Going Round in Circles: The Faerie Dance

“I realise we may not even have begun to understand what is going on with the phenomenon known as the fairy dance. Still, I repeat my suggestion that it feels like some sort of technology for jumping between worlds, and in particular for entering and leaving this one.” Graham Hancock, Supernatural (2005)

william-sullivan-fairy-danceAt the end of the excellent documentary The Fairy Faith, the narrator, John Walker, goes with Marie-Rose and her daughter April, to a forest river in Cape Breton Island, Canada, to hear about their faerie encounter several years previously. It’s quite clear that they are authentic, and genuinely recalling the experience as best they can. The encounter consisted mostly of hearing music and singing — Marie-Rose was evidently afraid of the phenomenon and dragged her children away from the river and into the car to get away. As they drove away, April watched out the back window as a group of small faeries were: “jumping around in a circle, holding hands. They were singing… and dancing in a circle. They sort of mixed right in with the background, and I don’t know whether they were see-through or what.”

This is an interesting modern testimony of a very common faerie practice, recorded by folklorists as motifs 261.1.1 – faeries dance in faerie ring, and 262.10.2 – faerie music issues from faerie ring. There are hundreds of stories that include this circular dancing favoured by the faeries, usually with the embedded idea that it’s dangerous to go near them, or even watch them, whilst they are doing it. The proliferance of this motif in faerie-tales suggests it has an important meaning, both to the faeries and to the deeper understanding of the story. It is like a hidden code, installed into the story for those who might look for it and learn from it.

One of the most common folktales of this type involves someone being trapped within the circle of dancing faeries, either by their own volition or by mistake. The Welsh tale Rhys at the Fairy Dance has many variants, and is a typical example of the tale. It tells the story of Rhys and Llywelyn, who, whilst walking home through a wood, were separated after Rhys rushed away when he heard some ‘enchanted music.’ Llywelyn goes home and leaves him, but when check is made next morning Rhys is still missing. Llywelyn is thrown into jail for suspected murder…


… Things remained thus for nearly a year, when a newcomer into the neighbourhood, who had some experience of fairy ways and customs, suggested that he and a company of neighbours should go with Llywelyn to the place where he had parted from Rhys. This was agreed to and they came to a faerie ring.

“This is the very spot,” said Llywelyn, “and hush, I hear music; melodious harps I hear.”

The whole company listened, but could hear nothing, and told Llywelyn so.

“Put your foot on mine, David,” said Llywelyn, whose foot was now upon the outward edge of the faerie circle, to one of the company. David put his foot on Llywelyn’s, and so did they all, one after another: and then they heard the sound of many harps in full concert, and saw within the circle a number. of little figures enjoying themselves vastly. They were dancing round and round the ring with hands joined, and among them was Rhys, footing it with the best of them. As he came whirling by, Llywelyn seized hold of his smock frock and switched him out of the circle, taking great care not to overstep the edge of the ring.

Full text of Rhys at the Faerie Dance – Thomas Keightley, 1870

Once out of the ring Rhys insisted he’d only been dancing for about five minutes, and that he was keen to continue. But the company took him home, and as happens in many of these stories, he became depressed, sickened and died soon after.

William_Holmes_Sullivan_-_The_Fairy_Ring;_the_Enchanted_PiperAnother Welsh story tells of a shepherd playing his flute on a hillside:

“… when he was surrounded at a distance by little beings like men, who closed nearer and nearer to him until they became a very small circle. They sang and danced, and so affected him that he quite lost himself.”

Again, his perception of the singing and dancing lasting only minutes is dispelled when he returns home to find three weeks have passed.

These folktales were recorded in the 19th century, but they hold up a mirror to earlier beliefs and perceptions of what the faeries were and what they got up to. The stories of faeries dancing in circles also find common ground in eyewitness descriptions of the same time period, such as that of David Evans and a friend who, in 1862, were walking in the hills of Carmarthenshire in Wales when they saw a troupe of about fifty ‘small people’ walking up a hillside. When they reached the top they formed into a circle…

… After dancing for a short time, one of the dancers turned into the middle of the circle, followed by the others, one by one till they appeared like a gimblet screw. Then they disappeared into the ground. After a while one of them reappeared again, and looked about him in every direction as a rat, and the others followed him one by one and did the same. Then they danced for some time as before, and vanished into the ground as they had done the first time.

From  Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (1997).

Of course, it would be easy to dismiss both folktales and eyewitness sightings of dancing faeries as works of pure imagination and/or misperceptions of natural phenomena. But the universality of the circular dancing theme trumps such a reductionist view — there’s got to be more going on to the faeries dance to imprint the idea so vividly in the collective memory.

One theory is that the faerie dance was an otherworldy mimicking of circle dances attested to since the medieval period and earlier, such as in this Italian version from the 14th century.

The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Siena, 1340

The circle dance was certainly of ancient origin and common throughout the world. It would have been only a small leap of storytelling imagination to transfer the popular forms of dancing in a circle into the culture of the faeries. Modern circle dances such as the kalamatianos from Greece, the mayim mayim of Israel and the Catalonian  sardana dance probably had their genesis in earlier forms, and give an idea of the energy, togetherness and social cohesion that can be achieved by linking hands, forming a circle and moving in a choreographed way to music and singing. A particularly interesting modern manifestation is the Sacred Circle Dance, brought from Eastern Europe in the 1970s by Bernard Wosien, first to the alternative community of Findhorn in Scotland, from where it has spread worldwide. Here is a video of the Findhorn Sacred Circle Dance in 2012. It’s not quite clear what the ‘sacred’ represents, but I think it might be bringing us a little closer to the meaning behind the faerie circle dance.

Many circle dances incorporate various ritualised elements, such as placing flowers in the centre, the passing of handkerchiefs between participants and adherence to numbered steps whilst dancing. These elements look like fossilized versions of earlier practices… practices that may have been about taking the participants of the dance into an otherworld through altering their states of consciousness.

The Saan people of Southern Africa continue to use the ritual circle dance of their ancestors for this very specific purpose. The archaeologist David Lewis-Williams describes the dance:

Saan rock art depicting a healing circle dance, c.1000 BCE

The most important Saan ritual was the healing or trance dance. These dances continue to be practised amongst San groups living in the Kalahari today. Dancers stomp in a circle around the campfire for many hours. The women clap the rhythm of the dance and sing powerful songs. After hours of stomping, some dancers start to slip into trance or half-trance. In this altered state of consciousness many have out-of-body experiences. They describe travelling to the spirit realm. The shamans push themselves towards an altered state of consciousness; they enter ‘half-death’. They attain ecstasy simply by means of their dancing, concentration and hyperventilation, with the help of the women’s insistent, complexly rhythmic singing and clapping.

This continuity of the circle dance in Southern Africa, unchanged in its basic format for millennia, may suggest how other circular dances developed elsewhere in the world. The dances of medieval and modern Europe may be remnants of an earlier form of prehistoric shamanic dance, designed to alter the state of consciousness of its participants, just as it still does for the Saan people. We cannot find a direct archaeological route into prehistoric ritual dance, but the Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles of Western Europe are highly suggestive of monuments built for a ritual that involved circular movement.

The Avebury Circle Dance from the TV series Children of the Stones (1977)

In the mind-bending 1977 TV series Children of the Stones (the sort of crazy 1970s children’s television that will leave you dropping your jaw if you’ve never seen it… you can give it a try here Children of the Stones full series), a secret sect uses the energy of the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury to create power for their own nefarious purposes. The painting shown here hangs on the wall of the sect’s leader, and is constantly referred to visually in the series. It shows the stone circle in its prehistoric heyday, a beam of light being generated from the centre by the whirling circular dancing of people. This might be a case of fiction getting close to the truth, with the idea that frenetic circular dancing was a technique to unlock an energy, whatever that energy might be. Folklore certainly embeds the notion that dancing is intimately associated with stone circles. Many stone circles come complete with a legend that the stones are petrified dancers, a pagan theme christianised by stating that the dancers were punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan in Cornwall is a good example, where the story tells us that the nineteen stones are young girls turned to stone for non-observance of the Sabbath. In this case there are even two outlier stones, that take the part of pipers in the story (see A modern antiquarian’s view of the Merry Maidens).

The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan, Cornwall, c.2000 BCE

These petrification stories can be multiplied many times at other stone circles, especially in Britain. It’s not too much of an interpretative stretch to suggest that these folktales represent a mythic memory of one of their original purposes – circular sacred spaces for circle dancing. For whilst the stone circles would have been used for various purposes, their shape suggests rituals that saw the circle as sacred – a representation of wholeness and infinity that would have found manifestation in physical activity in and around them. A place to dance to music and singing may have been the main reason for their construction. And in shamanic cultures such dancing was just another method (either alongside or instead of ingesting psychoactive plants) to alter states of consciousness so as to be able to interact with the otherworld of spirit.
Rackham_fairy_ring (1)

So what are the faerie circle dances? One neat theory is that the faeries are one and the same as our psychedelic prehistoric ancestors. Their intense circular dances have embedded them into certain parts of the landscape through the latent emotional energy they generated, to be tapped into by sensitive or stoned individuals in touch with the Collective Unconscious of humanity. The common folkloric motif of people finding themselves trapped within the circles is nothing less than a shamanic experience of travelling to a dimension of reality separated from our own only by a malleable membrane. The sense of unreality and time distortions that usually occur to the protagonists in these stories are very suggestive of an altered state of consciousness. They interact with otherworldly beings, they hear supernal music, and they become caught up in this world completely, to the extent that their perception of the passage of time is altered radically.

Psilocybin faerie ring

It is interesting that the grass circles known colloquially as faerie rings are caused by sub-surface fungal growth, and that many of these rings come complete with above-surface psychoactive mushrooms such as the amanita muscaria and psilocybin. These rings are intimately connected to the folklore of the faerie dance, acting as observable physical markers in the environment for the stories. And whatever the objective reality of the faeries dancing within the rings, the fungal association is highly suggestive that the human protagonists were able to collude with them after partaking of psychotropic mushrooms and entering a non-usual state of consciousness.

This takes us back to the point – what are these faerie-tales about circle dances trying to tell us? The circularity of the dance is evidently important and represents wholeness, oneness, eternity and a complete closed system. The circle may also represent what Graham Hancock calls ring portals, circles of energy providing access to and from this 4D world and whatever dimension the faeries hang out in. But the deep message seems to lie in the circle. These otherworldy faeries may be attempting to convey a message about the importance of understanding the never-ending circularity of life, wisdom better understood by our stone-age ancestors. The message might come in a folktale, or through a reported sighting… or you might find yourself in the circle after nibbling some mushrooms, and unable to resist the music and dancing of the little people who seem to have magically appeared within your reality.

17th-century woodcut of faeries in a circle dance outside their hollow hill, with an amanita muscaria mushroom in the foreground
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