Some Faerie Fiction

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

Exordium

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you,” I whispered.

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

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

At the Psychiatric Hospital

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

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

‘I guess. Is she still ok for this?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So why is she here?’

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

‘So what are her problems?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

‘Hola.’

‘Hello. Fernanda?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you see them now?’

She laughed, then smiled. I blushed.

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

I chuckled. ‘But do you see them?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mañana,’ she called.

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

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

***

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

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


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


‘Hey Fernanda. Nice day… bit windy.’


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

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

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

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

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

‘There has been a suicide.’

‘Really? In the hospital?’

‘No, here. In the cobertizo.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fernanda, I… I… .’

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Metaphysical Journey

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

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

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

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

The Plot and Landscape of the Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthurian Symbology and Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

’Morgan le Fay’ by Frederick Sandys (1864)

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

References

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

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

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

Elliott, Ralph WV, The Gawain Country (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Faerie Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

The Electromagnetic Spectrum, Dark Matter and Dark Energy

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

The Origins of the Faeries in Altered States of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WY Evans-Wentz, Rudolph Steiner and Metaphysical Nature Spirits

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

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

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

“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, Perception of the Elemental World (1913).

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

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

The Faeries and DMT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materialism vs Consciousness

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

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

Faeries and Aliens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ontological Faeries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Profile:

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

Thieves in the Night official release trailer

The Mabinogion: Worlds and Otherworlds in Medieval Wales

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

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

The Mabinogion

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

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

and three ‘romances’:

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

and supplemented by four further stories of various dates:

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

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Peredur Son of Evrawg and the flaming tree, artist unknown

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

An Oral Tradition

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

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The White Book of Rhydderch, National Library of Wales

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

The Arthurian Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arthur and Owain play a game of gwyddbwyll by Alan Lee

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

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

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A map of the stories of The Mabinogion

References

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

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

Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur (2008).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Numinous Zone: Preternatural Modern Faeries

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

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

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

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

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‘The Introduction’ by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Some Examples from the Census

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Fairy Bridge’, Isle of Man

Themes and Drifts in the Census

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

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‘Fairies Appear’ by Charles Sims (1900)

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

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

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

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

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

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‘After the Faerie Ball’ by Josephine Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Nature Spirits’ by Thylacine-Girl

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

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

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

A Numinous Zone

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

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

Of course, all three interpretations may be true at different times and under various circumstances. From a materialist-reductionist standpoint, all of the experiences in the census could be reduced to hallucinatory events. There is no physical residue as an after-effect of the interactions, and the reports are all limited to visual and audio experiences. While the specific adjuncts allowing for the hallucinations to take place cannot be properly analysed, seeing them all as aberrations of visual and audial fields remains one legitimate interpretation. This reductionist standpoint becomes more difficult to apply in the cases of shared experiences, of which there are several in the census (including #160 and #240, discussed above). Although even these could be put down to psychological suggestion, transferred from one participant to another.

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

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

9780143109501“The body-brain crafts consciousness into a human form through a vast network of highly evolved biology, neurology, culture, language, family, and social interactions until a more or less stable ego or ‘I’ emerges, rather like the way the software and hardware of your laptop can pick up a Wi-Fi signal and translate the Internet into the specificities of your screen and social media. The analogy is a rough and imperfect one, but it gets the basic point across. Sometimes, however, the reducer is compromised or temporarily suppressed. The filtering or reduction of consciousness does not quite work, and other forms of mind or dimensions of consciousness, perhaps even other species or forms of life, that are normally shut out now ‘pop in.’ In extreme cases, it may seem that the cosmos itself has suddenly come alive and is all there. Perhaps it is.”

While the census respondents did not (with a few exceptions) report their encounters as the result of any trauma, the preternatural events they experienced could be interpreted, using the Idealism theory, as something metaphysical being allowed to ‘pop in’ from either a greater, transcendent form of consciousness, or from an alternative reality to which humans do not usually have access. This would fit with either of David Luke’s second and third interpretations for supernatural entity contact. Simply put, a numinous zone has been entered and the participant is able to make contact with what usually resides external to their ordinary consciousness.

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

Experiences in numinous zones could be extended to a variety preternatural encounters, from ghost apparitions through to Near Death Experiences and UFO abduction scenarios,  but it would seem that the faeries, as an ontological taxonomic, remain a consistent, even persistent, form of entity that interact with our consensus reality. While reports of the faeries from history have often been turned into folkloric stories (frequently with a moral lesson inserted into the plot line), modern encounters, such as those from the census, usually take the form of anecdotal testimony. But the phenomenological types of faeries retain an adherence to their folkloric roots. They can receive an updated appearance, and cultural coding, but they remain recognisable as faeries. Graham Hancock has summed up what may be happening if we allow the faeries some type of metaphysical reality; from his 2005 book Supernatural:

supernatural1-2“If we are prepared to set aside the automatic scepticism and reductionism of our age, and if we spell out the problem in plain language, then we find that we are contemplating the existence of highly intelligent discarnate entities belonging to an order of creation fundamentally different than our own… it really is almost as though the beings we are dealing with have been changing and developing alongside us for thousands of years, and that they therefore cannot simply be mass delusions, but must have a definite, independent reality outside the human brain.”

Whatever their true nature, it seems that for the faeries to make contact with humanity they require our consciousness to become loosened from its usual restraints, and to enter a numinous zone. If the model of reality affirmed by Idealism is correct, then this zone may be allowing us to access a greater Over-Mind, where exist entities that represent either a stand-alone autonomous class of their own, or perhaps aspects of the human collective consciousness (as explicated by Carl Jung), which is usually filtered out through the reducing valve of the brain. But even if this is correct, the question remains: why? What purpose are these encounters serving? And is there a meaning to it? Unfortunately, these are very big questions and beyond the scope of this present article. So, with the promise of exploring this in more detail in a future article, we’ll end with a somewhat Cosmic hypothesis, initially intimated by Terence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham in their 1998 book The Evolutionary Mind: Conversations on Science, Imagination & Spirit, but recently fleshed out in some more detail by Jeffrey Kripal. It opens up the possibility that the census respondents, and innumerable people before them, are tapping into a truly transcendent phenomenon when they find themselves in a numinous zone. Kripal explains it thus:

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

~~~

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

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

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

The Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

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

The Phenomenon

The worldwide stories of faerie changelings come under a group of folklore motifs recorded in the Aarne-Thompson index as F321: ‘Faerie steals child from cradle and leaves faerie substitute.’ The basic premise of these motifs is that the faeries, through supernatural means, are capable of abducting babies from humans, while replacing them with one of their own, usually a wizened old faerie who would proceed to eat and drink voraciously, and maintain a surly silence. With external advice the parents are usually advised of how to rid themselves of the changeling and restore their own baby from the faeries. The ruse is carried through and (usually) works. There are many variations on the story, but the Brother’s Grimm summed up in concise form the main components of a typical changeling story from mid 19th-century Germany:

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Changeling’ by Alan Lee

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

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

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

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

The Meaning of the Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

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

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

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

This attempt to explain the injustice of infant sickness through the introduction of a supernatural element into the folklore may well help us understand the deeper meanings of the stories. The Christian explanation for infant sickness and death was not enough and at the vernacular level, people sought and created a certain type of story, with defined motifs that would help to explain why children might be infirm, and the pressures it put on a family, especially in a subsistence economy. Unfortunately, many of the changeling stories include some radical solutions for dispatching the faerie and securing the return of the human baby. This frequently involves throwing them on fires, exposing them on hillsides or drowning. Sometimes the threat of these sanctions is enough to get the desired result, but there is usually some viciousness in the stories, at the expense of the changeling. And this brings us back to the actual belief in faerie changelings.

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‘Der Wechselbalg’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

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

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‘Changeling’ original watercolour by Victoria Grimalkin

By the beginning of the 20th century, the changeling motif was mostly relegated to the folklore of what happened in the past, but which doesn’t happen anymore. Improved hygiene and greater access to medicine, raised life-expectancy in rural populations and lowered child infirmity. At the same time the development of universal education ensured the new scientific view of child infirmity and disease replaced many of the folk beliefs that had previously attempted to explain why children became ill, and what could be done about it. But the deeper meaning of changeling folklore remains. At its roots it offered psychological therapy through storytelling to people who were in difficult situations due to a child’s infirmity. The faeries acted as the supernatural agency to explain traumatic experiences that were otherwise unexplainable. It is this supernatural quality to the changeling stories that allowed their long existence in folklore, and which gives us a vivid insight into the consensus reality of the past.

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

References

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

Ashliman, DL, ‘Changelings’ (1997).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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