.
Finally, special mention needs to be made of the classic 1978 book Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. This is a playful, illustrative romp through faerie-lore, based on the descriptions given by Katherine Briggs in her Encyclopedia of Fairies. Froud and Lee capture the essence of folkloric faeries in their intense and atmospheric images of faeries from Britain and Ireland, always with the prescribed conviction that they are acting on ‘inside information’. There are no gossamer-winged faeries here… they’re real and vital, and the consistent republications of the volume prove the popularity of their vision. Take a look at any website about the faeries, and you’ll find some of their illustrations there. It probably ranks as the bestselling faerie book ever.
There are reams of other books about the faeries, not to mention the ever-spiralling online presence covering faerie-lore in all its aspects, but this summary is intended as an overview of what I think are the best interpretative studies of what the faeries are, where they come from, and what their stories mean. Most of the books discussed here also have good reference sections for further reading. But the faeries are elusive; interpretations can be made, but we’re always left with the distinct impression that we have not quite got to the bottom of things… and that we probably never will.
A companion piece, looking at filmic representations of the faeries, can be found here: Faeries on Film.
For more books on the faeries take a look at the extensive list on the Fairyist website here. If any readers think there are other books essential to the interpretation of the faeries, not discussed in this article, then please do leave a comment below.
The cover image is by Polish artist Valentin Rekunenko.