A common motif in European folklore is that of the faeries being made visible to a human through the application (accidentally or on purpose) of an ointment or salve to the eyes (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index 235.4). Often, the story is completed by the faeries discovering the human has used this magical technique to observe them, and blinding the protagonist, either totally or partially (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index 362.1). These motifs do not always go together, but there is a definite folkloric correlation between the two that seems to be based on the concept of magical vision, a clairvoyant ability to see metaphysical faeries, which is often resisted by them to the extent of taking away the ordinary sight of the observer as a punishment, or simply to prevent them from further perception of the faerie realm. These deeply embedded folkloric motifs suggest the roots of the stories and anecdotes are tapping into some Delphic meaning about being able to see the faeries, with an insinuation that we’re not supposed to be able to see them, and that such occult knowledge may bring retribution in physical consensus reality.
Midwives, Faeries, Ointment and Blinding
The most common folkloric rendering of these motifs involves a human midwife being summoned by the faeries to aid in a faerie birth, where she applies the magical ointment to her eyes (usually by accident) and sees the faeries in all their supernatural glory. Once returned to material reality, she meets with a faerie who was present at the birth, who, on discovering the woman can see them, blinds the woman in one or both eyes. The earliest version of this story is recorded by the 13th-century chronicler Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia Imperialis, but, as usual, the most complete motif-types were collected by 19th- and early 20th-century folklorists, evidently after the tales had been doing the rounds as an oral tradition for many centuries. There are dozens of stories containing the motifs from Lithuania to Scandinavia to Britain and Ireland. John Rhys collected a Welsh version in 1901 about a servant girl called Eilian, who was carried away by the Welsh faeries, the Tylwyth Teg, who she had been consorting with on moonlit nights. Months later the faeries turned up at a midwife’s house to beg her assistance. She travelled with them, accidentally applied ointment to her eyes and saw that the mother was Eilian, surrounded by faerie splendour. She delivered the child, returned home, and then on her next visit to market saw the faerie father in the crowd, and asked how Eilian was. He asked her with which eye she saw him, and on telling him he immediately ‘put it out with a bulrush.’
An English version of the story, from Devon, was collected by the Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs in 1890, and is perhaps the best distillation of the tale-type. He evidently tailored it to the tastes of the Folklore Society (he later became the editor of the society’s journal Folklore) by applying an appropriate name to the midwife and smoothing out the dialect, but it captures the motifs well, encapsulating all the elements of the story type:
DAME Goody was a nurse that looked after sick people, and minded babies. One night she was woke up at midnight, and when she went downstairs, she saw a strange squinny-eyed, little ugly old fellow, who asked her to come to his wife who was too ill to mind her baby. Dame Goody didn’t like the look of the old fellow, but business is business; so she popped on her things, and went down to him. And when she got down to him, he whisked her up on to a large coal-black horse with fiery eyes, that stood at the door; and soon they were going at a rare pace, Dame Goody holding on to the old fellow like grim death.
They rode, and they rode, till at last they stopped before a cottage door. So they got down and went in and found the good woman abed with the children playing about; and the babe, a fine bouncing boy, beside her.
Dame Goody took the babe, which was as fine a baby boy as you’d wish to see. The mother, when she handed the baby to Dame Goody to mind, gave her a box of ointment, and told her to stroke the baby’s eyes with it as soon as it opened them. After a while it began to open its eyes. Dame Goody saw that it had squinny eyes just like its father. So she took the box of ointment and stroked its two eyelids with it. But she couldn’t help wondering what it was for, as she had never seen such a thing done before. So she looked to see if the others were looking, and, when they were not noticing, she stroked her own right eyelid with the ointment.
No sooner had she done so, than everything seemed changed about her. The cottage became elegantly furnished. The mother in the bed was a beautiful lady, dressed up in white silk. The little baby was still more beautiful then before, and its clothes were made of a sort of silvery gauze. Its little brothers and sisters around the bed were flat-nosed imps with pointed ears, who made faces at one another, and scratched their polls. Sometimes they would pull the sick lady’s ears with their long and hairy paws. In fact, they were up to all kinds of mischief; and Dame Goody knew that she had got into a house of pixies. But she said nothing to nobody, and as soon as the lady was well enough to mind the baby, she asked the old fellow to take her back home. So he came round to the door with the coal-black horse with eyes of fire, and off they went as fast as before, or perhaps a little faster, till they came to Dame Goody’s cottage, where the squinny-eyed old fellow lifted her down and left her, thanking her civilly enough, and paying her more than she had ever been paid before for such service.
Now next day happened to be market-day, and as Dame Goody had been away from home, she wanted many things in the house, and trudged off to get them at the market. As she was buying the things she wanted, who should she see but the squinny-eyed old fellow who had taken her on the coal-black horse. And what do you think he was doing? Why he went about from stall to stall taking things from each, here some fruit, and there some eggs, and so on; and no one seemed to take any notice.
Now Dame Goody did not think it her business to interfere, but she thought she ought not to let so good a customer pass without speaking. So she ups to him and bobs a curtsey and said: ‘Gooden, sir, I hopes as how your good lady and the little one are as well as –‘
But she couldn’t finish what she was a-saying, for the funny old fellow started back in surprise, and he says to her, says he:
‘What! do you see me today?’
‘See you,’ says she, ‘why, of course I do, as plain as the sun in the skies, and what’s more,’ says she, ‘I see you are busy, too, into the bargain.’
‘Ah, you see too much,’ said he; ‘now, pray, with which eye do you see all this?’
‘With the right eye to be sure,’ said she, as proud as can be to find him out.
‘The ointment! The ointment!’ cried the old pixy thief. ‘Take that for meddling with what don’t concern you: you shall see me no more.’ And with that he struck her on the right eye, and she couldn’t see him any more; and, what was worse, she was blind on the right side from that hour till the day of her death.
A Cornish version of the tale-type is told in the complex story of Cherry of Zennor, collected by Edwin Sidney Hartland in 1890. Cherry’s journey into the realm of faerie includes travelling through a dark, tunnel-like road, persuaded to do so by a ‘handsome gentleman, or master’, who, when she is ensconced in her new home, persuades her to look after his child (a variation on the theme of midwife). Included in her duties is ensuring a green ointment is applied to the child each day. When she rubs her eyes with the substance: “Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass.” She had, quite literally, gained a new insight into the magical environment she was in. But once the master discovers she has gained the ability to see the faerie occupants of his world, her adventure ends and she is escorted back through the tunnel and left alone on a windswept hillside in consensus reality.
Cherry was spared being blinded, but seems to have suffered instead from mental illness, brought about by her removal from the faerie dimension: “They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.” So even though the blinding motif is absent from this story, the protagonist is still deprived of the ability to see what she had once seen by way of the magical ointment, and suffers from an inability to apprehend things clearly or rationally in her life once returned to the physical world. This might be seen as a modification of the motif, where the fundamental message remains the same – witnessing the metaphysical otherworld of the faeries via forbidden means can lead to physical or mental disabling.
Some Anecdotal Evidence
There are dozens more stories of this type, mostly from Britain; the motifs had evidently been deeply embedded long before the collection and publication of the tales by folklorists. The long gestation period of this folklore allowed for much overlaying of tropes and narrative devices to the stories, and the similarity of these tale-types does suggest a common core in the oral tradition that became regionally dispersed from at least the 13th century, when Gervase of Tilbury gives the first written version. But alongside the structured stories, there are also anecdotal reports of the motifs, which can be more closely tied to specific known people. While there is always a large overlap between narrative faerie folklore and faerie anecdotes, the latter do deepen the perceived reality of the experience beyond that of a structured, plot-driven folktale.
Two such anecdotes were collected by WY Evans-Wentz in the early 20th century, and published in his 1911 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Evans-Wentz was more concerned with collecting testimonies about alleged real encounters with the faeries, than with tried and tested folkloric stories, and although many of the anecdotes related to previous generations, they contain the edge of authenticity that has perhaps become rubbed smooth in some of the more elaborate stories. During his time in Co. Clare, Ireland he recorded the testimony of Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, about a midwife from her grandmother’s generation:
“This country nurse was requested by a strange man on horseback to go with him to exercise her profession; and she went with him to a castle she didn’t know. When the baby was born, every woman in the place where the event happened put her finger in a basin of water and rubbed her eyes, and so the nurse put her finger in and rubbed it on one of her eyes. She went home and thought no more about it. But one day she was at the fair in Grange and saw some of the same women who were in the castle when the baby was born; though, as she noticed, she only could see them with the one eye she had wet with the water from the basin. The nurse spoke to the women, and they wanted. to know how she recognised them; and she, in reply, said it was with the one eye, and asked, ‘How is the baby?’ ‘Well,’ said one of the fairy women; ‘and what eye do you see us with?’ ‘With the left eye,’ answered the nurse. Then the fairy woman blew her breath against the nurse’s left eye, and said, ‘You’ll never see me again.’ And the nurse was always blind in the left eye after that.”
The ointment in this case was the water in the basin, but it clearly had supernal qualities and gave her enhanced vision, and, as in the stories above, this was dealt with by blinding. In the second testimony, from John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey on the Isle of Man, the ointment motif is missing, although the protagonist displayed the ability to see the faeries, and paid a high price:
“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: ‘You’ll never see us again’; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”
Such anecdotal incidents of the theme can be traced back to the late 17th century, most notably in the Rev. Robert Kirk’s 1691 manuscript, that has come to be known as The Secret Commonwealth. Kirk recounts the story of a midwife local to his home in Aberfoyle, Scotland. She was apparently taken from her bed one night by the faeries, who left a stock of her as replacement. After two years she returned home, explaining her absence by insisting she’d been in a faerie otherworld (Kirk usually calls the faeries subterraneans). Kirk states that [modernised spelling]:
“She perceived little what they did in the spacious house she lodged in, until she anointed one of her eyes with a certain unction that was by her. When the subterraneans perceived her to have acquaintance with their actions, they fanned her blind of that eye with a puff of their breath; she found the place full of light without any fountain or lamp from whence it did spring.”
Kirk continued to explain:
“But if any Superterraneans be so subtle as to practise sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their Mysteries (such as making use of their ointments, which makes them invisible or nimble, or casts them in a trance, or alters their shape, or makes things appear at a vast distance, &c.) they smite them without pain as with a puff of wind, and bereave them of both the natural and acquired sights in the twinkling of an eye, or they strike them dumb.”
It is clear that the motifs of gaining access to the faeries’ reality via the use of an ointment, and the potential blinding, or other disabling, for having done so, were firmly fixed in folkloric tradition from an early date. As always with these extended folklore themes, they will be conveying deeper, more fundamental insights into the human condition and the nature of contact with the metaphysical, than may be at first apparent.
Magical Ointments and Altered States of Consciousness
The folkloric stories and anecdotes do not usually state the constituents of the magical ointment; it is simply faerie magic. There are several medieval and Early-Modern treatises that include potential ointment recipes for helping to see the faeries, some including the elusive four-leafed clover, but if it is accepted that transit into an otherworld inhabited by metaphysical entities requires some form of altered state of consciousness, then it may be suggested that the folklore is coded, and that the intrusion into the tales of faerie ointment is a cipher; a metaphor for what is causing the altered state.
The mind-altering salves and unctions discussed by Early-Modern commentators often related to witches and the means to which they acquired the ability to consort with supernatural beings. Typical ingredients included belladonna, henbane bell, jimson weed, black henbane, mandrake, hemlock, and wolfsbane. These plants contain psychotropic components, such as atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which can, at appropriate doses, cause altered states of consciousness, including disassociated out-of-body experiences. This may explain the ability of witches to fly to Sabbats and engage within a metaphysical reality while their physical body was left behind, much in the way a shaman will travel to spiritual realms while their body remains inert. Emma Wilby explores the relationship between Early-Modern witchcraft and shamanism in great detail in her 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, and expands on the frequent trope of witches having familiars during their spiritual journeys, sometimes spirit animals, but just as often faeries, made visible and real to them after the application or consumption of a liquid compound. This concept is (usually) embraced by modern wiccans. The influential wiccan website witcheslore articulates the historic collaboration between witches and faerie familiars:
“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/are often connected and worked well together.”
While this neglects to mention what might bring on the trance state, it seems reasonable to suggest that certain substances have been utilised, historically and in modern times, to invoke a visionary state of consciousness that incorporates metaphysical entities, of which some may be deemed faeries. Writers in the ever-burgeoning psychedelic community are less hesitant in suggesting the possible causes of transit to a state of consciousness where the faeries might be engaged.
Deadbutdreaming has investigated in some detail the modern phenomenon of psychedelic compounds giving access to a state of consciousness where perception of faerie entities can be realised:
And a recent article by Norman Shaw contains some insightful ideas about the possible entheogenic compounds that may be at the root of the folkloric motif of a magical ointment allowing admission to a non-material realm inhabited by metaphysical beings. Especially interesting is the midwife connection:
“Investigating the links between midwives and psychoactive substances leads us to some intriguing clues about what these substances might have been. It is well known that extracts from the fungus ergot, which grows on rye and other grains, had been used by midwives for centuries to speed up contractions in childbirth. Its use was largely discontinued by the end of the 19th century, as its side-effects were deemed too dangerous for medicinal use. It is also well known that ergot contains lysergic acid, from which the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesised LSD in 1938. Hoffmann had been researching ergot’s specifically non-uterotonic medicinal properties when he incidentally spawned his ‘problem child’. Recent research suggests that ancient people from various religious systems and mystery traditions worked with psychoactive preparations of ergot as a vision-inducer, from Egypt to Greece, India and the Middle East.
Ergot was often present in bread, either deliberately or by accident, leading to mass outbreaks of ergotism, the symptoms of which (including hallucinations) were known as the diseases St. Anthony’s Fire and St. Vitus’ Dance, which were relatively common in the Middle Ages. So it seems highly likely that midwives had access to some kind of ointment of ergot for use as a uterotonic, and also for incidental use as an entheogen. Hence the presence of numerous tales of midwives’ Otherworld journeys.”
The folkloric narratives of accidental ointment application may well find their genesis in the possible inadvertent dosing of midwives with ergot, which is active in very small amounts and can be absorbed through skin, or by rubbing it in eyes. The dynamic altered state of consciousness brought about by ergotamines may provide one explanation for the ability of the protagonists in the stories and anecdotes to see and interact with the faeries, while the narrative requirements of the tales simply code the substance as a magical ointment, applied at a relevant point in the story. It is a credible interpretation that might explain the core of the motif, however much it has been overlain with metaphor and allegory in the stories. But what about the blinding motif, which is so often incorporated into the folktales containing use of magical ointment? Why do the two motifs find such conjunction?
The Taboo of the Unseen
The motif of the faeries blinding the people who have been enabled to see them through the use of magical ointment is perhaps an embedded warning in the folklore against the acquisition of occult knowledge. In The Secret Commonwealth Kirk makes a distinction between those who have inherent second sight and those who stumble upon it accidentally. Inherent second sight – allowing precognition as well as perceiving supernatural entities and environs – was a genetic gift (which could also occasionally be learned), and, providing certain respectful modalities were adhered to, those in possession of the gift were regarded with courtesy by the faeries. It was an allowed vision. But acquisition of the gift through an artifice, even if it were accidentally gained, represented a type of deceit; something which invariably invoked the anger of folkloric faeries. The faeries were notoriously jealous of their otherworldly privacy, as explicated by Katherine Briggs:
“From the earliest times the faeries have been noted as secret people. They do not like to be watched, their land must not be trespassed on, their kindnesses must not be boasted of… though faeries are ready to reveal themselves to mortals whom they favour, or whose services they wish to secure, they are quick to resent and revenge any presumption upon that favour.”
Blinding those who infringed upon their hidden otherworld was drastic retribution, but it can also be seen as a symbolic act to prevent further breaches between the physical and metaphysical worlds by those deemed to have attained a shortcut by use of an enabling compound. Gnosis of ordinarily unseen realities could be achieved by certain people under certain conditions, but using an ointment was cheating, and the access it provided had to be curtailed.
This tallies with the burgeoning literature, and online discussion, regarding the means to which gnosis of the non-physical, spiritual world can be achieved. Many commentators suggest that breaking through the barriers to a supernatural realm by means of entheogenic compounds is illegitimate; experiencing different realities and contacting non-terrestrial entities during, say, a DMT trip, is taking a shortcut that will lead to difficulties when a return to consensus reality is compelled. In contrast, practising, for instance, meditation, allows a verified inner control over your state of consciousness and the ability to interact with non-physical forms. But ingesting an external agent, whatever it may be, is forcing the issue, and provides illicit acquisition of knowledge, for which some cosmic punishment may be administered.
The allegorical potency of being blinded allows the folklore to make a powerful point within the narratives. Being deprived of sight is something to be feared, and the ability of the faeries to carry out such an injunction on those deemed to have illegitimately invaded their metaphysical space carries within its motif the warning that supernatural interaction has codes and strictures. This very much fits into the context of shamanism, in all its historic and modern forms. The shaman is a special individual, able to negotiate pathways into radical altered states of consciousness, where non-corporeal entities might be encountered. The shaman achieves this through a variety of means, including the consumption of psychotropic compounds, always within a ritual setting. It can be a dangerous undertaking and may inflict damage on the unwary attempting to simulate the shamanic journey through the use of mind and vision enhancing substances. While modern psychonauts reporting difficulties after returning from a psychedelic-induced trip into metaphysical worlds rarely (if ever) suffer any type of ocular blindness, there can be mental health repercussions (as per Cherry of Zennor). This may be seen as analogous to a loss of clarity; the blindness has found other forms in which to manifest.
But the faeries of folklore did not always perpetrate full physical blinding on the protagonists. Many of the tales end with the denouement of partial blinding, most often in order to prevent further perception of the otherworld, rather than inflicting total visual loss. This dilutes the vindictiveness of the faeries somewhat, and strengthens the contention that the tales and anecdotes developed as a specific admonition about respecting the thaumaturgic essence of a metaphysical reality. The faeries inhabit their own space, and whether it is a standalone reality external to our 3D world or a territory deeply embedded in human collective consciousness, incursion into it is conditional on certain conventions and regulations. If they are not adhered to, a forfeiture will be sanctioned.
A reversal of the themes discussed can be found in partially blind people with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, who sometimes acquire the ability to perceive faerie-like entities within their visual range. This phenomenon is discussed in a previous interview-article here.
The cover image is ‘You Were Dead’ by Ylenia Viola, whose cosmic artwork can be found at FairyTalesNeverDie. Thanks to Ylenia for allowing her images to be used for this article.
The faeries mean different things to different people. There is a great range in their taxonomy; they can be the archetypal characters found in faerie tales, folkloric entities existing in a liminal reality, animistic nature spirits responsible for the propagation of flora, and a host of culturally-coded modern beings, including, but not limited to, extraterrestrials and certain creatures that can manifest during altered states of consciousness. Despite the 20th-century Disneyfication of the faeries, they have retained many of their traditional ontologies, which has allowed their incorporation into some new interpretations about their authenticity as a phenomenon – as both a fossilised folk belief system, and as a potential dynamic epistemological reality in contemporary culture.
The faeries are a global phenomenon, and while there are many and various geographic types, there is a consistency in the taxonomic nature of these otherworldly entities. The Aarne-Thompson index of folk literature lists nearly 500 motifs related to faeries from all over the world, which can be augmented by subsequent folktale indices from culture areas not covered by the Aarne-Thompson index (most specifically in the 2004 enlargement of the index by Hans-Jörg Uther to include more international tale-types), perhaps doubling the number of motifs. All of these motifs recognise the faeries as a distinct (though widely varied) class of metaphysical being – a class that appears to have been interacting (through folklore and via an apparent supernatural agency) with human societies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The following analyses concentrate on British and European faerie types, in an effort to get under the skin of why their supernal presence has been so ubiquitous in history and why they appear to be still in attendance in Western culture. This is a difficult task; the faeries are elusive and hard to pin down. They always seem to be at the periphery of cultural vision, only disclosing themselves when conditions are right and when we are willing to accept them at an intellectual, metaphysical, spiritual or empathetic level. They certainly exist as a concept, but are they allegorical devices, useful folktale plot characters, the essence of nature, or supernatural entities? Maybe they are all these and more, but we’ll begin with an examination of their place in traditional faerie tales, where usually the meanings and morals of the stories are more important than the faeries themselves.
In fact, many faerie tales don’t seem to have any faeries in them at all. The extensive collection of faerie tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century contain over 200 individual stories, but only just over half of them contain recognisable faeries as part of the plot. The term ‘faerie’, as often as not, was simply a referral to
various supernatural elements in the story. So some of the most famous of the Grimms’ faerie tales such as Rapunzel and The Golden Bird include witches and therianthropic shape-shifters, which may bring the stories into the faerie-orbit, but they do not incorporate any folkloric faerie characters. Conversely, perhaps the most famous of all faerie tales, Cinderella, was updated by the Grimms to include a ‘faerie godmother’ as a crucial part of the plotline, where their earlier sources were more ambivalent about the nature of this supernatural entity.
But faerie tales are always more than the sum of their parts. Whether or not there are recognisable faeries present in the plot, the stories invariably contain allegorical meanings, which usually include supernatural elements to give them a timeless and transcendent quality, which opens them up to a wide range of interpretations. One of the first scholars to apply an interpretative rubric to faerie tales was Edwin Sidney Hartland in his 1891 book The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. He drew on a global corpus of faerie tales, most significantly the widespread stories of ‘Swan Maidens’, in an attempt to assess what they were attempting to convey about the nature of the human condition. While some of Hartland’s 19th-century conclusions can seem eye-wateringly colonialist to a modern reader (he presumed non-European stories of this type ‘degenerate and savage, relics of degraded primitive races’) he was attempting to see beyond the story and into the meaning, something that had not been attempted before. He interpreted the Swan Maiden stories (where a female swan transforms into a human, marries a man, who then breaks a taboo thereby releasing her back to her natural – or supernatural – element where she is lost to him) as didactic tales, informing the listener/reader about the pitfalls of wishing for something beyond your station, and that codes and conventions must be adhered to, otherwise there will be negative consequences. This was new thinking in the 19th century; a realisation that the tales contained some deep-set wisdom and could be used as tools for cultural and psychological cultivation and learning. This was always an implicit aspect of faerie tales, and one of the reasons why the stories have endured over the centuries. Before their collection and dissemination in literary form from the 18th century they would have been transmitted as an oral tradition, and their longevity in this form is probably in large part due to the fact they held embodied wisdom and coded sapience.
One method that has been used to break down the code and extract the wisdom is Jungian analysis. Carl Jung (1875-1961) initiated the premise that, like the content of dreams, aspects of faerie tales are designed to reveal cosmic truths, often taking the form of archetypes, which reside in a Collective Unconscious and are made available to humans when distilled through stories that have taken form over centuries. One of the primary adherents to Jung’s psychoanalytical application to faerie tales was Marie-Louise von Franz (1915-1998) who collaborated with him and then after his death, took the processes he had developed much further by employing interpretations of the stories’ archetypes in a systematic way, covering a wide range of faerie tales in her extensive published works. Her analytical methodologies have been cultivated further by a range of psychologists, writers and folklorists in an attempt to extricate deeper meaning from the tales. The psychologist and Jungian scholar John Betts describes the approach:
“Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes. Therefore their value for the scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds that of all other material. They represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest, and most concise form. In myths or legends, or any other more elaborate mythological material, we get at the basic patterns of the human psyche through an overlay of cultural material. But in fairy tales there is much less specific conscious material, and therefore they mirror the basic patterns of the psyche more clearly.”
Archetypes are central to this interpretative approach, where the faerie tale characters are manifestations of implicate humanity. So archetypes such as the hero, the great mother, the trickster, the fair maiden are found consistently in the stories, playing out roles that mean more than what they have been reduced to in the plotlines. These archetypes are especially prevalent in the corpus of medieval Arthurian stories, where the faeries incorporated into the narratives (such as Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake) are always supernatural arbiters of wisdom, alchemy and power. They are representatives of a greater metaphysical reality, who infringe upon the chivalric plot devices to provide a cosmic quality to the stories.
Particularly interesting are the applications of the anima/animus archetypes to faerie tales. These are easily spotted in stories about faerie brides, such as the ‘Swan Maidens’ or ‘Lake Faeries’ where the otherworldly female faeries are representative of a supernal feminine ideal, made into one with their mortal husband, before their inevitable separation. These stories are most often about how a man needs to find and understand his inner feminine, with the intrinsic warning that certain actions will destroy that understanding.
The animus counter of this can be found in the intriguing story Cherry of Zennor, a Cornish faerie tale collected by the folklorist Robert Hunt in 1865. Cherry is the fair maiden who finds herself lured into faerieland by a handsome gentleman (her animus) where she encounters a series of archetypal characters, including the innocent child, and the great mother (here playing a malevolent role). She breaks a taboo (this a symbol rather than an archetype) of using ointment that enables her to see the female faeries who her gentleman has been dallying with, and thus loses him and is returned to consensus reality on a windswept hillside. This story had evidently been passed down orally through generations before Hunt committed it to the folkloric record, and for the most part it was probably just seen as an entertaining story, set at some indefinite (but recognisable) place in the past. It may even have been recounting an actual incident, transformed into a plot-driven story over time. But overlaying a Jungian analysis allows us to see that there is a reason why it survived – it was conveying, with the use of archetypes, fundamental aspects of the human condition. There is, as in all faerie tales, a cosmic quality to the inherent parts of the story.
Cherry of Zennor is also interesting in that it incorporates, as an essential part of the story, otherworldy, supernatural entities that are recognisable as folkloric faeries. As previously discussed, this is not always the case with faerie tales, and this becomes an important distinction to make when assessing the taxonomy of the faeries. Stories like Cherry of Zennor are in some ways a ‘crossover’ between traditional faerie tales and folklore – where the boundaries are often indistinct and tenebrous. This grey area is where the allegorical nature of faerie tales becomes remodelled into the magical realism of folklore.
The differences between faerie tales and faerie folklore are indeed subtle, with a big overlap. But once the archetypes and allegories are dropped we usually find that most of the faerie folklore becomes anecdotal in nature – there might be a basic plotline but the stories are brought into a sharper, more realistic focus by them being presented as real incidents, recognisable to the end user of the tale. And in so doing, the folklore is more successful in portraying the faeries as a distinct class of beings, discernible as a specific metaphysical taxonomic, who interact with humanity in a particular way. They take many folkloric forms, but the consumer of the testimonies is never in doubt that these are the supernatural entities known as the faeries.
Here’s one such testimony from 1862, recounted by Janet Bord in her 1997 book Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People. David Evans and Evan Lewis 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.”
This fits into the common folktale motif of faeries dancing in a circle (Aarne-Thompson F261) and is in many ways typical of testimonies recounting folkloric faeries. There is no story, no plot; it is simply an anecdote of a strange encounter, where the word of the observer is all we have to go on. In his 2005 book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, Graham Hancock uses this example among other similar scenarios from the folkloric record to discuss this particular aspect of alleged faerie behaviour: “I realise we may not even have begun to understand what is going on with the phenomenon known as the faerie 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.”
However, while wanting to take the testimony at face value – and apply an interpretation onto it – Hancock accepts that the hermeneutic understanding of these folkloric anecdotes is problematic. While such anecdotes have not been overlain with the tiers of allegorical storytelling found in faerie tales, they are always subjective. The encounters cannot be repeated under experimental conditions – they are spontaneous incidents, recorded from the memory of the witness (the fact that in the above example two witnesses reported the same phenomenon does strengthen the veracity of the report). And this is how most of faerie folklore is constructed. From a scientific point of view the authenticity of the testimonies is unprovable and can be safely relegated to a folk belief system that plays no part in a modern materialist/reductionist worldview. It is a scientific outlook that is applied to anecdotal evidence of all types of phenomena, where if an incident is not repeatable then it lacks any verifiable reality. This attitude (termed physicalism by the philosopher Bernardo Kastrup), however, denies the evident reality that almost every aspect of human experience is comprised of a series of anecdotes, and that a prima facie rejection of the evidence of subjective observation, from wherever it comes, is not a viable way to understand a phenomenon, especially non-ordinary phenomena such as encounters with metaphysical entities.
And there is certainly a heavy dataset of subjective evidence contained in the folklore record when it comes to faerie encounters. This stretches back in the literature to the medieval period where English chroniclers such as Ralph de Coggeshall, Walter Map and William de Newburgh, writing in the later part of the 12th century, routinely related ‘marvels’ as related to them from a range of sources. The most well-known is the story of ‘The Green Children’, recorded by both Coggeshall and Newburgh, where two mysterious children turn up in the Suffolk village of Woolpit via a cave, apparently from an otherworld: “where all the inhabitants had green skin, ate only green food, and that there was perpetual twilight. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant… and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
But this strange story is rather atypical of the usual short anecdotes about faeries recorded by the chroniclers. A more typical example is given by Newburgh, who recounts a story told to him by ‘a reliable person’, where a somewhat inebriated horseman comes upon a prehistoric burial mound (somewhere in Yorkshire) at night only to be drawn into it via an opening, where he finds a band of faeries in the midst of a revel. He joins in, but when handed a silver goblet to drink from he remembers the warnings against consuming faerie food or drink (evidently a well-established tradition as early as the 12th century), and threw out the contents before making off with the goblet. Interestingly, the goblet was said to have eventually made its way to the household of King Henry I, where it circulated as a curiosity among his court.
Such literary records of folkloric faeries are almost certainly only a fragment of the oral tradition that would have been transmitting these tales through the medieval period and beyond. Just as the more formulaic faerie tales began to be collected and indexed from the 18th century, so too was the anecdotal folklore. The folklorists doing the collecting and recording often amalgamated the two into single volumes, without making a distinct differentiation. But by the late 19th century anecdotal faerie folklore became better recognised as a specific genre in and of itself. A prime example of the collection and publication of a broad-spectrum of this type of narrative faerie folklore can be found in WY Evans-Wentz’s 1911 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. This classic study was based on Evans-Wentz’s three-year journey around Britain, Ireland and Brittany, where he collected a vast corpus of folklore from mostly rural countryfolk, at a time when belief in the faeries was still embedded in the (Celtic) culture. The lore he assembled covered an eclectic range of accounts, sometimes first-hand and sometimes passed down from previous generations. But most of them were simple anecdotes relayed by people who believed in the reality of the faeries, whatever that might entail. Typical of many of the testimonies given to Evans-Wentz was this one from John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey on the Isle of Man:
“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: “You’ll never see us again”; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”
This particular example plugs into the common motif (Aarne-Thompson motif F362.1) of being blinded (or partially blinded) by the faeries as a means to prevent the mortal in question being able to see them. He came across the motif again in Ireland, where Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, Co, Clare, gave testimony about a midwife from her grandmother’s generation:
“This country nurse was requested by a strange man on horseback to go with him to exercise her profession; and she went with him to a castle she didn’t know. When the baby was born, every woman in the place where the event happened put her finger in a basin of water and rubbed her eyes, and so the nurse put her finger in and rubbed it on one of her eyes. She went home and thought no more about it. But one day she was at the fair in Grange and saw some of the same women who were in the castle when the baby was born; though, as she noticed, she only could see them with the one eye she had wet with the water from the basin. The nurse spoke to the women, and they wanted. to know how she recognised them; and she, in reply, said it was with the one eye, and asked, ‘How is the baby?’ ‘Well,’ said one of the fairy women; ‘and what eye do you see us with?’ ‘With the left eye,’ answered the nurse. Then the fairy woman blew her breath against the nurse’s left eye, and said, ‘You’ll never see me again.’ And the nurse was always blind in the left eye after that.”
Evans-Wentz also found evidence from all the locations he visited that the faeries were often thought of as dead ancestors. 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.”
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.”
Further study of Evans-Wentz’s collection demonstrates that many of the motifs later coded in the Aarne-Thompson index seem to have been regularly played out in the anecdotal testimonies given to him by his interviewees. This makes the hermeneutics of these narratives difficult to unravel. As with much of the faerie folklore collected in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is almost impossible to get under the skin of what is real eye-witness testimony recounting something that happened, and how much overlay has been placed on the stories by socio-cultural belief systems. There is evidently a belief in the genuine existence of supernatural entities interacting with humanity, but what is the ratio of received wisdom to actuality? This is an important qualifier for all folklore, and something that Evans-Wentz was well aware of in his assessment of the testimonies he had collected. We’ll come back to this significant point in the discussions below, on ‘modern faeries’ and ‘the faeries as nature spirits.’
One recent publication that has grappled with the question of the role and reality of folkloric faeries is Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500AD to the Present, which distills, in great detail, the wealth of evidence that goes to make up the folkloric and historical archive of human-faerie encounters. Despite the title of the book, the remit extends to the Americas, and Simon Young’s chapter on the faeries of the Atlantic coast of Canada is particularly illuminating. He points out that Newfoundland has been a particular melting pot for faerie folklore, probably attributed in part to its colonisation by populations of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century, who brought with them a deeply embedded belief in, and understanding of, the faeries. Young recounts one anecdote from 1900, where a newspaper reported a man being ‘carried away by the fairies’ in the capital city of St John’s. The report described the man as being ‘subject to extraordinary hallucinations’ but that he was also ‘a steady, sober and industrious man’, and then added that he had previously taken been taken by the faeries ‘through bogs, marshes, rivers and heavy woods’ until he was found in an exhausted state. This sounds like a person who his ancestors would have described as having second-sight or clairvoyance; another important element in faerie encounters that will be explored further below.
Young is able to apply a three-level ‘barometer’ to the large number of faerie encounters transmitted in Newfoundland folklore, a gauge that might easily be applied to European testimonies as well, from the medieval period through to the 21st century, and is a good summation of how the faeries usually fit into anecdotal narratives:
“Level one is that of sensing fairies: fairies are seen dancing, fairies are heard playing music, we even have one case where fairies are smelt. Level two is low level interaction without lasting consequences for humans. Here the witness might be misled or their horse might be rode by the fairies at night or the fairies might steal food. The third level is intense interaction with fairies, with lasting consequences for any humans involved. This interaction includes, humans marrying fairies, humans being kidnapped or ‘changed’, magical contracts in which fairies give a sorcerer’s powers to humans, or servile relations in which fairies do farm or house work.”
Another interesting theme through the book is how the evidence of place-names demonstrates how deeply ingrained into the socio-cultural consciousness were the faeries. Particularly interesting is the large number of Pūca place-names recorded throughout England and Wales. Puck became the trickster in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but his ontological history goes much further back than the 16th century, and he might be seen as a representative type of faerie, prone to leading people astray, particularly in marshy areas, where he might appear as a light, sometimes interpreted as an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. Francesca Bihet discusses the French version of the name used in the Channel Islands: pouques, and their intimate connection to prehistoric megalithic structures pouquelayes, where faerie activity was often reported. ‘Hob’ was another faerie name fossilised into the landscape. Richard Sugg describes the Yorkshire faerie place-names: “This was a world in which the numerous fairy place names (from Hobcross Hill and Hob Holes, through various Hob Lanes, to Sheffield’s Grymelands and Kexborough’s Scrat Hough Wood) were much more than pretty folklore. The fairies really were there beneath your feet.” And Simon Young identifies 32 verifiable faerie place-names in Cumbria: “These 32 are precious because they give us some sense of how Cumbrian fairies were imagined, not by the folklore professionals, but by local people. There is nothing as democratic as a place-name.”
This faerie folklore is interesting in its own right as cultural history. There is a vast archive of centuries-long testimony from people who claim to have interacted with entities that are not normally recognised as part of consensus reality. These interactions have not been wrapped up in allegorical faerie tales, but have instead formed their own corpus; the interacting faeries have their own taxonomy. The folkloric faeries have definitely been perceived as real by generations of people, but modern (physicalist) sensibilities are constrained to view the stories as either hallucinations, misrepresentations of natural phenomena, tales told by and for uneducated and gullible people, magical wishful thinking, descriptions of dreams, plain mumbo-jumbo, or a combination of the above. But fortunately the faeries are not consigned to a folkloric past – their metaphysical presence appears to be alive and well in contemporary culture, and even experiencing a resurgence of interest, as some modern philosophical and scientific hypotheses (see the final section below) have begun to question the fundamental nature of reality and our understanding of it. These new views of reality may just be allowing the types of beings found in faerie folklore to gravitate back into our cosmological perspective.
Experience reports of faerie encounters are certainly not limited to the folkloric past. The taxonomic continues to the present day, often morphing into new typologies, but still recognisable as faeries. Like the faeries who appear in folklore, most modern types find their way into public consciousness via anecdotal testimonies – they are subjective experiences, reliant on the honesty, memory and reliability of the person making the report. But there are lots of them, and such a large testimonial dataset must smooth out the statistical spikes of the hermeneutical issues somewhat; the experienced phenomenon has to have, at the very least, some kind of conceptual metaphysical reality.
One such dataset was registered in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, first published in English in 2014. 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, mostly from the 20th century. 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 remain 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, and are occasionally described as the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention (which were then codified as Tinkerbell in JM Barrie’s 1904 play and 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, before becoming a Disney icon). An example of the type of report included in Johnson’s volume (slightly abbreviated) is from a Mr Hugh Sheridan, whose encounter was in Ballyboughal, Co. Dublin, Ireland, in 1953. He was walking across fields between his workplace and home at dusk:
“… and when nearing the corner of one of the fields I heard a tittering noise. At first I thought it was some of the other men who had gone on before me and who might be intending to play some prank. However, I noticed immediately afterwards what looked like a large, greenish tarpaulin on the ground, with thousands of faeries on it. I then found there were a lot more around me. They were of two sizes, some about four feet high, and others about eighteen or twenty inches high. Except for size, both kinds were exactly alike. They wore dark, bluish-grey coats, tight at the waist and flared at the hips, with a sort of shoulder cape… the covering of their legs was tight, rather like puttees, and they appeared to be wearing shoes. I started on the path towards home, and the faeries went with me in front and all around. The largest faeries kept nearest to me. The ones in front kept skipping backwards as they went, and their feet appeared to be touching the ground. There were males and females, all seemingly in their early twenties. They had very pleasant faces, with plumper cheeks than those of humans, and the men’s faces were devoid of hair or whiskers… None of the faeries had wings. They tried to get me off the path towards a gateway leading from the field, but just before I reached it I realised they were trying to take me away, so I resisted and turned towards the path again. [After slipping into, and getting out of a dry a ditch, still surrounded by the faeries] I moved towards home with the faeries round me, and they kept the tittering noise all the time. In the end I got to a plank leading across a ditch from one field to another, and suddenly all the faeries went away. They seemed to go back with the noise gradually fading. At one time I had reached out my arms to try to catch them, but I cannot be sure whether they skipped back just out of reach, or whether my hands passed through them without feeling anything. They were smiling and pleasant all the time, and I could see their eyes watching me. When I got home, I found I was about three-quarters of an hour late, but I thought I had been delayed only a few minutes. While the faeries were with me, I had the rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid. I would very much like to meet them again.”
This testimony includes several traditional folkloric motifs, including attempted abduction and an unexplained lapse of time, and would fit in with anecdotes from the previous century. The faeries are diminutive humanoids, interacting with a person in what appears to be an altered state of consciousness. Johnson’s volume contains many similar experiences, but it has been updated recently by a new census into faerie sightings conducted by Simon Young and The Fairy Investigation Society. It includes c.500 reports from all over the world, although the majority are from Britain, Ireland and North America. While Johnson’s survey was restricted to mostly cases from the mid 20th century, the new census (published as a free downloadable document in January 2018) contains encounters from the 1960s (with a few predating this) through to the present day, with the majority post-1980. In the introduction to the census, Simon Young explains how the publication takes a different tack to Johnson’s work: “Marjorie Johnson wanted to prove that fairies exist. I do not have this ambition. I, instead, want to get a better understanding of who sees fairies and under what circumstances by looking at the stories and the sightings.” And while contributors to the census were given the opportunity to state what they thought their experiences represented, there is no editorial evaluation into the sightings. This analytical but interpretation-free approach allows the reader to reach their own conclusions about the anecdotal accounts, and provides us with a large dataset of faerie encounters that appear to be authentic appraisals of numinous experiences, which (for the most part, and depending on the honesty of the reporter) defy rational, reductionist/physicalist explanations.
The census contains a wide range of encounter types, and needs to be read in full to understand the broad phenomenology contained in the data. The people making the reports represent a wide social cross-section and, as in Johnson’s study, while some acknowledge a previous interest in parapsychological phenomenon, most of the respondents are simply reporting a one-off experience that appears to involve faerie entities. Here are two examples from the census, which give a flavour of what were evidently numinous experiences for the people involved. The first is from Hampshire, England by a male who at the time of the sighting was in his 50s (all the census entries are anonymous):
§57 “It was a late Summer’s day in 2007, and we had been walking the dog back through woodland at Chilworth. We were in a clearing, when I spotted what looked like a tree rushing across fields towards us, and as it crossed the path before us into the next field, I could see there was a friendly, smiling face in the bark. We both had the same experience and described it to each other the same way. It was about ten feet tall. The dog stopped and looked up at it too.”
The respondent also added to the report their own feelings during the experience: “joyful… relaxed, on a walk; loss of sense of time, profound silence before the experience, hair prickling or tingling before or during the experience, and a sense that the experience was a display put on specially for you; unusually vivid memories of the experience.” There are several themes here that correspond with many faerie encounters: the relaxed mindset of the experiencer, the sense of time slippage, and the surreal incident involving an apparently supernatural entity, all of which combined to produce a particularly lucid memory.
The second example is from Somerset, England, and was described by a female in her twenties. The experience happened during the 1990s:
§114 “Friends had gone ahead and I straggled behind. As I turned a corner, it was misty. The mist had a weird glow. As I walked into the low mist there was a procession. Around three feet tall. With lanterns! But in the mist, I paused and they saw me. They came forward and I waited for them to pass. They passed. I have never taken drugs and was not on any alcohol. This was the weirdest experience. It lasted three to five minutes. By [the] time I got back to cottage my friends were concerned as I was away for around forty-five minutes! Very strange. They looked medieval in dress. But their clothes were covered by the mist at times.”
As per the first report, the respondent also reported that there was a profound silence before the experience, and that her hair was prickling or tingling before and during the event. She also suggested that there was a sense that the experience marked a turning point in her life. These experiences demonstrate that, just as in historic folkloric anecdotes, the faeries can take many forms, and their appearance may have as much to do with the unique awareness of the individual human consciousness as to an objective reality. But any objective absolute must be filtered through through a subjective lens, and although there is an extensive spectrum of entities reported in the census, there is a commonality of experience; it does appear the beings described are of a generic taxonomy – they are faeries.
This generic quality gets pushed to the limit when we attempt to incorporate into the taxonomy two other possible manifestations of modern faeries; that is the entities encountered by people while under the influence of psychedelics, and (perhaps even more controversially) aliens. The faerie-types experienced by people who have altered their states of consciousness with a range of psychedelics has been explored in some detail in previous posts:
These investigations point out there is a clear correlation between the faerie-like creatures that turn up during psychedelic episodes (most especially with the compound N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)) and the faeries reported in folklore and modern encounters. Some of the best clinical evidence for these correlations remains the research study conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman, which found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent physical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she called ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not a hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy. The results of the study were published as DMT: The Spirit Molecule in 2001.
The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. There is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants.
There are dozens of recorded experiences from the study, and the participants are all engaging in a non-physical reality directly with their consciousness, seemingly separated from their physical selfs. Some of the experiences agree in type to certain aspects of the faerie phenomenon. But what the research demonstrates is that under the right conditions, human consciousness can operate within a distinct and separate universe inhabited by a range of apparently autonomous entities. These entities may be one and the same as the metaphysical beings recorded in folklore and modern faerie encounter anecdotes, by people who were describing the beings encountered during various types of altered states of consciousness, brought on either actively or passively.
Since c.2010 there has been a quickly-growing literature devoted to the faerie-types appearing in the DMT-world, and however uncomfortable it may be for people who have not taken the psychedelic to accept any authenticity in the accounts, the consistency of the experience reports should make us take notice and accept them as a dataset worthy of analysis. While it may seem a stretch to equate folkloric or modern faerie encounters with the entities that turn up in a chemically-induced reality, the data insinuates very strongly that there is a parallel equivalence, which needs to be taken seriously.
Perhaps even more difficult to accept is the relationship between certain types of faerie behaviour and the modern phenomenon of alien abduction. Again, this has been considered in previous posts:
The first person to suggest a definitive link between the the reports of faerie experiences and alien encounters was the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée. In his 1969 book Passport to Magonia he put forward the theory that the faeries were one and the same as the alien beings who had been purportedly abducting people around the world for a couple of decades by that date. His hypothesis is that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore. He suggests the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. He makes special reference to the regular motif in faerie folklore of the abduction, by various means, of humans by faeries. There’s a lot of data here – it’s the commonest motif in faerie folklore, and continues to be reported in anecdotal testimonies. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to an alternative faerie reality, either as midwives or nurses for faerie children, as servants to the faeries, for sex, as punishment or reward, or just because the faeries feel like it. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the consistently strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s.
In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock expanded on Vallée’s data to investigate the close links between folkloric faeries and alien abduction cases. By 2005 the abduction phenomenon contained a massive amount of testimonies, perhaps as many as a million reports, and a large percentage of them bear a striking resemblance to aspects of faerie abductions from folklore. This is especially noticeable in the cases/tales of hybrids/changelings where both the faeries and the aliens seem intent on improving their species’ pedigree with humans. Hancock writes: “We can say that the focus of this evolving experience in all the forms in which it is documented – whether spirits, fairies or aliens – has been on sexual and reproductive contact between supernatural races and humans, and on the creation of hybrid offspring to ‘strengthen the stock’ of the supernaturals.”
This theme has been examined in great detail by Joshua Cutchin in his 2018 book Thieves in the Night: A Brief History of Supernatural Child Abductions. He examines the folkloric changeling stories in relation to alien abductions (concentrating on child abductions) and makes the case for some form of continuity: “… there is a strong thread of commonality running through the phenomena, which may identify the perpetrating entities as coming from the same source… The parallels between aliens and faeries are remarkable and extend deeply into the lore surrounding paranormal child abduction. The means and motivations behind both phenomena imply a shared ontological reality…”
But this source, or ontological reality, remains a problem. Is it metaphysical, psychological, cultural, a currently unknown aspect of physical reality, or an admixture of all these? We’ll come back to this question, but first, there is one more faerie taxonomy that needs to be discussed as it is one that fills up a lot of space in the literature, and has perhaps become the preeminent modern interpretation of what the faeries might really represent.
In the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, the most common interpretation among the respondents as to what their encountered entities represented was that they were some form of nature spirit. This was especially the case when the experience happened in a natural environment. The faeries in this guise appear as an embodied morphogenetic force in nature, ensuring the propagation of vegetation. Their metaphysical input is as important as physical needs in the environment. It is interesting that many of the respondents seemed to feel this intuitively, even when they had no knowledge of the historic precedences of incorporating faeries into the dynamic life-forces of nature.
There is, indeed, a long tradition of the faeries representing the non-material forces of nature, essential to its propagation. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) developed an epistemology of these beings, describing the spirits connected to all parts of the natural world, both living and inanimate. He took much of this from ancient Greek beliefs in the deification of the landscape, but developed a new, tightly-coded typology of elementals. In effect, his concept was close to what we might describe as Animism, which has been defined as the belief that a spiritual consciousness pervades everything and that there is no separation between matter and the energy of spirit. This allows incorporeal beings such as nature spirits into a worldview, manifesting as metaphysical representatives of the physical world. Animism is the preeminent belief system in indigenous cultures and may be seen as the original global proto-religion from which all other orthodoxies developed. Its residue can be traced through Christian Europe, where a belief in non-canon supernatural entities persisted under the radar throughout the medieval and Early-Modern periods, showing up most clearly in the records of witch trials and ecclesiastical tracts that attempted to root it out. Indeed, Paracelsus was on quite thin ice in his promotion of such animistic concepts, and he twice had to refute allegations (though never made formally in an ecclesiastical court) of sorcery. His elemental nature spirits would have been simply designated as demons by the Church, and he had to couch his terms carefully, always ensuring in his writing that what he was describing was the work of God.
WY Evans-Wentz touched on the possibility that the Celtic belief in faeries was a form of implicit Animism, but it was primarily through the Theosophist movement (from the late 19th century) that the concept of a metaphysical realm responsible for the wellbeing of the natural world gained a wider understanding. One of the prime-disseminators of the nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals and with no reference to Animism) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. This was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:
“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, ‘Perception of the Elemental World’ (1913).
Steiner goes on to describe the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world when perceived clairvoyantly in what he calls the Supersensible World. The elementals in the Supersensible World exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of vegetation. Steiner (basing his epistemology on that of Paracelsus) divides these into four main types corresponding to earth (Gnomic), water (Undines), air (Sylphs) and heat/light (Salamanders). This is the faerie realm recognised as a domain of nature spirits, existing as a non-material autonomous reality that crosses over with ours, and which can be accessed via a clairvoyant altered state of consciousness. Steiner thought everyone has this innate ability, but they had to be taught how to use it, as it had somehow become almost forgotten amongst humanity.
But Steiner’s vision of the faeries as nature spirits has found many adherents in modern times, and a brief perusal of recent literature and websites devoted to the faeries seems to confirm that a majority of people interacting with these entities do so using some form of clairvoyant ability, and that when they do, the faeries are nature spirits. A good example is Marko Pogačnik, a Slovenian artist and ‘earth healer’, who travels the world to connect with the nature spirits, in order to communicate with them and heal damaged landscapes. His overview of how he works with the intelligence in nature is best found in his 1996 publication Nature Spirits and Elemental Beings, where he describes tuning into the morphogenetic fields surrounding landscapes and individual components within them. One of the ways he heals these landscapes is through what he calls lithopuncture, art installations of standing stones, meant to act upon the earth in the same way as acupuncture works on the human (or animal) body. This links us clearly to prehistoric morphological designs, such as stone circles and rows. Marko suggests that our prehistoric ancestors were full-time collaborators with the nature spirits, and were using their own lithopuncture partly to induce harmony and regulation to their surrounding environments. Post-industrial ignorance of the invisible intelligence in nature has created a disconnection with natural landscapes, much to the detriment of all life and the earth’s biosphere itself:
“The rational scientific paradigm has, during the last two centuries, imposed upon humanity a pattern of ignorance towards those beings and dimensions of life that do not know physical appearance and yet are inevitable for life processes to run and to evolve. My effort as an artist and a human being is to get intimate experience of those invisible dimensions and beings, and share the experience and knowledge about the invisible worlds of Earth and Universe with my fellow human beings to change that extremely dangerous pattern that ignores the sources of life itself.”
Pogačnik’s meditative clairvoyance penetrates the materiality of nature and sees what is happening at a metaphysical level; a level where the elementals appear in a vast variety of forms, but usually adhering to the general forms outlined by Steiner. Pogačnik’s incisive, easy and honest style of description allows for a deep insight into the cosmic reality of the mechanisms of interaction with these faerie nature spirits. He describes how seemingly innocuous changes to the natural environment can cause a potentially negative impact on the elementals who constitute the metaphysical aspect of that environment. His natural clairvoyant abilities enable him to contact the faeries and to resolve issues with them – even something as simple as moving a compost heap in a garden might force the elemental inhabiters of the compost to an unfamiliar environment, where they might cause mischief as a reaction to their perceived persecution. He suggests that these beings of a different order are unable to follow our rationalised thinking: “Their consciousness works on the emotional level. They think the way we feel, and the opposite is also true: our mental level is like a foreign language to them.”
Like Steiner, Pogačnik suggests that all humans have the congenital ability to enter a state of consciousness that will allow interaction with the nature spirits, but that this requires a lowering of the mental threshold. If we want faerie interaction our ingrained reductionist belief system needs to be dissolved or suppressed, and we must enter a meditative state, free from the usual intrusions of normal rational thinking. Perhaps one reason why it is children who so often see and interact with faeries is that this rationality is as yet not fully formed and ingrained; their consciousness is simply more able and prone to slip into a daydream state, where there is less separation between the physical and the metaphysical.
Human Consciousness and the Faeries
And this brings us back to the root of faerie epistemology. How have they managed to survive for so long as a recognisable taxonomy, apparently able to evolve between allegoric archetypes, folkloric characters, and metaphysical entities ranging from aliens to nature spirits? While there may, initially, seem little similarity in their archetypal manifestations in faerie tales and the creatures encountered in an altered state of consciousness brought about by the consumption of DMT or through clairvoyance, they may in fact be coming from the same place. This place is evidently reliant on human consciousness, but consciousness that is removed from the everyday consensus reality. A Jungian analyst would describe the archetypal characters found in faerie tales as real representatives of human consciousness – they are aspects of ourselves that can be accessed at a transpersonal level through the stories. A DMT-advocate might also describe the entities encountered in an altered state as exemplars of our awareness operating at an enhanced level, where exist entities that are not able to interact with us in our usual reduced state, perhaps correlating with the testimonies of folklore, where people’s perception of reality had been altered, albeit in a less radical fashion. A Theosophist might suggest that being able to enter a meditative state and lower the mental threshold allows a connection with both archetypal concepts and metaphysical beings operating within the environment, and that in fact they may be (almost) one and the same thing. But how can this be rationalised? How can we incorporate these concepts into theoretical frameworks that may explain the longevity of the faeries?
A materialist/reductionist would suggest that this cannot be done, because any perception of faeries is not viable as it operates outside of the known reality based on well-established laws of physics. But there is currently much subversiveness to this traditional viewpoint in science and philosophy, and we can perhaps apply two new (although they are both based on older concepts) theoretical approaches, which may help explain why the faeries (along with a range of other parapsychological phenomena) may be allowed back into our worldview.
Idealism. Idealism is a philosophical theory first posited by George Berkeley (1685-1753) and expanded upon by Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) and other German philosophers of the 19th century such as GWF Hegel (1770-1831) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). They were all codifying ideas initially expressed by Plato, and (unbeknown to them) were channeling concepts deeply embedded in Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophical/spiritual traditions. While attacked and relegated to the philosophical fringes in the West during the late 19th and 20th centuries, the theory of idealism has recently been revived and reinvented as a legitimate conceptual framework by a number of philosophers and theoretical physicists, among them Bernardo Kastrup and Amit Goswami. Kastrup has applied an interdisciplinary methodology and worked with a number of quantum physicists to theorise that the tenets of idealism are the best explanation for how reality works, as opposed to any materialist explanation, which supposes that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The basic tenets are that Mind (not the material brain) is the ontological primitive, making material reality a product of consciousness, not the other way round. There is a single universal consciousness and we are sub-sets of it. Without it or us, there is no physical reality. The theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) expressed this as: “The total number of minds in the universe is one. In fact, consciousness is a singularity phasing within all beings.” In his book Why Materialism is Baloney, Kastrup uses the insightful analogy of whirlpools in a river to make this cosmic idea accessible. The river is the universal consciousness while individual whirlpools exist within it, representing separate, localised consciousness. The whirlpools are made up from the river and are dependent upon it for their existence, but their interface with it is limited, and they seem to exist as autonomous formations. The whirlpools are symbolic of individual consciousness; apparently existing in their own right and absorbed by inward-looking self-awareness, while in actuality they are part of a bigger, connected whole – the oneness of the river.
While differing in certain respects, idealism has much in common with Jung’s Collective Unconscious where are found the archetypes that make their way into faerie tales. Using the whirlpool analogy, each whirlpool is able, when conditions are met, to incorporate parts of the larger river, thus informing itself of a greater reality outside of its self-localisation. The river (universal consciousness or the Collective Unconscious) is the over-mind containing all knowledge, which can be imparted to the individual whirlpools under certain circumstances (such as the telling of faerie tales or supernatural entity encounters). And if consciousness is a singularity then our localised minds can only have a limited perception of the greater reality, which allows in a multiplicity of parapsychological possibilities such as telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance – available to us when we are able (by whatever means) to transcend the locality. While Animism sees all things as conscious to some degree, idealism places this within an overall metaphysical context, with a potential limitless store of ideas. Anything that has been imagined in the history of human consciousness (including what would usually be thought of as supernatural entities) finds form here and at particular moments can manifest into what we normally experience as our physical reality, a reality that is utterly dependent on irreducible consciousness. The faeries thus become representatives of aspects of a collective human mind, made recognisable as a specific taxonomy by being culturally coded for centuries through folklore, storytelling and numinous encounters.
The theory of idealism finds support in experimental data from quantum physics. The well-known double-slit experiment appears to demonstrate that in the quantum world quanta exist as nothing but waves of potential – a superposition – until collapsed into particles by human observation; and that particles that have been introduced to each other become intrinsically entangled, and can then ‘communicate’ at any distance at faster than light speed. Einstein called this ‘spooky action at a distance’, but a number of recent experiments have clearly demonstrated that entanglement is a true, measurable phenomenon, although the mechanism for the communication between particles remains unknown. Scientists such as Dean Radin have suggested (with much experimental data) that entanglement may be at the root of parapsychological events, most especially telepathy and clairvoyance, but also anomalous interactions with non-human (or supernatural) entities. While there is ongoing debate about the true nature of these quantum effects, and their application in the super-atomic world, they do provide the possible explanation that consciousness (not matter) is primary and that (as per idealism) our local minds are connected to a vaster network of non-local reality, not dependent on the standard laws of physics. This is a transcendent reality that is perhaps being manifested in manageable forms by faerie tales, folklore and modern anecdotal encounters with faerie entities. It is almost as if we were living in a simulation, where some greater consciousness is allowing us to see beyond our own solipsistic horizons by implanting supernatural creatures into our physical reality in an attempt to expand our understanding of how things really work. This leads to a second theory that may help elucidate how human consciousness is interacting with the faeries.
Simulated Reality Hypothesis. The notion that we are existing in a simulated virtual reality has been a trope of science fiction, popularised most effectively in the work of Philip K Dick and the influential film The Matrix. However, the idea that experienced reality is an illusion is not new. The first millennium mystic teachings of the Gnostic Christians suggest that humanity has been trapped in a deception – a copy of reality – perpetrated by the Demiurge and his minions the Archons, and Indian Vedic texts articulate the concept of māyā, whereby the gods are able (for a variety of reasons) to create a physical reality that conceals the true metaphysical reality. But these modern and ancient doctrines of a simulated reality have received new input in recent years, updating the concepts to create a technologically coherent hypothesis that suggests our physical reality has been modelled, much like we have modelled digital realities with computers. If there is any viability in the hypothesis, then supernatural entities such as faeries are suddenly mainstreamed; made almost unavoidable in a physical world that has been constructed as a program, and where there are probably ‘glitches in the matrix.’
Using the simulated reality hypothesis outlined by the philosopher Nicholas Bostrom in 2003 as a baseline, scientific luminaries such as Elon Musk (interestingly, the Gnostic name for the fabricated reality was Elon) and Neil deGrasse Tyson have both recently suggested that the reality we think of as ‘base reality’ could be nothing more than an inconceivably (to us) advanced computer program, and that we are simply coded players in that program believing ourselves to be conscious. The cosmologist Max Tegmark and the theoretical physicist James Gates have discussed how our universe is based on a rigid set of mathematical laws, and that the coding of those laws seem to appear in quantum measurements in the real world, and also in information technology. Gates remarked: “In my research I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they also in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry?” This feeds into the NASA scientist Rich Terrile‘s idea that quantum particles/waves are the equivalent of digital bits in a computer – the basic units of information upon which everything else is built: “It is feasible that the universe we think of as material reality is simply a holographic construction based on a quantum program that has been simulated much as we have simulated (in a vastly more low-level way) computer games with interacting characters.”
The ex-NASA scientist Tom Campbell is also an adherent of the simulated reality theory, but his expanded hypothesis contends that our universe is a sub-set of a ‘Nonphysical-Matter Reality’ (NPMR). The NPMR is a greater reality with its own constituent metaphysical laws and can be accessed in dreams, out-of-body experiences and altered states of consciousness, when consciousness is able to detach itself from the constraints of the usual laws of physics. Campbell describes it as a ‘different data stream’ but one that contains (and controls) our own mathematical material universe. What would usually be considered as paranormal events in our physical reality are normal in NPMR, and when it leaks into our 3D world via non-ordinary states of consciousness, the results appear mystical or magical. This includes entities that appear to have their own autonomous state, but are actually the results of our own limited consciousness attempting to decipher them within the bounds of our own experience. Within this theorem certain supernatural entities are metaphysical constructs from a greater reality (the NPMR), appearing into our world under certain conditions, and culturally coded to show up as specific taxonomies – one of which can be recognisable as faeries.
Idealism and the simulated reality hypothesis both suggest that there is something unknown to us controlling our reality. And while they are both theoretical constructs they have a very evident analogy, which is available to us all: dreams. A dream is an absolutely convincing simulated reality, where our avatar engages with a universe that it believes to be the base reality. Only when we awake and transcend from the dream do we realise that the dream was a sub-set of an over-mind, which has managed to create a virtual reality and populate it with images and characters from our subconscious. It is only a short conceptual jump from this analogy to the dream hypothesis, whereby what we recognise as waking reality becomes a consciousness sub-set, much in line with Campbell’s NPMR theory.
This is a fundamentally important point when attempting to understand why the faeries might exist, at whatever ontological level. Experiencing the faerie taxonomy does seem to derive from people plugging into a bigger metaphysical reality, theoretically articulated by Jung’s collective unconscious, the philosophy of idealism and the simulated reality hypothesis. Whether this is drawing archetypes from a collective unconscious into faerie tales or experiencing the entities in some form of altered state of consciousness, the interface appears to rely on us transcending our individual minds in a variety of ways. The faerie taxonomy itself seems to have been millennia in the making and is apparently evolving as our human condition evolves. The faeries (in all their forms) have become a persistent phenomenon, and seem to be an intrinsic aspect of human consciousness, purveyors of the message (explicitly or implicitly) that our material physical reality is dependent on a non-physical reality that pervades our universe and perhaps even contains it.
The Fairy Investigation Society is currently extending its survey of faerie encounters with a new census, details of which can be found here.
The role of faeries in modern fiction pop culture, from Tolkien to gaming lore, has been omitted here, even though these fictional creations are often formulated using traditional and modern concepts of what the faeries are. Deadbutdreaming may broach this topic in a future post, but for anyone interested in this aspect of folkloric evolution here is a recent concise and insightful article by Morgan Daimler: ‘Irish-American Witchcraft: Fairies, Tradition & Popculture’, with her full downloadable presentation on the subject from a recent conference (‘Popular Culture and the Deep Past: Fairies and the Fantastic’) at The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the Ohio State University here.
For changing taxonomic concepts of faeries in the visual arts over the centuries see: The Art of Faerie.
*In an effort to retain clarity, I specifically did not include any discussion of Panpsychism here, even though it is closely related to both Animism and Idealism as a theory. Here is a good effort to unravel the semantic differentiations by Fizan.
I was recently interviewed by Simon Young for the Fairy Investigation Society. He wanted to explore my experiences brought on by the condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and how this might relate to an understanding of what the faeries are, and the interfaces between metaphysical entity encounters and consciousness. I usually keep my own persona and experiences out of deadbutdreaming posts, and I have not talked about my acquaintance with the syndrome in any public format before this. But I thought readers might be interested in what this unusual condition entails, and the possible relationship between its symptoms and the faeries. Thanks to Simon for the interview and agreeing for it to be re-posted here.
Neil, thanks so much for agreeing to talk. Many of our readers will know you from one of the most extraordinary blogs on faerie-lore: deadbutdreaming. Can you tell us something about yourself and how you became so interested in faerie-lore?
I have a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Cambridge, and have been practising archaeology since 1992. About two decades ago I became interested in the confluence between various prehistoric archaeological sites and folklore, after reading Leslie Grinsell’s Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain (1976).
A common experience, I think.
Indeed, and since then I’ve written more and more about folklore. My special interest is in the faerie-lore of Britain, as I quickly realised that these entities were deeply embedded in so much of the folklore of these isles, and that the great wealth of lore about them must mean something. I originally approached the subject from a purely traditional folkloric perspective – that is, understanding the faeries as remnants of previous historic belief systems, and perhaps as characters to explain the human condition through Jungian psychology. This changed somewhat during a meditation session at West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire. This is a Neolithic burial chamber (it would have also been used for a variety of other ritual purposes), and while meditating within its confines in 1999 I had a vivid and super-real experience of various faerie creatures – very Froud-like, and evidently as aware of me as I was of them.
Was this your first experience of meditating?
No, I’d been meditating for a few years by this time, but it was my first experience meditating at a prehistoric site. It took me a long time to incorporate this encounter in to my world-view, but since this time I have had many more experiences, and my research into others’ encounters has drawn me to the conclusion that the faeries are some type of real entity. My current tentative interpretation is that they represent some aspect of human consciousness, not usually apparent in consensus reality, but which can interact with us when certain conditions are met. This is slightly simplistic, as the faeries certainly represent many more things than this, but I am convinced that at some level they are agents of a metaphysical reality that can overlap our own. I have been writing about this on my blog site since 2016.
Neil I know that you suffer from Charles Bonnet Syndrome. As many readers will not have heard of Charles Bonnet Syndrome, can you tell us a bit about it and why it is so often associated with faeries and other supernatural experiences?
The syndrome is named after the Swiss naturalist, who first described the condition in 1760. The standard NHS description of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is that it is: ‘a condition experienced by people who are losing, or have lost, their sight. It involves seeing things which are not really there (having visual hallucinations). The hallucinations are most marked in low light or when relaxing and are often complicated scenes involving faces, children and wild animals.’ However, this is simply a description from a materialist, reductionist perspective, that assesses anything without material substance as ‘not real’. My own experiences [ed. see below] do not feel like hallucinations, and this is a common thread of many people who have CBS visual encounters. They will frequently describe humanoid entities (sometimes cartoon-like) that appear, usually fleetingly, in what remains of their peripheral vision. But there is usually interaction with these entities, and a feeling of something real being present, much in the same way as if another person were in the space. The correspondence between these descriptions and folkloric descriptions of the faeries and modern anecdotal testimonies of a variety of supernatural beings (including, but not limited to faeries) is distinct and noticeable.
If you don’t mind me asking how did you realise that you had CBS? How long did diagnosis take?
I lost most of my sight in my left eye through a retinal occlusion in 2014. In late 2015, after knocking myself unconscious through a fall, my visual cortex was damaged and limited the vision in my right eye as well. Shortly after this the symptoms of CBS began to manifest. I had never heard of CBS, and it was only after a discussion with my then psychiatrist that I was made aware this syndrome might be causing the unusual visuals I was experiencing. I then discussed the issue with my ophthalmologist, who termed the condition Visual Release Hallucinations. An ophthalmologist will not diagnose a person with CBS/VRH as such, but mine did take the time to discuss the condition with me, explaining that it is an uncommon, but well-known symptom of people with my type of optical problems. I have regular six-month ophthalmological assessments for my eyesight, and each report now contains a short section describing the continuing symptoms.
You talked about your own experiences? Can you give us some examples?
The visual entities I experience with CBS usually (though not exclusively) appear in low light, but never in total darkness, and I am always alone when they eventuate. This has happened several times a week since damaging my visual cortex in 2015. Sometimes the visuals are simple lights or smoke-like wisps, which are usually just glimpsed in my peripheral vision, last only a few seconds, and there is only a limited sense that there is something ‘present’. But often the visuals are more substantial, and will manifest as slightly cartoonish humanoid entities, frequently dressed in either archaic clothing or in garb that seems to emit a dull glow. The most fascinating aspect of these visuals is their apparent concrete reality, and even more compelling is the awareness that something is most definitely present. This always includes a form of telepathic communication, usually in the form of a series of phrases, which I never seem to be able to reply to. I can’t stress how real these communications are – as real as if someone were sitting next to me and talking.
Extraordinary! How long do they last?
Usually between a few seconds and several minutes. Any attempt to look directly at the entities will halt the experience; they do seem to exist only in the periphery of vision. I’ve learnt to not attempt to look straight at the visuals if I want the encounter to continue. A recent example involved a small, mechanical gnome-like entity who materialised on the arm of my sofa and proceeded to communicate the repeated words ‘Everything will be ok, let go of all anxiety… everything will be ok.’ I do realise that this sounds quite insane, and when these manifestations first began (although I was never frightened by them – they never seem to emit any hostility or malevolence, only empathy), I thought that the trauma of losing so much eyesight was taking me towards a mental breakdown. This is a common feeling of people with CBS. But after a while I just accepted the experiences as part of everyday life. I have to admit that I have come to enjoy the unusual nature of the experiences.
You talked of the sense that the vision is next to you: do you have the sense that the voice is real too?
Very much so. The voices are never present without the visuals, and it is always quite clear they are coming from the same source. Again, when this first started to happen I did a lot of research into the symptoms of schizophrenia, one of which can be hearing disembodied voices, but I quickly satisfied myself that I was not suffering from this disorder. Having spoken with several people with schizophrenia since, I have realised their experiences are very different than mine.
And how often do you have these visions? Once a week? Once a day?
It does vary – probably twice a week on average, but sometimes they’ll be absent for as long as a fortnight, while other times I’ll experience them more than once a day. There is some type of link to how anxious I am feeling; they are more likely to appear during periods of anxiety. But this is not always the case – they seem to have their own timetable!
Would you interpret these as hallucinations then; or are you, somehow, getting privileged sights of a deeper reality?
I think that CBS may be one among many ways of allowing access to non-material phenomenon. If we are willing to accept that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the brain (thereby allowing CBS visions to be relegated to brain-generated hallucinations), but rather that consciousness is primary, and the instigator of reality, then these visuals may be allowed to take on an autonomous reality of their own. One way of looking at it is by seeing the brain as a reducing valve of a greater consciousness (à la Aldous Huxley), and that if it becomes damaged or altered in any way, it may allow in aspects of consciousness that are usually filtered out, thereby altering the genuine perception of an ulterior or supernal reality experienced by the person with the damaged/altered brain.
But, in as simple a language as possible, how does this work: how is it that a medical condition can lead to this extended vision?
I think CBS is a type of altered state of consciousness. I have taken a variety of psychedelics through my life, and there are definitely similarities in the perception of a non-ordinary presence. For me, these entities more often than not take a form that many people would describe as faeries. There are many thousands of recent reports from people taking the potent psychedelic substance N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which correlate closely with both folkloric descriptions of faeries and also CBS visions. As per the last answer, it seems to me as if a change to the brain can, under certain conditions, allow us to perceive what is usually suppressed in waking reality. Perhaps my long interest in faerie folklore has predisposed me to interpret the appearing entities as faeries (rather than, say, aliens or ghosts) but I cannot emphasise enough the vividness of the experiences and the apparent substantiality of the visions and the communications they impart.
Neil, fascinating. Thanks so much.
You’re welcome Simon.
The cover image is by the Amsterdam-based digital artist Peter Woko, and is called ‘Monkey King and Psychonaut’. Peter’s artwork can be found here, and his Twitter handle is @wokopsyart . Thanks to Peter for his permission to reproduce this piece on deadbutdreaming.
I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague David Halpin as a guest author at deadbutdreaming for an investigation into Irish faerie-lore. David writes extensively about Irish folklore and mythology, always producing insightful and thought-provoking articles based on meticulous research. These three pieces have been taken from his excellent Circle Stories Facebook page, which has become a go-to source for a perceptive understanding of Irish folkloric and mythological traditions. Each article is illustrated with David’s own distinctive photography of Irish sacred sites, some of which are included in this piece. Thanks to David for permission to republish these articles and photos here.
Ancestors, Fairies And The Soul In The Stars
One of the most puzzling omissions when it comes to Irish archaeology is the naming and observation of the ancient Irish shaman. Although there are some different views about who exactly the ancient Irish people were, what we can say for certain is they all came from cultures which allocated a position of the ultimate importance to this tribal role.
And yet… the evidence is there, it’s just that the interpretation is half-seen due to the world view of those who made the early pronouncements about ancient Irish beliefs and veneration. For example, many of the 5,000 year old ‘tombs’ contain ashes and body parts but they also contain art, offerings and reusable passageways and entrances. Looking at the shaman’s role in antiquity we can notice that the preservation of ancestral shrines were not places of mourning. They were places of continual communication and ritual. This task was performed by the shaman.
As the world view of ancient people began to change from the Palaeolithic into the Mesolithic and onto the first farming groups the type of veneration also began to include ancestors. The sun, moon and star cycles were continually observed but now people saw the shaman as someone who might bring back information and healing from the members of the tribe who had passed on. There is no definitive time-frame here; cultures ‘progressed’ in different stages and as the assimilation of various peoples and traditions occurred so too did their practices and beliefs.
One thing is consistent, though, and that is the shamanistic function which took place at ancient sites. This is what is missing from the Irish record. While archaeologists talk about graves and shrines they ignore the living traditions and rituals which these places were used for. Obviously our own view of death has filtered our perception of how ancient people might have behaved. Add in the fact that most early Irish archaeologists grew up with an Abrahamic view of religion and you can see why they might have been both reluctant to and unable to take into account the nuances and complexities of a spirituality that challenged their own.
Perhaps one factor which exemplifies this, and also might shed light on the multifaceted Irish concept of fairies, is the concept of the multiple-soul. This belief recurs in indigenous societies from Austronesia to Europe and is probably one you have heard of at some point before as well. Most likely it was the view shared by ancient Irish people as well. Simply put, this belief understands that the soul is divided into various parts. One part might stay within the body and remain on earth after death, whereas another part might travel in dreams or be the summation of the deeds of a person’s life.
Another part of the soul might remain outside of the body and follow it around, sometimes offering advice. It can get quite complex as the Egyptian example demonstrates with the various souls representing the personality, the cumulative deeds, the shadow, the breath and, indeed, the spiritual essence of a person.
The practice of soul-retrieval is another indigenous ritual common to cultures all around the world from Siberia to Africa and from Australia to North America. Often there is a reincarnation or soul transmigration aspect to this as well which we know was part of the Celtic cosmology. Why the multiple-soul is interesting in relation to fairies is because there has always been a contradiction between the fairies being of the Otherworld as well as being the dead themselves. However, when we view fairies from the perspective of those who believed the soul was multifaceted then these contradictions make sense.
The fairies, ancestors, goddesses and gods might dwell in the constellations but they would also be here, on earth, as the ancestral dead.
Fairy Paths, Ley-Lines and Mass Paths
Fairy roads or fairy paths are often confused with Ley-Lines and Mass Paths. It is true that over time many have fused with one another through customs and folklore. However, it is also worth separating the more ancient ‘spirit and fairy roads’ from the later walkways from the 17th century and beyond. Also connected with church paths here in Ireland are natural rock formations called ‘mass rocks’ where funerals and masses were held during times of Catholic persecution.
But, back to fairy roads and Ley-Lines. What are the differences between these two often confused concepts? To put it simply, Ley-Lines, as envisioned by Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track, were tracks connecting ancient landmarks such as standing stones, raths and other prominent natural topographic features. Watkins himself did not see any association with spirit paths or supernatural energies but over time, as his ideas were taken up by other researchers, these attributes were incorporated.
Fairy roads or fairy paths are a different matter. These are said to be routes or invisible paths upon which fairies, the souls of the dead and other less-observed energetic forces travel. It is considered extremely bad luck to build a house on these pathways as well as removing any feature which is considered a marker for the good people on these routes. We have all heard of how farmers will not remove a hawthorn tree from their field without suffering the wrath of these enigmatic spirits, for example.
You can also read many accounts of roads being rerouted in order to avoid certain places or sites considered to be home to elves or fairies. It is worth noting that this is by no means a solely Irish consideration. Across the entire world, from Iceland to Australia, from Costa Rica to Siberia these sacred pathways are acknowledged and in many cases preserved. In the instances where a site has been destroyed or a fairy tree removed there are often reports of extreme bad luck then becoming associated with a particular spot on the road where the landmark once stood.
Because there is such an overlap between fairies and the dead it can be difficult to separate more recent folklore from the remnants of probable oral traditions and beliefs spanning much longer time periods. However, comparative mythology shows that many of the same types of spirits and supernatural forms were associated with ancient sites all around the world. Often their behaviour can be observed to have some similar traits although the motivation for this can only be guessed at.
Certainly, fairies are known to move from stone circles and raths when we reach particular points in the year such as Samhain, Bealtaine or during the zenith of certain constellation or star rises. It would be a nice project to try to determine just how encounters and sightings rise and fall before and during these yearly points. Another factor to consider is that individual hawthorn trees, stone circles and sacred sites often also have their own guardian gods, goddesses and spirits as well being markers and byways for nightly and seasonal parades.
Raths in particular are considered both sacred places in themselves as well as being portals and entrances to the Otherworld. There are many recorded sightings of fairy activity at raths in the various Irish folklore archives including this one from Merginstown, Co. Wicklow. This example from Duchas.ie contains all of the typical motifs of the fairy road: the rath from which they emerge, the fact that other raths are visually linked to the site, and the conclusion that building on a fairy path is a very bad idea! There are also legends that raths can be connected through tunnels in many cases. Some stories describe a treasure buried beneath a mound but there is usually a guardian spirit to appease before it can be reached. Often times the treasure turns out to be an appreciation of being allowed to leave alive!
“There are a number of raths or lisses to be found in Merginstown. These Raths go by the name of Moates. Some of them are formed by a deep round pit oftentimes surrounded by the remains of an old ditch or hedge. It is said that these raths are inhabited by the fairies and no one ever molests them. It is also said that one can see a lot of other raths from the one by which they would be standing. There is said to be a great many large flat stones buried in these raths but what was put under them is not rightly known. I have heard it said that at one time the fairies had a path from one rath to another, and that if anything was put on this path it would be pitched aside by the fairies when they would be passing that night. There is generally a couple of bushes to be found growing near these raths. These bushes are called Lone Bushes. If anyone cuts down one of these bushes a curse will fall on them I have heard of a man who cut down a Lone Bush and within a month’s time three or four cattle had died on him. The following is a story which I have heard in connection with the fairies.
There was once a man who lived near a fairies path. The man wished to build a cowhouse and as there was no room in the farmyard he had to build it in a field nearby. Now this was the field through which the fairies had their path. One morning he was coming in with an armful of hay and found to his amazement that the back wall had been knocked down. It was the fairies who had knocked it down because it was built on their path He built it up again that day but it was knocked down again next morning. He then decided on putting a door in the back wall. This he did and ever since the wall was never knocked down. It is believed that the fairies pass through this house at night on their way from rath to rath.” Original Link
In this example from Co. Kildare a man finds that taking stones from a rath is just as bad as trying to destroy it. And from Carlow we have a description of ongoing encounters with the ‘little red men’ and a local rath. As an aside, those readers who follow this page will again notice the prevalence of red fairies in this area. In this case they are renowned for stealing cows which might interest UFO researchers but in many other incidents they will take a human for a day or two.
A good example of this type of incident is this account from nearby Kiltegan where a man describes the rath lighting up before he is taken away by small men playing music. And, finally, this encounter is listed as a ghost story which demonstrates the ongoing link between fairies and the dead. In this case the man has built his house on a fairy path and now has to put up with his doors being opened and the sound of people moving through his home every night.
There are further associations between fairy paths and the original form and philosophy of Feng Shui, which may surprise people, but I will keep that for another post. I would recommend the book Spirit Roads: An Exploration of Otherworldly Routes by Paul Devereux for those who would like to delve more deeply into this subject.
Who are the Fairies?
Yes, I know. This is a question for which you will receive many answers but let’s take a quick look at some of the popular explanations which have been given down through the years and also some of the less well known theories about the good people.
The first thing many are surprised by is that Irish fairies being the banished Tuatha Dé Danann is not as clear-cut as some accounts would have us believe. In fact, in Irish mythology it is implied that the Sí were already here before the Tuatha were said to have retreated into the mounds and fairy forts. This would mean that the fairies were separate from the later Gods of Irish lore. The potential twist here is interesting, though. The Tuatha Dé were said to have arrived in supernatural circumstances themselves, emerging from clouds of mist, so perhaps this could be explained as them arriving from a fairy realm in the first place.
As mentioned in a previous post, there is also a story from the west of Ireland that fairies arrived from a western spiritual realm by travelling on the ragwort plant, also known as ‘fairy-horse’. The fairies, then, might be a memory, or an imagining, of the first Irish by the later settlers. When these people arrived and found complex monuments, stone circles and dolmens how could they not be impressed? And to find them no longer used and seemingly abandoned may have led to the belief that they were the homes and entrance-way’s to an ‘otherworld’.
Fairies are continually linked to nature spirits and supernatural beings connected to particular aspects of landscapes. This is not specific to Ireland, of course. All around the world areas considered sacred or magical are said to be the homes of spirits. From New Zealand to North Africa, from Tibet to Peru, natural features and elaborately constructed and aligned monuments are considered the abode of elementals and supernatural deities. However, this does not mean that they are tied to one place, outside of our own understanding. As Claude Lecouteux writes in his book, Demons and Spirits of the Land, “…the syncretic nature of these creatures has conferred upon them specificity so strong it conceals their origin.” (p.133).
After Christianity came to Ireland, the fairies developed a more sinful origin in newer folklore and a spiritual context influenced by a monotheistic point of view. The ambiguity of their actions meant that the good people always occupied a type of neutral space between something that could benefit and something that could harm, but now those outcomes were more simply defined as good and evil. The sidhe, depending on who you asked, might be agents of either side. This notion stemmed from a variety of beliefs which even today makes for interesting conversation.
I suppose the most simple way to put it is that fairies were seen as existing in a type of ‘not quite evil enough for hell, not quite good enough for heaven’ state. Some Christian stories even explained them as fallen angels who had rebelled against god but then regretted their actions.
These stories seem to contain the subtext of an attempt to subjugate pagan gods and spirits into a Christian interpretation of the universe. In his landmark compilation, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. Y. Evans Wentz, tried to examine fairies from new anthropological perspectives as well as collecting first-hand accounts of encounters with the good people. One of the most complex areas Wentz questioned was whether or not fairies, ancestors and the dead were the same. Did a person who died become a fairy? Were there specific actions or circumstances that made it so? Or, was it a trick by the good folk and they took the form of dead loved ones in order to influence?
Alas, this area is both thorny and controversial. There are indeed arguments for a crossover at times but in my view, at least, this is linked strongly to the perspective of the person or culture at the time. This trickster capacity will raise its head again in the post but for now this quote from the writer, Morgan Daimler, sums it up quite well, “If one could imagine it as a Venn diagram we would see fairies as one circle, the human dead as another, and the area where the two circles overlapped would represent those who fall into both groups-how small or large that is no one can say for certain.” (p. 41).
Another argument Wentz makes in his book might seem odd to us today, namely that fairies are not to be confused with pygmies. Many people are unaware of the popularity of this explanation but it was an argument prominent enough for Wentz to feel the need to refute it. The 19th-century historian, David MacRitchie, believed the Tuatha De referred to an early Inuit pygmy race who first inhabited Ireland and Northern Europe. His thesis was that this was the basis of the cultural memory of small people.
Today, this idea has become popular again among certain researchers who have drawn parallels to the Twa tribes of Africa and the similarity to the word Tuatha, as well as accounts of dark-skinned Picts in Scotland and Orkney. However, MacRitchie did not believe the pygmy race came from Africa, but from Northern Eurasia. These ideas are not accepted by most scholars, it has to be said.
Although some entrance-ways into mounds and cairns are indeed small, there are also many other sites where the opposite is the case. MacRitchie’s explanation also fails to account for the huge amount of encounters with taller fairies, sometimes known as the gentry. Again, this is a much more complex issue than this short post will be able to cover.
Finally, the explanation for fairies which many contemporary scholars and writers seem to favour is one that fits perfectly with the contradictory nature of these beings. In this view, fairies take on the cultural forms most prevalent to those they appear to. So, the angelic and demonic forms fit the myths and lore of ancient times, for example. Are they aspects of our collective unconscious or even psychological manifestations leading us further into timelessness and non-material aspects of ourselves?
In this view, as we move through the centuries, art, religion and writing begin to influence how these beings are perceived. As we became more and more embedded in technology and urbanization, fairies became aliens and inter-dimensional travellers. Now, if you are unfamiliar with this topic the comparison might seem odd but, in fact, there are many places where striking similarities emerge. Fairies and aliens both kidnapping for midwife purposes is one, changelings replacing human children and spinning bright lights resulting in missing time are others. The writers Jacques Vallée and Terence McKenna have written extensively about this subject, and it’s a topic that receives ongoing attention at deadbutdreaming.
So, as you can see, the concept of who the good people are seems to become more complex as time moves on. But is this really the case? Perhaps fairies have always stayed the same and it is us who change and grow, allowing us to comprehend a little bit more of the whole picture with each new generation. Then again, maybe we will never discover what fairies really are and this is the way it is supposed to be; to hold mystery close to our hearts and to continue to imagine and believe in something other than ourselves.
Here are some draft sections from my forthcoming novel. The story deals with the progression of a folklorist sent out to the rural hinterlands to study faerie beliefs among the countryfolk. The main locus is a psychiatric hospital, and the protagonist is wondering whether they are a guest or a potential patient, after the trauma of losing their sister and the part they played in that loss. The scenes are not contiguous, but hopefully give a cogent sense of the story’s ambience. It is set in the summer of 1970.
My little sister; I lost her when she was just a child. One day we were together, the next she was gone, suddenly and definitively. Her physical memory has become blurred into an arbitrary, flickering collection of blue-eyed glances, soft tones, touches and laughter. But underneath the dulled remembrance rests the overwhelming loss, at least a loss that has overwhelmed me. She usually comes to me in dreams, but not always.
There was a place at the end of an overgrown garden, down a bank and through some alders to a small, dirty brook. I presume it’s still there. We used to spend endless summer days in that gloomy refuge; reading, talking, ruminating, napping. Our secret chatter should have made its mark there. But everything else rests only with me, in my memory. Her memory is gone; it has become something other than memory.
She was always seeing faeries there. When she was a little girl she’d play games with them, but when she was a bigger girl she just talked with them. I was only allowed peripheral glimpses of them amidst the leaves, and their voices were never more than the drone of the brook made fleetingly real during drifts into and out of sleep. But I believed in her belief. She’d always start with the invocation: We must not look at faerie men; we must not eat their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots. And then she would laugh and skip down to her special places within the overhanging trees where she would begin her communions.
She was twelve the last time we went there. It was damp and the brook smelled. She came back from one of her spots amidst the trees, pale and tearful. The faeries had sung her a Requiem and promised her she would be able to come back to me as a blackbird for a short while. But only for a short while, then she would have to disappear completely from the world. She cried as we made our way through the garden. There were no words, just tears. I cannot think further on what happened after this. It is not something I have learned to contemplate without despair.
It was a month or so after her death that I finally allowed myself to visit her grave in the churchyard. The thought of her lifeless, decomposing corpse only a few feet away from me became too much and I retreated to a bench by the church porch. I sobbed, and clutched the bench beneath me. Through the tear-mist I saw a female blackbird skip from the branch of a yew tree above me to within a pace of my foot, chirping vigorously. She cocked her head and looked at me with one dark eye.
“I love you,” I whispered.
She briefly preened her wing, cocked her head again and then darted away to a high branch.
“I love you,” I said again. I rested my head and closed my wet eyes, knowing that she was dead but dreaming, and would always be so.
At the Psychiatric Hospital
The lack of light in this place is starting to cause me problems. They are the same problems that have attached themselves to me since she died, exacerbated now by the gloaming austerity of the buildings here; they lock out the daylight and cast everything in a pall of grey and brown. It’s been five days since my arrival and I haven’t seen the sun once. It has rained every day. At least that’s what my memory tells me. I might be wrong, I often am. But the view from my window confirms the grimness; the high Victorian facades soaked with rain from the outside and seeping the dampness of insanity from within. I’ve made a mistake coming here, I know it. The place has deprived me of the ability to hide my own desperation and grief. I’m surrounded by lunatics and those looking after them, all engaged in stripping away the illusion of normality and replacing it with the unfettered reality of human madness. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to retreat to. I’m immersed in it and my carefully constructed coping mechanisms are being dismantled. When there is a knock at the door my head swims for an instant and my hands start trembling as usual. But as Moore enters, the sudden horror of human contact subsides back inside, and, quickly, I’m able to put on my mask of acceptable social behaviour. I can also slip into a past tense…
‘Ahoy there,’ said Moore, inviting himself in, smiling as usual, ciggy in hand. ‘Ready for action?’
‘I guess. Is she still ok for this?’
‘Yep, she’s out in the vegetable garden talking with her faeries. But she knows you’re coming.’
I picked up my notepad and book, controlling my breathing and forcing the tension out of my body.
‘What’s that?’ asked Moore, nodding at the book in my hand.
‘It’s a motif index… Aarne and Thompson. Bit of a bible for folklorists – it codes and numbers all the different motif types from traditional stories. I had to… err, nick this volume from the reference library before I came.’
‘Ha, excellent. Well come on then, let’s see how many motif numbers you can jot down for Fernanda. I think you might be busy.’
We walked past the laundry building and oil tanks, then under the grey neo-gothic elevations of the chapel, dripping rainwater from their eaves high above.
‘Yeah, you’ll find Fernanda interesting,’ said Moore, chuckling as usual. ‘She’s the only South American in the hospital… actually, she’s probably the only person who isn’t English in the hospital.’
‘So why is she here?’
‘Chile. Something kicking off there – about to elect a Marxist called Allende apparently, and her family have cleared out and come over here.’ Moore affected a conspiratorial gesture. ‘But she’s already been here for a few years at school for some reason. The father found out she’d been having some problems, extracted her from said school and used his influence to get her admitted here. He’s some sort of diplomat or suchlike.’
‘So what are her problems?’
‘Delusional psychosis according to Dr Dawkins at mission control in there,’ he gestured back at the hospital, ‘but I think you might find that label a bit wide of the mark. I get the impression that she just genuinely sees things the rest of us don’t. But you’ll have to make up your own mind on that.’
We walked past the west end of the chapel, with the vegetable gardens in front of us. Moore stopped to light up a spindly-looking joint, took a drag and handed it to me.
‘This is your first field interview isn’t it?’ he said. ‘For your research I mean.’
‘It is, yeah.’ I could feel myself blushing. ‘My folklore has all been from books and lectures till now… bit embarrassing really.’
‘Well, this is where theory can become practice. Good place to start… in at the deep end with a psychiatric patient. If you can deal with her unusual behaviour patterns, you’ll find out a lot about the faeries, I’m pretty sure of that. Anyway, there she is over there in the red top, doing some weeding, or whatever it is you do in a vegetable patch.’
A couple of tokes on the joint calmed me a bit. I gave it back to Moore and went to find out just how mad my first ever interviewee might be.
The sun came out. A cloud-breaking ray fell over the gardens, picking out colours that hadn’t seemed to have been there a moment before. Fernanda’s hooded red top pulled her out of the background, made her seem physically separated from it. I walked over to her, hiding anxiety with a smile. She was crouching to place some nuts onto a tree-stump next to the vegetable patch, but saw me, stood up and stretched out her hands as though she expected me to take them in my own.
‘You’re just in time for the ravens. They are being called now.’
Her accent was slight but distinct. She looked through me somehow. But her eyes were smiling. She’d already taken some control.
‘They only trust me, but I think they’ll trust you too.’
She walked to the end of one of the garden paths and I followed. Closing her eyes she swayed whilst another ray of sun found her face, and I was able to take in her features. When she opened her eyes, they seemed black, iris and pupil, and I couldn’t tell what she was looking at.
‘Dos cuervos,’ she announced, ‘coming to us now.’
Sure enough, from the tree-line to the north, two ravens appeared and silently flew down onto a fence at the far end of the gardens. They tarried there, conspiring and ensuring their coast was clear before gliding down together to the tree-stump, where they put their beaks to work on the nuts. They hopped about taking some more nuts before retreating back to the fence.
‘Now observe,’ she whispered. ‘They will silently call their comrades.’
We stood in silence for about a minute, Fernanda staring into the middle distance, while I shuffled around hoping this wasn’t going to go on too long. Then I saw six more ravens appear above the tree-line, making their way towards us. They flew down in ragged tandem, alighted on the fence with the other two, then, two by two, drifted down to the ground and hopped over to the nuts on the tree-stump. We were only twenty feet from them, but they carried on as if we weren’t there. When they’d finished and were moving back to the fence, Fernanda crouched down. One of the ravens broke ranks and landed closer to us. It bobbed its head a few times in our direction, then flew off, taking the others with it back into the sky.
Fernanda stood up and said ‘I know you want to know about the faeries. Las hadas… they are the nature spirits, the elementals. They are everywhere.’
‘Do you see them now?’
She laughed, then smiled. I blushed.
‘The ravens see them. All animals do. The faeries fix themselves onto the minds of the ravens and then give them instant communication with others of their kind. The faeries summoned the ravens by riding on their minds… their thoughts. Hey my friends! come get the nuts at the tree-stump.‘
I chuckled. ‘But do you see them?’
She stared at me for the first time but said nothing. Instead she took my hand and led me round the vegetable patch to some spinach leaves. She got me to crouch down next to her, and pointed at the biggest leaf in the patch.
‘Stare at this green leaf’, she said. ‘Just stare at it for some moments.’
I complied. The leaf was crumpled a little at its top making a ball-like shape, and the longer I looked at it the more I started to see patterns in the natural chaos of its shape: first a green rose flower, then a scrunched up piece of green paper, which seemed to momentarily expand and contract before forming into a small childlike face. I started, looked again, and it was gone. There was just a snail-nibbled spinach leaf.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘They are here, but you just don’t want to see them. The faeries are part of the minds of the plants… the earth, the rocks, everything.’
I turned to her, she was close. I could see she meant it. But the usual rational stream of thought pulsed through my mind, first explaining the optical illusion of the crumpled spinach leaf, then aligning itself with the reasonable view that she must be delusional and making this up from within a damaged and beguiled mind. But even as the stream of rationality assured me this must be so, I knew it wasn’t.
‘You are a modern Western person my friend,’ she said, quietly. ‘You have grown up in a world of science and material things. It’s quite simple really. You’ve disconnected from Spirit. Once you disconnect you stop seeing what’s really there. If you were a child I would be able to show you. But you have grown up and disconnected. There is Spirit everywhere, but you can no longer recognise it.’
I fiddled with the motif-index volume in my hands, coming to terms with my abrupt perception of inferiority to someone everyone else here thought insane. And, as she looked through me, I was pretty sure she knew this.
‘I need to be alone now,’ she announced, standing up and running her hands through her black hair. ‘But if you can come again tomorrow, without your books, I will teach you about the faeries. I think you might be one who can be taught.’
Without another word, she packed her trowel into her little gardening bag, smiled and started off back to the hospital. She turned at the edge of the vegetable gardens and waved.
‘Mañana,’ she called.
I watched her disappear behind the chapel. It started to rain again.
‘Mañana indeed,’ I whispered, looking first at my unopened book and notepad, and then back at that plain old spinach leaf, now quivering under the raindrops. A raven passed overhead, cawing as if laughing at me. Mañana indeed.
I was alone again. Albe, Moore and Scrope had disappeared up-country somewhere leaving me in my quarters with nothing but the sound of the ticking clock, marking out the minutes and hours; creating time to reflect on the deficiencies of my life to date. What was I doing here? I’d swapped the intolerable isolation of university for the unendurable confinement of this lunatic asylum. As the days had dripped by, I recognised the old symptoms re-emerging: dulled vision, stomach cramps, endemic procrastination, and a growing fear of going outside and interacting with people. I was even beginning to suspect the hospital orderlies had all been infected with the insanity they dealt with on a daily basis. It was usually the timbre of their voices; the merest hint of derangement that spoke of exposure to madness over a prolonged period. It was worse in the male staff. They all seemed to exhibit a disquieting emptiness in their tone, as if they were reading from a script, like bad actors. Maybe it was because they were suspicious of me. Maybe they wondered what I was doing here as well, and were acting accordingly. I went over each conversation with them since I’d been here, further instilling the the shaky paranoia that had made itself at home with me. This was not good. I had to break out from this cycle of thought before I went to meet Fernanda, otherwise I might have one of my flip-outs. Christ, they might even put me on a ward if that happened. I pulled myself up to the desk and poised my fingers over the Olympia Moore had loaned me, to put my notes in order. I knew I wasn’t going to manage to do anything, but the act of intention distracted me from incessantly thinking the worst of everything. I rolled the sheet of paper up and locked it in position. I stared at it for a few moments, then typed: My sister… I’m so sorry. Please come back… . My breathing shallowed and the usual tears welled up. I yanked out the paper, screwed it up and flung it over the room. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t coming back.
I made my way out to the vegetable gardens in the late afternoon. The sun was shining for once, but the wind took the heat out of it. In my head I went over some of the faerie motifs from the Aarne-Thompson index, agitated, and wondering if Fernanda would come up with anything beyond her neurotic imaginings about nature spirits. I stopped for a moment behind the laundry building, closed my eyes and pictured her. My hands shook a little. I steadied my breathing and walked on. She was sitting on the tree stump where she fed the ravens, eyes closed, head bowed, her hands clasped together as if in prayer. I coughed before I reached her, so as to not startle her. She waited until I was a few feet away and slowly raised her head. She kept her eyes closed for a moment, then opened them; black and watery.
‘Hola,’ she said, continuing to stare ahead.
‘Hey Fernanda. Nice day… bit windy.’
God, what did I sound like? Why did I always make personal contact so uncomfortable. She didn’t seem to notice, but when she turned to look at me the curve of her lips suggested she was reading my awkwardness perfectly.
‘It’s not a good day my friend. There is some bad news.’
I tensed up, shoulders and stomach. She observed me for a few seconds, and her words began to echo inside my head somehow. At that moment I was quite sure she was putting them there herself, negating the need to say anything else by reinforcing what she had already said by direct, wordless communication.
‘Telepatía,’ she whispered, standing up, close to me, her black eyes still pooled with tears. ‘I know you don’t believe, but it’s true anyway.’
‘I’m not quite sure what to believe Fernanda. Why is there bad news?’
‘There has been a suicide.’
‘Really? In the hospital?’
‘No, here. In the cobertizo.’
She motioned to the tool shed on the edge of the gardens. My pulse quickened.
‘A faerie has ended her life there… she did it for you.’
I stared at her, looking for something that would abbreviate her words in her face. There was nothing there.
‘Fernanda, please don’t play games with me. I can’t deal with this sort of thing right now.’
She moved closer to me and stroked back some hair that had fallen over my eyes.
‘We know you’ve been thinking about ending your life my friend. We know how sad you’ve been. She did it so you do not have to. It was a selfless act. Las Hadas have no ego. This one soaked up your sorrow and and ended her existence so you can continue. She knew your life must carry on, but there had to be a sacrifice. The sacrifice was her life.’
A head-rush dulled my vision for a moment. My hands were shaking so much I put them behind my back instinctively.
‘Fernanda, I… I… .’
‘You must come and see. It is tragic but it is beautiful. It’s wonderful. You must come and see… come.’
She reached round, took my hand from behind me and led me, unresisting to the shed.
We walked back slowly to the main building of the hospital hand in hand. We didn’t speak, but I could hear her soft voice in my head, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish: it’s ok… you’ll be ok. It was meant to be… mantener la calma. In between her words I tried desperately to rationalise what I’d just seen. But every attempt failed. What I’d seen was not rational, it was absurdly irrational, but as real as the neo-gothic walls of the hospital in front of us. I was going to have to overhaul my understanding of the nuts and bolts of this world. It had just been forced upon me. There was no choice. The only choice was acceptance.
She left me at the door with a kiss on the cheek but no words. I wondered why it was she who was going back to the ward instead of me. If I told Dr Dawkins what I’d just experienced, he’d probably commit me on the spot.
In my head I heard Fernanda’s voice again: she is dead but dreaming. Soñando.
‘My sister or the faerie?’ I said out loud. There was no response. I walked, unseeing, back to my quarters.
The cover image is S.T.A.R.D.U.S.T by Ylenia Viola. Her mesmeric artwork can be found at fairytalesneverdie
This is another slight diversion from the realm of faerie, but the subject matter is intimately connected to our understanding of metaphysical realities through texts from our past. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important, loaded as it is with symbology and deep insights into the human condition, that speak to us from over half a millennium ago. The characters, their motivations and their inner-lives, as expressed by the poet, remain recognisable to us in the 21st century. And at the centre of the story (even though she doesn’t utter a word) is a faerie, perhaps the most prominent faerie in English literature: Morgan le Fay. A version of this article was originally published on the Ancient Origins Premium website.
‘The paths he would take were strange, With little cheer to glean, And his hopes would often change Till that chapel could be seen.’
Sir Gawain and Green Knight is a late 14th-century poem, set in an Arthurian world of the past, but which invokes the chivalric codes and environment of the time it was written. Despite numerous attempts to identify the author, it remains anonymous, although the Middle-English dialect used in the poem has been pinned down to the North-West Midlands of England, perhaps the county of Staffordshire. It is written in alliterative verse, suggesting that it was designed to be read aloud, with the alliteration acting as both a memory aid to recitation and as a prop to convey the humorous intonations, which run throughout the poem. It is generally seen as one of the most important examples of English medieval literature and fits within the corpus of Arthurian stories known as ‘The Matter of Britain.’ It certainly adheres to the usual frames of reference that medieval authors used when describing the Arthurian world, where a supernatural Otherworld was consistently interacting with physical reality, and symbolic layers of meaning provide an allegoric purpose that would have been recognised by the elite classes listening to, or reading the stories. Many of the characters in the poem are familiar from other Arthurian sources, but as the title suggests, the main protagonist is Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur. His adventures tell us much about 14th-century society, but also about a metaphysical belief system operating below the radar of Christianity, which, as usual with later medieval Arthurian literature, invokes an older, pagan atmosphere, perhaps more redolent of the immediate post-Roman Dark Ages, when the stories are ostensibly set. The use of such magico-folklore in the Arthurian stories can tell us much about the continuity of pre-Christian beliefs throughout the Middle Ages, and the motifs used consistently through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight retain a timeless folkloric quality, making the poem a commentary on humanity’s interaction with supra-natural dimensions that still manages to resonate with the 21st-century reader.
The Plot and Landscape of the Poem
The action begins on New Year’s Day at Arthur’s court of Camelot, where feasting is in progress. Much Arthurian literature uses the device of Camelot as representative of a golden age in the past, often making derogatory (even satirical) comparisons to contemporary aristocratic courts. This is especially true of several stories from the Welsh cycle of stories known as The Mabinogion (also composed in the 14th century, although containing much earlier material) and the Gawain poet follows this trope, ensuring the reader is aware that Arthur’s court exemplified the pinnacle of chivalric code. But this standard description becomes turned round upon the arrival of the mysterious giant knight, who makes his abrupt entrance into the midst of the feast mounted on a horse. His apparel, his skin and even his horse are green:
‘Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.’
The Green Knight is not impressed with Arthur’s court or courtiers, who he calls ‘beardless children.’ And after some more disparagement he challenges one amongst them to a ‘Christmas game’ where the Green Knight is struck once with his own axe, on the proviso that in a year and a day’s time he is able to return the blow at his own ‘Green Chapel.’ This is the point of entry into the plot for Gawain, who spares Arthur the need to strike the blow, and takes up the challenge, lopping off the Green Knight’s head with one blow of the axe. But, to the amazement of all, he then proceeds to pick up his own head, mounts his horse and, from his decapitated head, reminds Gawain of his oath, before wheeling away out of Camelot, head in hand.
This sets the scene for a quest journey, which takes up the rest of the poem as Gawain sets out alone to fulfil his pledge a year later. The first part of the quest describes his journey through a winter landscape; a desolate wilderness but firmly rooted in the real landscape of 14th-century Britain. Gawain takes a circuitous (but definitive) route through Wales, perhaps insinuating that the poet thought of Camelot as being situated in southern Wales (Caerleon is one of the traditional locations for Camelot) before heading east from Anglesea to the ‘wilderness of the Wirral’ and inland to the Peak District. Once here the descriptive qualities of the landscape becomes more detailed, with localised words for features in the environment being used such as frith (enclosed scrubland on the edge of a forest), knot (a hillock), and kerre (a marshy thicket), which has been a main element in allowing the interpretation for the author being a native of this part of the country where the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet. Eventually, Gawain arrives at the moated castle called Hautdesert.
‘Now he had signed himself times but three,
when he was aware in the wood of a wall in a moat,
above a level, on high land locked under boughs
of many broad set boles about by the ditches:
a castle the comeliest that ever knight owned,
perched on a plain, a park all about,
with a pointed palisade, planted full thick,
encircling many trees in more than two miles.’
The castle is most likely identified as Beeston Castle, built by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester in the 1220s, now a ruin, but in the late 14th century an imposing hilltop citadel. It is here that Gawain enters a somewhat hallucinogenic episode in the tale, as he is given hospitality by the Lord Bertilak. During the next three days Bertilak goes out to hunt (described in elaborate detail), leaving Gawain to rest in the castle. Bertilak proposes that what he gains in the hunt shall be Gawain’s, providing Gawain gives him what he receives during the days in the castle. Gawain soon finds out that the seductive Lady Bertilak has designs on him, and while her lord is out hunting she slips into his chamber to let him know that ‘You are welcome to my body; your pleasure to take all.’ She does this each day, but Gawain resists temptation and gives her only kisses, which are in turn exchanged with Lord Bertilak, on his daily returns, for the spoils of the hunt (a deer, a fox and a boar).
In the final segment of the poem, Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel (usually identified as Lud’s Church, an atmospheric deep sandstone chasm near the village of Gradbach, Staffordshire) to meet his fate with the Green Knight, although arraigned with a ‘green and gold girdle’ given to him by Lady Bertilak for his protection. The pair meet, and Gawain submits to three blows from the Green Knight’s axe, the first two of which are feigned and then the third merely nicking his neck to draw blood. Honour is satisfied, and the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak himself, magically transformed into the green knight by Arthur’s arch-enemy, his half-sister Morgan le Fay.
‘For it is mine that you wear, that same woven girdle;
my own wife gave it you, I know it well forsooth.
Now, know I well your kisses and conduct too,
and the wooing of my wife; I wrought it myself.
I sent her to test you, and truly I think you
the most faultless man that was ever afoot.’
Gawain returns to Camelot, chastened but wiser, realising that the whole ruse had been manipulated by Morgan le Fay in one of her perennial attempts to undermine Arthur’s precedence in Britain.
Arthurian Symbology and Metaphysics
The poem is loaded with symbology and metaphysical motifs, and while the themes of chivalry and Christian virtues run through the work, there is a clear undercurrent of pre-Christian, pagan value-systems integrated into the tale. The beheading game is evidently one of the central features of the story, and there are several precedents for it, for instance in the 12th-century Arthurian story Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes and the anonymous Perlesvaus from the 13th century. The earliest version is from the Irish story of Fled Bricrenn, dating from the 8th century, where the hero Cú Chulainn faces the same three blows as Gawain, from a giant. This would appear to be an ancient Celtic motif, embodying an ultimate test for the virtue and worthiness of the hero, that the author of Gawain was picking up from these and perhaps other sources.
The ‘game’ is intimately connected to the timespan allowed between blows by the disparate characters; a year and a day. This specific timeframe is important and frequently appears in medieval romances and folktales as the amount of time protagonists were given to succeed in quests. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer highlights the ancient global concept of the Divine King, who was to be ritually murdered after a period of time in charge, which was often a year and a day. The time period was also used in common law to substantiate the legal situation of unwed couples, and it was (in theory) the amount of time a person living under feudal serfdom needed to be absent from his lord’s manor to gain his freedom. Interestingly, a year and a day is also used in Wiccan and other neo-pagan traditions for the time of learning required before being initiated into the first degree. The year and a day motif is evidently embedded within the Gawain story as a message, conveying the idea that it is a magical time-frame. It was a symbolic time-marker for life quests, ruling over others, decisions being made, learning a tradition, securing a marriage, or gaining freedom as one year tips over into another. It is a motif deeply ingrained in both esoteric tradition and everyday life from an early date, and rooted in the cycles of the natural world, in Gawain’s case from one New Year to the next.
The overarching theme of the colour green in the poem links with this natural cycle. Although all the action takes place during winter, everything is dependent on the colour, from the Green Knight himself through to the protective girdle and the numerous descriptions of green vegetation, such as the holly branch held by the green knight when he enters Camelot and the ‘verdant dripping moss’ coating the Green Chapel. Green can be representative of rebirth and fertility, and one interpretation of its use in the poem is as the purveyor of life over death – the ‘Green Man’ sculptures found in so many medieval churches may be a codified pagan representation of fertile life overcoming death through the natural cycle. Many of these ‘Green Men’ date to the 14th century, and the Gawain poet would have undoubtedly been intimately aware of them, perhaps even conversant with their pagan cosmology. He certainly imbues every part of the poem with the colour, heightening the sense that the natural world (with green as its symbol) is more powerful and authentic than the veneer of the civilised world represented by the castles and chivalric codes of the stylised Arthurian world. The fact that no-one dies in the poem (unusual for an Arthurian story) strengthens the interpretation that it is at root an allegory about life triumphing over death.
But everything that happens in the poem is dependent on the intrusion of the supernatural into consensus reality. The clue given during the Green Knight’s entrance into Camelot, when he is described as ‘of phantom and faerie’, is confirmed after Gawain is let off at the Green Chapel, and we find out that Morgan le Fay has manipulated the entire proceedings:
‘Through the might of Morgan le Fay, that dwells in my house, and is mistress of magic, by crafts well learned the mysteries of Merlin, many has she taken, for she has dealt in depths full dearly sometime with that excellent sage, and that know all your knights at home.’
It turns out that she had been lurking in the shadows of Bertilak’s castle as ‘an ancient withered lady’, evidently disguising herself through faerie glamour. Despite having no dialogue in the poem, and appearing only briefly upon Gawain’s arrival at the castle, she has been pulling the strings with her usual metaphysical aplomb. The Green Knight/Bertilak even describes her as ‘a goddess.’ Despite having made her first appearance in Arthurian literature as a benign faerie half-sister of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1136-50), by the 14th century she invariably played a villainous role in The Matter of Britain, and always executing her machinations via supernatural means. She is an arbiter of fate and representative of an accepted metaphysical intrusion into the physical world, in the case of Gawain and the Green Knight as a tester of courage and rectitude. Her presence in the poem (and her ubiquity in the Arthurian corpus) ensures a magical, supernal dimension, which is unquestioned and establishes a medieval understanding of the world where the natural world could be transcended through what is essentially a pagan belief-system, even if the anonymous poet was wrapping it up within an orthodox Christian worldview.
This article is an amalgamation of some previous posts at deadbutdreaming, a shorter version of which was recently published byNew Dawn Magazine. It probably raises more questions than it gives answers, but I wanted to put these ideas in one place before moving on to any further Cosmic interpretations of what the faerie phenomenon might really be about. There has been an upsurge of interest in the potential ontological realities of the faeries in the last couple of years, and it seems as if folklore, Forteana, science, paranormal research and philosophical metaphysics may be beginning to draw together to tease out what has previously been hidden or unimagined. But the faeries remain elusive; always at the periphery of our cultural vision. They are not going to divest their secrets easily – and that’s perhaps as it should be.
What are the faeries? Where do they come from and where do they go when they’re not interacting with their human observers? Faeries have been an important part of the folkloric repertoire for hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of years, and while they are portrayed in the popular imagination through faerietales and have become disneyfied through the 20th century, their main presence is in the myriad of folktales and anecdotes from every part of the globe. They usually (though not always) take a humanoid form, and interact with human societies as amorphous supernatural entities, appearing in our world to both co-operate with people and as general arbiters of mischief, while also living in their own Otherworld, sometimes accessible to humans either through accident or abduction. While the phenomenon is ancient, the belief in these metaphysical beings continues, and there are thousands of encounter reports from all over the world every year, as demonstrated by the recent survey by The Fairy Investigation Society, which includes c.500 testimonies.
But folklorists are usually ambivalent about the faeries; they are likely to keep their distance from them, so to speak. While happy to record and discuss the beliefs of people who tell stories and anecdotes about them, most folklorists speak the language (at least in official publications) of the reductionist, materialist worldview that has held sway in Western civilisation for the last few hundred years, and they’ll often be reticent about assessing the potential actual reality of metaphysical beings. In the materialist’s world, faeries simply cannot exist. They must be reduced into a categorised cultural belief system, and any discussion of them will usually be couched in the accepted language of scientific rationalism. This creates a problem for any folklorist (or anybody else) who wants to look behind the stories and investigate the possibility that the faeries can be incorporated into our consensus reality as a genuine phenomenon.
But the reductionist scientific orthodoxy has been challenged recently by a range of philosophical hypotheses such as Idealism, backed up by quantum mechanical theory and experiment, which reinstates consciousness (not matter) as the primary mover and creator of reality. When this is done, entities such faeries are allowed back into the universe as an authentic phenomenon, and if we start to look in the right places, we begin to find that they are indeed everywhere… we just need to know where to look, or perhaps more accurately, how to look.
Our normal waking consciousness experiences less than 0.5% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, with visible light being less than 0.1% of this. If we take into account the current (mainstream) scientific hypothesis that this electromagnetic spectrum itself composes less than 8% of the universe, with the mysterious Dark Matter and Dark Energy taking up the rest, then we are at a good starting point to understand that our version of reality is extremely compromised. We may have the technology to utilise the unseen wavelengths in the spectrum, but they are not accessible to our ordinary consciousness, whilst Dark Matter and Dark Energy are totally inaccessible to our technology, and remain for the moment, nothing more than theory based on the by-product of mathematical equations. We also have to take into account the recent theoretical mind-bender that the universe may actually be a virtual reality hologram, put in place by (depending on who you listen to) a supreme being, aliens or future versions of humans, the latter option coming from NASA scientist Dr Rich Terrile. With this level of uncertainty about the reality we inhabit, and in order to gain an understanding of the world in which we live (and the unseen entities that may exist alongside us), we might be advised to fall back on the only known certainty allowed us: consciousness.
The Origins of the Faeries in Altered States of Consciousness
Our earliest known artistic portrayals of the world, and how human consciousness interacted with it, come in the form of cave paintings from all parts of the globe, starting c.35,000 BCE. Many of these cave paintings include humanoids and therianthropes, otherworldly entities that have been recorded alongside geometric imagery, stylised animals and landscapes. They are in effect our earliest known folklore. But what state of mind were our Palaeolithic ancestors in when they were painting these strange entities in often difficult to access caves and shelters?
The anthropologist David Lewis-Williams has made the convincing argument that these cave and rock-shelter paintings were produced by shamanic cultures to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of Lewis-Williams, and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are hundreds of motifs in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these Palaeolithic cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences on the walls of caves and rock shelters — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings and supernatural humanoids that correlate in many ways with later faerie types.
In his 2005 bookSupernatural, Graham Hancock vividly utilises Lewis-Williams’ work to discuss the continuity through time of entities experienced in altered states of consciousness, coming to the conclusion that the faeries of our historic period are one and the same as those portrayed in prehistoric caves. And writers such as Carlo Ginzburg and Emma Wilby have argued that there is a direct link between prehistoric shamanic storytelling and the folklore embodied in classical, medieval and later periods, that often incorporate entities such as nymphs and faeries; supernatural beings that interact with humanity when the conditions are right. Those conditions may well be reliant on the human participants undergoing an altered state of consciousness as a result of the ingestion of psychotropic compounds. There is certainly a preponderance of mushroom imagery associated to historic depictions of faeries, most especially the highly psychedelic red and white Amanita Muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom, and the psilocybin mushroom, both prevalent in Europe and Asia. If these historic folkloric manifestations of interactions with supernatural entities can be linked to the cave art of prehistory and preliterate societies, then we have a continuation of relationship with an alternative reality, accessed through altered states of consciousness, over a very long period of time.
Many of the European faerie motifs repeated in stories and anecdotes through the centuries to the present day were already in place during the medieval period. When folklorists began to collect these stories in earnest from the 19th century onwards, they found a belief in faeries amongst rural populations that was probably very close to the medieval belief and understanding of what faeries were and how they interacted with humanity. Many of the stories include situations where the protagonist interacts with the faeries in what seems an altered state of consciousness: Faerieland doesn’t comply to Newtonian physics, it is consistently inhabited by strange humanoids and therianthropes (the faeries), and there are lots of recurring story motifs that are highly suggestive of an autonomous reality being described. But this is not consensus reality, this is the folklore recording stories from people operating outside consensus reality. The folktales about faeries have been overlain with much allegorical storytelling, but at their root the realities they describe are of people in altered states of consciousness, perhaps not too far from the realities experienced by the Palaeolithic cave painters and shamanic practitioners.
WY Evans-Wentz, Rudolph Steiner and Metaphysical Nature Spirits
When the folklorist WY Evans-Wentz travelled around the Celtic world at the beginning of the 20th century, collecting stories and anecdotal experiences about the faeries, it was clear that most of his interviewees rated clairvoyance as the best way of altering the conscious state to a position where it could interact with the faeries. Seership or second-sight was the method of entering, or at least viewing, an alternative reality inhabited by a relatively consistent cast of characters, usually recognised as the faeries. He met one such (un-named) Irish clairvoyant in Rosses Point, County Sligo. This seer talked about various types of faeries that inhabited the landscape of Sligo, “making them sound like a cross between nature spirits and mystical visions.” But Evans-Wentz was just as interested in the mechanics of interacting with the faeries as he was with the stories themselves. How did the seer interface with them?
“I have always made a distinction between pictures seen in the memory of nature and visions of actual beings now existing in the inner world. We can make the same distinction in our world: I may close my eyes and see you as a vivid picture in memory, or I may look at you with my physical eyes and see your actual image. In seeing these beings of which I speak, the physical eyes may be open or closed: mystical beings in their own world and nature are never seen with the physical eyes.”
The rural people interviewed by Evans-Wentz consistently affirmed that clairvoyant alteration of consciousness was the best sure-fire way to see the faeries. By the time Evans-Wentz visited these communities, there was a sense that the number of people gifted with second-sight was dwindling; cutting down on communication with the faeries. But at the same time as these rural communities were feeling the increasing pressures of modernism there was a reaction by organisations such as The Theosophical Society (first founded in 1875), which attempted to incorporate metaphysics into an understanding of reality. And their prime metaphysical technology was clairvoyance. The Austrian Theosophist Rudolf Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness, thoughts:
“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, Perception of the Elemental World (1913).
Steiner described the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world, when perceived clairvoyantly, in what he calls the Supersensible World. For Steiner the elementals in the Supersensible World existed as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of vegetation. Steiner (basing his epistemology on that originally developed by the 15th-century alchemist Paracelsus) divides these entities into four main types corresponding to earth (Gnomic), water (Undines), air (Sylphs) and heat/light (Salamanders). This is the faerie realm, existing as a non-material autonomous reality that crosses over with ours, and which can be accessed via a clairvoyant altered state of consciousness. Steiner thought everyone has this innate ability, but they had to be taught how to use it… it had somehow become almost forgotten amongst humanity.
This idea finds common ground with the recent work of biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who proposes that morphogenetic fields are the formative causation allowing life on earth. Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are as essential in ordering life on earth as accepted non-material forces such as gravity. Sheldrake calls these morphogenetic fields ‘the memory of nature.’ In effect, Steiner saw nature spirits as anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly.
The Faeries and DMT
But what allows this access to otherworldly realms and the entities that seem to exist there? What allows for clairvoyance, or second-sight? The answer may lie with the substance called N, N-Dimethyltryptamine – DMT. This molecule is one of the main active ingredients in the Ayahuasca brew used by Amazonian shamans, but it is also produced endogenously in everyone’s brain, potentially (but not definitely) in the pineal gland. It’s usually safely dispersed around the brain and body for functional duties, but it seems that under certain circumstances, it can be released in higher quantities, causing an altered state of consciousness. This would require the DMT to be released in conjunction with Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOI), which inhibit naturally occurring enzymes in the human body. This inhibition leads to increased levels of chemicals such as the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. By slowing their metabolism, MAOIs can allow a surge of DMT production to have full effect and create radically transformed states of consciousness.
There is some evidence that this can happen during a frontal lobe epileptic seizure. This may be the root of the well-documented 17th-century Cornish story of Anne Jefferies’ abduction by diminutive faeries when she suffered a ‘convulsion fit’ and was transported (at least in her mind) to a numinous world inhabited by the faeries. The author Eve LaPlante has used historic and contemporary examples to demonstrate that Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can provide access to an altered state of consciousness where the human mind participates in a reality several steps removed from the consensus material world. This often includes full immersion in alternative landscapes and contact with non-human intelligence.
The late and great Terence McKenna was an enthusiastic user of the synthesised form of DMT to access different realities, and coined the term ‘self-transforming machine elves’ for the creatures he regularly found there. As if to confirm Terence’s assertions, a research study conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent physical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she called ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not an hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy.
The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. There is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants.
There are dozens of recorded experiences from the study, and the participants are all engaging in a non-physical reality directly with their consciousness, seemingly separated from their physical selfs. Some of the experiences agree in type to certain aspects of the faerie phenomenon. But what the research demonstrates is that under the right conditions, human consciousness can operate within a distinct and separate universe inhabited by a range of apparently autonomous entities. These entities may be one and the same as the metaphysical beings recorded in prehistoric cave art and historic folklore, by people who were describing the beings encountered during various types of altered states of consciousness, brought on either actively or passively. The faeries may change superficially through time, adapting to the expectations of the culture they are part of, but if it is human consciousness they are interacting with, this is no surprise. Underneath the cultural masks, the faeries begin to reveal their true selfs.
Materialism vs Consciousness
There are many reasons why folklore about the faeries exists, and it certainly seems that interacting with them during an altered state of consciousness is one of them. Are they real experiences? They are subjectively real, but what is the objective reality? A Theosophist clairvoyant would suggest that we need to override our five senses with a dynamic type of consciousness that commands prominence over the material world. They would probably agree with Aldous Huxley’s description of a universal consciousness being ‘Mind at Large’ and that the brain is a ‘reducing valve transceiver’, that can be retuned by a variety of methods. Huxley did this with Mescaline (and later LSD), describing the experiences in his 1954 book The Doors of Perception.
The brain certainly gives us a very limited view of what is actually going on around us. Altering the transmission to the brain seems to allow non-material consciousness more of a free rein. As in a dream, an altered consciousness is able to construct metaphysical realities. It is able to communicate with the entities it finds there, and bring back a report. The relative consistency of the inhabitants of this alternative reality may suggest that they live there all the time, non-physical, and only able to interact with our physical world when conditions are right for an individual’s consciousness. This is the crux: does consciousness create physical reality, or is consciousness an epiphenomenon of the brain? If the former, then the realities experienced in altered states of consciousness can be accepted as true, with their own autonomous existence. If the latter, then while entities such as the faeries may be subjectively real, they do not exist objectively within the electromagnetic spectrum. This is the materialist/physicalist view. Although even physicalism has to adhere to its own rules and allow for the hypothesis that over 90% of the universe consists of non-physical form: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Maybe that’s where the faeries are; waiting to be found.
Faeries and Aliens
But the ontological reality of faeries (in whatever form) has in recent decades become linked to other ‘paranormal’ activity types, primary of which is the intrusion into our consensus reality of entities usually known as aliens. The first person to suggest a definitive link between the the reports of faerie experiences and alien encounters was the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée. In his 1969 book Passport to Magoniahe put forward the theory that the faeries were one and the same as the alien beings who had been purportedly abducting people around the world for a couple of decades by that date. His hypothesis is that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore. He suggests the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. He makes special reference to the regular motifs in faerie-tales of the abduction, by various means, of humans by faeries. There’s a lot of data here – it’s the commonest motif in faerie folklore, and continues to be reported in anecdotal testimonies. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to an alternative faerie reality, either as midwives or nurses for faerie children, as servants to the faeries, for sex, as punishment or reward, or just because the faeries feel like it. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the consistently strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s. Vallée uses a range of evidence to tie-up faerie abductions from folklore and alien abductions from modern reports, and goes as far to state:
“… the modern, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs and lutins of the Middle Ages. Through the observations of unidentified flying objects, we are concerned with an agency our ancestors knew well and regarded with terror: we are prying into the affairs of The Secret Commonwealth.”
The Secret Commonwealth was the term coined for the faeries by the Reverend Robert Kirk in a manuscript of 1691, which includes a detailed description of their appearance, habits and exploits, gleaned from both his own experiences and those Scottish Highlanders purporting to have second-sight, or clairvoyance. As Vallée points out, Kirk’s descriptions of the faeries and their modus operandi bear more than a passing resemblance to the alien visitors of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Among their attributes was an ability to float through the air with insubstantial and fluid bodies, that they could make appear and disappear at will. This allowed them to ‘swim’ through the air and carry off mortals, usually to large circular abodes, that Kirk presumed were underground, and which were lit by a dim, unknown illumination. They even had ‘ætheriall vehicles’ to carry them around the sky. Kirk also asserted that the faeries had a nature intermediate between humans and angels. Their habit of abducting humans was usually for the purpose of wet-nursing faerie children or as midwives; a theme that fits in with the deluge of recent alien abduction reports (subsequent to Vallée’s investigations in 1969) that would suggest one of the main reasons for abduction is to obtain both parents and wet-nurses for hybrid human-alien offspring. Vallée quotes the 19th-century folklorist Edwin Hartland’s suggestion that such a programme of hybridisation was a primary reason for faerie abductions:
“The motive assigned to fairies in northern stories is that of preserving and improving their race, on the one had by carrying off human children to be brought up among the elves and to become united with them, and on the other hand by obtaining the milk and fostering care of human mothers for their own offspring.”
In 2005, Graham Hancock followed Vallee’s lead and took the comparison of faerie and alien abduction much further in his book Supernatural (after dealing with the elements of prehistoric shamanic cave-painting depictions of entities, discussed above). He compiled a range of faerie abduction reports from various time periods and geographical locations and set them against modern-day alien abduction events. He pays special attention to the faerie abduction of young women, such as Mrs Sheridan, an Irish woman, who seems to have spent much of the last decade of the 19th century being whisked off by the fairies for wet-nursing duties:
“Where they brought me I don’t know, or how I got there, but I’d be in a very big house, and it was round, the walls far away that you’d hardly see them, and a great many faeries all about… but they wouldn’t speak to me nor I to them.”
These ‘long-faced’ faeries had a definite purpose for kidnapping her and weren’t too concerned with her tearful appeals to release her – she had a job to do, and that was feeding their faerie babies. The correlation between these types of folkloric encounters and the alien abductions of women is striking. Hancock surveys the work of the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack and the cultural historian David Jacobs, who have made extensive studies of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, often using hypnotic techniques to extract memories from amnesic events. It’s a minefield subject (mostly due to the vagaries of extracting memories from hypnosis), but John Mack in particular is a convincing advocate of the notion that whatever the experiences represent, they are genuinely real to the participant. The abductee, after being floated or beamed aboard the UFO is taken to a part of the ship where there seem to be drawers or tanks of hybrid alien-human babies, which they are expected to nurse. There is a consistency to these experiences (there are tens of thousands of them) that provides a dataset of testimony that Mack and Jacobs insist must be taken seriously as a phenomenon. For the abductees, the experience is often highly traumatic (Mack states that the best psychiatric diagnosis for many abductees is post-traumatic stress disorder), and no wonder, when they are confronted with alien hybrids often described as more like foetuses than babies. One abductee described to Mack their appearance, which is fairly typical:
“Their bodies were short for their heads. Their heads seemed oversized. They had very blue eyes. They had very thin, wispy hair… I would say they were probably three and a half feet tall, but they all looked the same age. ‘You’re our mother and we need you,’ they said.”
The evidence presented by Jacques Vallée and Graham Hancock makes a convincing argument for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 20th/21st century. It is a relation that has been skilfully investigated by Joshua Cutchin in his 2018 book Thieves in the Night: A Brief History of Supernatural Child Abductions, where he uses a wide range of folkloric, historic and modern testimony data to investigate child abductions by supernatural entities, coming to the conclusion that:
“The parallels between aliens and faeries are remarkable and extend deeply into the lore surrounding paranormal child abduction. The means and motivations behind both phenomena imply a shared ontological reality…”
The experiences are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and suggest the possibility of a common source for the phenomena. But what is that source? Is it purely a metaphysical attribute interacting at the non-material level of consciousness, or is there a physical dimension? Perhaps more importantly, can we make the differentiation between consciousness and material reality?
This brings us back to the ontology of faerie experiences; what are these entities that have been a part of humanity for thousands of years, and where do they come from? They may be adapting to cultural codes, even evolving into new forms, but at what level of reality do they exist?
An answer may be to utilise David Luke’s three-part interpretation for metaphysical entity contact. He used it to assess a study into the otherworldly beings (many of which had faerie-attributes) encountered by people who had altered their states of consciousness with DMT, but it is also a valid tool to evaluate what may be happening to anyone who reports a numinous experience that includes interaction with non-ordinary entities such as the faeries:
They are hallucinations. The entities are subjective hallucinations. Such a position is favoured by those taking a purely (materialist-reductionist) neuropsychological approach to the phenomena.
They are psychological/ transpersonal manifestations. The communicating entities appear alien but are actually unfamiliar aspects of ourselves, be they our reptilian brain or our cells, molecules or sub-atomic particles.
The entities exist in otherworlds and can interact with our physical reality. A numinous experience provides access to a true alternate dimension inhabited by independently existing intelligent entities in a stand-alone reality, which exists co-laterally with ours, and may interact with our world when certain conditions are met. The identity of the entities remains speculative.
Of course, all three interpretations may be true at different times and under various circumstances. From a materialist-reductionist standpoint, all faerie experiences could be reduced to hallucinatory events. There is no physical residue as an after-effect of the interactions, and the reports are all limited to visual and audio experiences. While the specific adjuncts allowing for the hallucinations to take place cannot be properly analysed, seeing them all as aberrations of visual and audial fields remains one legitimate interpretation.
This explanatory model is reliant on the theory that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The implication is that the brain, for whatever reason, is simply misconstruing sensory input from a physical world where things like faeries simply do not exist. This is the hard and fast materialist-reductionist standpoint, which is deeply embedded in Western culture. But, as discussed above, it is a standpoint that is now challenged at a fundamental level not only by religious and mystical traditions, but also by the recently reinvented philosophy of Kantian Idealism and by a growing number of quantum physicists, who (using a wide range of methodologies) suggest that the brain is a reducer of consciousness, not a creator of it. This model sees consciousness (not matter) as primary; it is everywhere and it is everything, and individual human (and animal) brains are merely conveying it within the remit of what then becomes physical reality. For the most part, this physical reality has a closely defined rule-set, but under certain conditions the usual laws break down and metaphysical events can occur. These supernatural occurrences are thus as legitimate as any natural occurrence. The philosopher Jeffrey Kripal describes this in relation to traumatic episodes that cause apparently non-ordinary experiences in his 2017 book written with Whitley Streiber, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained:
“The body-brain crafts consciousness into a human form through a vast network of highly evolved biology, neurology, culture, language, family, and social interactions until a more or less stable ego or ‘I’ emerges, rather like the way the software and hardware of your laptop can pick up a Wi-Fi signal and translate the Internet into the specificities of your screen and social media. The analogy is a rough and imperfect one, but it gets the basic point across. Sometimes, however, the reducer is compromised or temporarily suppressed. The filtering or reduction of consciousness does not quite work, and other forms of mind or dimensions of consciousness, perhaps even other species or forms of life, that are normally shut out now ‘pop in.’ In extreme cases, it may seem that the cosmos itself has suddenly come alive and is all there. Perhaps it is.”
While most faerie encounters are not the result of trauma, this helps us to perhaps understand preternatural faerie experiences as something metaphysical being allowed to ‘pop in’ from either a greater, transcendent form of consciousness, or from an alternative reality to which humans do not usually have access. This would fit with either of David Luke’s second and third interpretations for supernatural entity contact. Simply put, a numinous zone has been entered and the participant is able to make contact with what usually resides external to their ordinary consciousness.
Experiences in numinous zones could be extended to a variety preternatural encounters, from ghost apparitions through to Near Death Experiences and UFO abduction scenarios, but it would seem that the faeries, as an ontological taxonomic, remain a consistent, even persistent, form of entity that interact with our consensus reality. While reports of the faeries from history have often been turned into folkloric stories (frequently with a moral lesson inserted into the plot line), modern encounters usually take the form of anecdotal testimony. But the phenomenological types of faeries retain an adherence to their folkloric roots. They can receive an updated appearance, and cultural coding, but they remain recognisable as faeries. Graham Hancock has summed up what may be happening if we allow the faeries some type of metaphysical reality:
“If we are prepared to set aside the automatic scepticism and reductionism of our age, and if we spell out the problem in plain language, then we find that we are contemplating the existence of highly intelligent discarnate entities belonging to an order of creation fundamentally different than our own… it really is almost as though the beings we are dealing with have been changing and developing alongside us for thousands of years, and that they therefore cannot simply be mass delusions, but must have a definite, independent reality outside the human brain.”
Whatever their true nature, it seems that for the faeries to make contact with humanity they require our consciousness to become loosened from the usual restraints, and to enter a numinous zone. If the model of reality affirmed by Idealism is correct, then this zone may be allowing us to access a greater Over-Mind, where exist entities that represent either a stand-alone autonomous class of their own, or perhaps aspects of the human collective consciousness (as explicated by Carl Jung), which is usually filtered out through the reducing valve of the brain. Either way, it appears that the faeries are here to stay, functioning in some nebulous region where any interpretation of them is reliant on us finding a way to incorporate consciousness into physical reality. This is something that has eluded both philosophers and scientists for millennia, and so perhaps it is no surprise that the faeries – whether nature spirits, inter-dimensional beings, aliens, or products of our collective imagination – for the moment, remain an intangible part of our cultural zeitgeist.
The cover image is by the reliably supernal artist Ylenia Viola, whose artwork can be found at Fairytalesneverdie. Thanks to Ylenia for her permission to reproduce this image called ‘This is a Work of Fiction’.