Deadbutdreaming is delighted to welcome the author Mike Jay as a guest contributor. Mike has written extensively on scientific and medical history. His books on the history of drugs include High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture and his most recent Mescaline: a Global History of the First Psychedelic. In this article he investigates early reports of mushroom-induced trips and how one species in particular became established as a stock motif of Victorian fairyland. It’s an insightful dive into the topic and thanks to both Mike and Adam Green (Editor-in-Chief/Co-Founder of The Public Domain Review) for permission to republish.
The first recorded mushroom trip in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on October 3, 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man identified in the subsequent medical report as “J. S.” was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished it, everything began to turn very strange. J. S. noticed black spots and odd flashes of colour interrupting his vision; he became disorientated and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help, but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering in a confused staBy chance a physician named Everard Brande was passing through this part of town, and he was summoned to treat J. S. and his family. The scene he witnessed was so unusual that he wrote it up at length and published it in The Medical and Physical Journal a few months later.1 The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses fluttering, and their breathing laboured, periodically returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. All were fixated on the fear that they were dying except for the youngest, the eight-year-old son named as “Edward S.”, whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter” which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: “when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked
The first recorded mushroom trip in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on October 3, 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man identified in the subsequent medical report as “J. S.” was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished it, everything began to turn very strange. J. S. noticed black spots and odd flashes of colour interrupting his vision; he became disorientated and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help, but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering in a confused state.
By chance, a physician named Everard Brande was passing through this part of town, and he was summoned to treat J. S. and his family. The scene he witnessed was so unusual that he wrote it up at length and published it in The Medical and Physical Journal a few months later.1 The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses fluttering, and their breathing laboured, periodically returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. All were fixated on the fear that they were dying except for the youngest, the eight-year-old son named as “Edward S.”, whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter” which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: “when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked”.
Dr Brande diagnosed the family’s condition as the “deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous”. Today, we can be more specific: this was intoxication by liberty caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the “magic mushrooms” that grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses, and playing fields of Britain every autumn. The botanical illustrator James Sowerby, who was working on the third volume of his landmark Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803), interrupted his schedule to visit J. S. and identify the species in question. Sowerby’s illustration includes a cluster of unmistakable liberty caps, together with a similar-looking species (now recognised as a roundhead of the Stropharia genus). In his accompanying note, Sowerby emphasises that it was the pointy-headed variety (“with the pileus acuminated”) that “nearly proved fatal to a poor family in Piccadilly, London, who were so indiscreet as to stew a quantity” for breakfast.
Tab 248 from James Sowerby’s Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803). The mushrooms numbered 1, 2, and 3, are all liberty caps — Source.
Brande’s account of the J. S. family’s episode continued to be cited in Victorian drug literature for decades, yet the nineteenth century would come and go without any clear identification of the liberty cap as hallucinogenic. The psychedelic compound that had caused the mysterious derangement remained unknown until the 1950s when Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD, turned his attention to the hallucinogenic mushrooms of Mexico. Psilocybin, LSD’s chemical cousin, was finally isolated from mushrooms in 1958, synthesised in a Swiss laboratory in 1959, and identified in the liberty cap in 1963.2
During the nineteenth century, the liberty cap took on a different set of associations, derived not from its visionary properties but its distinctive appearance. Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems to have been the first to suggest its common name in a short piece published in 1812 in Omniana, a miscellany co-written with Robert Southey. Coleridge was struck by that “common fungus, which so exactly represents the pole and cap of Liberty that it seems offered by Nature herself as the appropriate emblem of Gallic republicanism”.3 The cap of Liberty, or Phrygian cap, a peaked felt bonnet associated with the similar-looking pileus worn by freed slaves in the Roman empire, had become an icon of political freedom through the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. William of Orange included it as a symbol on a coin struck to celebrate his Glorious Revolution in 1688; the anti-monarchist MP John Wilkes holds it, mounted on its pole, in William Hogarth’s devilish caricature of 1763. It appears on a medal designed by Benjamin Franklin to commemorate July 4, 1776, under the banner LIBERTAS AMERICANA, and it was adopted during the French Revolution by the sans-culottes as their signature bonnet rouge. It was these associations — rather than its psychoactive properties, of which he shows no knowledge — that led Coleridge to celebrate it as the “mushroom Cap of Liberty”, a name that percolated through the many reprints of Omniana into nineteenth-century British culture, folklore, and botany.
Left: Benjamin Franklin’s commemorative medal “Libertas Americana”, 1782 — Source; Right: William Hogarth’s 1763 caricature of John Wilkes with pole and cap of liberty — Source.
While the liberty cap’s “magic” properties seemed to go largely unacknowledged, the idea that fungi could provoke hallucinations did begin to percolate more widely in Europe during the nineteenth century — though it became attached to a quite different species of mushroom. In parallel to a growing scientific interest in toxic and hallucinogenic fungi, a vast body of Victorian fairy lore connected mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills, and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives seething with elemental spirits. The similarity of this otherworld to those engendered by plant psychedelics in New World cultures, where psilocybin-containing mushrooms have been used for millennia, is suggestive. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, beneath its innocent exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden tradition of psychedelic knowledge? Were the authors of these fantastical narratives — Alice in Wonderland, for example — aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?
The J. S. family’s trip in 1799 is a useful starting point for such enquiries. It shows liberty caps were growing in Britain at the time, and commonplace even in London’s parks. But also, the trip evidences that the mushroom’s hallucinogenic effects were unfamiliar, perhaps even unheard of: certainly unusual enough for a London physician to draw them to the attention of his learned colleagues. At the same time, however, scholars and naturalists were becoming more aware of the widespread use of plant intoxicants in non-western cultures. In 1762 Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist and father of modern botany, compiled the first-ever list of intoxicating plants: a monograph entitled Inebriantia, which assembled a global pharmacopoeia that extended from Europe (opium, henbane) to the Middle East (hashish, datura), South America (coca leaf), Asia (betel nut), and the Pacific (kava). The study of such plants was emerging from the margins of classical studies, ethnography, folklore, and medicine to become a subject in its own right.
The interest in traditional cultures extended to European folklore. A new generation of folklore collectors, such as the Brothers Grimm, realised that the migration of peasant populations to the city was dismantling centuries of folk stories, songs, and oral histories with alarming rapidity. In Britain, Robert Southey was a prominent collector of vanishing folk traditions, soliciting and publishing examples offered by his readers. The Victorian fairy tradition, as it emerged, was imbued with a Romantic sensibility in which rustic traditions were no longer coarse and backward but picturesque and semi-sacred, an escape from industrial modernity into an ancient, often pagan land of enchantment. The subject lent itself to writers and artists who, under the guise of innocence, were able to explore sensual and erotic themes with a boldness off limits in more realistic genres and to reimagine the muddy and impoverished countryside through the prism of classical and Shakespearian scenes of playful nature spirits. The lore of plants and flowers was carefully curated and woven into supernatural tapestries of flower-fairies and enchanted woods, and mushrooms and toadstools popped up everywhere. Fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves were recycled through a pictorial culture of motif and decoration until they became emblematic of fairyland itself.
Illustration by Richard Doyle from his In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf-World (1870) — Source.
This magical allure marked a shift from previous depictions of Britain’s fungi. In herbals and medical texts from the Renaissance onwards, they had typically been associated with rot, dung-heaps, and poison. The new generation of folklorists, however, followed Coleridge in appreciating them. Thomas Keightley, whose survey The Fairy Mythology (1850) exerted much influence on the fictional fairy tradition, gives Welsh and Gaelic examples of traditional names for fungi which invoke elves and Puck. In Ireland, the Gaelic slang for mushrooms is “pookies”, which Keightley associated with the elemental nature spirit Pooka (hence Puck); it’s a term that persists in Irish drug culture today, although evidence for pre-modern Gaelic magic mushroom use remains elusive. At one point Keightley refers to “those pretty small delicate fungi, with their conical heads, which are named Fairy-mushrooms in Ireland, where they grow so plentifully”.4 This seems to describe the liberty cap, though Keightley, like Coleridge, focuses on the physical appearance of the mushroom and appears unaware of its psychedelic properties.
Despite its ubiquity, and occasional and tentative association with nature spirits, the mushroom that became the distinctive motif of fairyland was not the liberty cap but rather the spectacular red-and-white fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). The fly agaric is psychoactive but unlike the liberty cap, which delivers psilocybin in reliable doses, it contains a mix of alkaloids — muscarine, muscimol, ibotenic acid — which generate an unpredictable and toxic cocktail of effects. These can include wooziness and disorientation, drooling, sweats, numbness in the lips and extremities, nausea, muscle twitches, sleep, and a vague, often retrospective sense of liminal consciousness and waking dreams. At lower doses, none of these may manifest; at higher doses they may lead to coma and, on rare occasions, death.
Watercolour depiction of the fly agaric, 1892. Likely painted at an art class near Bristol, England, the writing says “Agaricus muscarius” and “Leigh woods Sept/92” — Source.
Unlike the liberty cap, the fly agaric is hard to ignore or misidentify, and its toxicity has been well established for centuries (its name derives from its ability to kill flies). One could argue then that this aura of livid beauty and danger would alone be enough to explain its association with the otherworldly realm of fairies. Yet at the same time its mind-altering effects were becoming more widely known, not from any rustic tradition in Britain but from the discovery that it was used as an intoxicant among the remote peoples of Siberia. Sporadically through the eighteenth century, Swedish and Russian explorers had returned from Siberia with travellers’ tales of shamans, spirit possession, and self-poisoning with brightly-coloured toadstools; but it was a Polish traveller named Joseph Kopék who was the first to write an account of his own first-hand experience with the fly agaric, which appeared in an 1837 publication of his travel diary.
In around 1797, after he had been living in Kamchatka for two years, Kopék was taken ill with a fever and was told by a local of a “miraculous” mushroom that would cure him. He ate half a fly agaric and fell into a vivid fever dream. “As though magnetised”, he was drawn through “the most attractive gardens where only pleasure and beauty seemed to rule”; beautiful women dressed in white fed him with fruits, berries, and flowers. He woke after a long and healing sleep and took a second, stronger dose, which precipitated him back into slumber and the sense of an epic voyage into another world. He relived swathes of his childhood, re-encountered friends from throughout his life, and even predicted the future at length with such confidence that a priest was summoned to witness. He concluded with a challenge to science: “If someone can prove that both the effect and the influence of the mushroom are non-existent, then I shall stop being defender of the miraculous mushroom of Kamchatka”.5
Illustration of a Siberian Evenki shaman from Nicolaas Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartarye (1705) — Source.
Illustrations by Ivan Bilibin for an 1899 edition of the Russian fairytale Vasilisa the Beautiful. On the left we see the supernatural being Baba Yaga, the ground strewn with fly agarics, and on the right the heroine Vasilisa outside Baba Yaga’s hut, the border decorated prominently with liberty caps and what look to be fly agarics — Source.
Kopék’s toadstool epiphany was one of several descriptions of fly agaric use by Siberian peoples that were widely reported in various learned journals and popular works throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.6 Such accounts began a fashion for re-examining elements of European folklore and culture and interpolating fly agaric intoxication into odd corners of myth and tradition. This is the source of the notion that the Berserkers, the Viking shock troops of the eighth to tenth centuries, drank a fly agaric potion before going into battle and fighting like men possessed, regularly asserted not only among mushroom and Viking aficionados but also in text-books and encyclopaedias. There is, however, no reference to fly agaric, or indeed to any exotic plant stimulants, in the sagas or Eddas: the theory of mushroom-intoxicated Berserker warriors was first suggested by the Swedish professor Samuel Ödman in his Attempt to Explain the Berserk-Raging of Ancient Nordic Warriors through Natural History (1784), a speculation based on the eighteenth-century reports from Siberia.
By the mid-nineteenth century, then, the fly agaric had become synonymous with fairyland. The mushroom had also, in the guise of the Siberian sources, been claimed as a portal to the land of dreams and written into European folklore. Exactly to what extent and in what manner these two cultural journeys of the fly agaric are intertwined is hard to pin down. Long before the Siberian accounts, in both art and literature, mushrooms of all sorts are depicted as part of fairyland. In Margaret Cavendish’s mid-seventeenth-century poem “The Pastime of the Queen of Fairies”, a mushroom acts as Queen Mab’s dining table, and in late eighteenth-century paintings by Henry Fuseli and Joshua Reynolds, the mushroom acts as a surface upon which fairies, sprites, and similar assemble. Such a presence of mushrooms in supernatural worlds might suggest a concealed or half-forgotten knowledge of hallucinogenic mushrooms in British culture. However, these fungi do not resemble fly agaric (or any other hallucinogenic mushroom) and, of course, for small woodland creatures the large splay of a mushroom would seem like natural furniture. It is only in the Victorian era, post-Siberian tales, that an hallucinogenic mushroom establishes itself so firmly in Britain as the stock mushroom of fairyland.
Titania’s Awakening (ca. 1785) by Henry Fuseli — Source.
Gnome transporting a fly agaric mushroom, from a German New Year’s card, ca. 1900 — Source.
Let us turn now to the most famous and frequently-debated conjunction of fungi, psychedelia, and fairy-lore: the array of mushrooms and hallucinatory potions, mind-bending and shapeshifting motifs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Do Alice’s adventures represent first-hand knowledge of hallucinogenic mushrooms?
The scenes in question could hardly be better known. Alice, down the rabbit hole, meets a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, who tells her in a “languid, sleepy voice” that the mushroom is the key to navigating through her strange journey: “one side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter”. Alice takes a chunk from each side of the mushroom and begins a series of vertiginous transformations of size, shooting up into the clouds before learning to maintain her normal size by eating alternate bites. Throughout the rest of the book she continues to take the mushroom: entering the house of the Duchess, approaching the domain of the March Hare, and, climactically, before entering the hidden garden with the golden key.
Lewis Carroll’s illustration of the caterpillar scene from his original manuscript of the story. There’s nothing here to suggest it is meant to be a fly agaric — Source.
Since the 1960s this has often been read as an initiatic work of drug literature, an esoteric guide to the other worlds opened up by psychedelics — most memorably, perhaps, in Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit” (1967), which conjures Alice’s journey as a path of self-discovery where the stale advice of parents is transcended by the guidance received from within by “feeding your head”. This reading is often dismissed by Lewis Carroll scholars,7 but medication and unusual states of consciousness certainly exercised a profound fascination for Carroll, and he read about them voraciously. His interest was spurred by his own delicate health — insomnia and frequent migraines — which he treated with homoeopathic remedies, including many derived from psychoactive plants such as aconite and belladonna. His library included books on homoeopathy as well as texts that discussed mind-altering drugs, including F. E. Anstie’s thorough compendium, Stimulants and Narcotics (1864). He was greatly intrigued by the epileptic seizure of an Oxford student at which he was present, and in 1857 visited St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in order to witness chloroform anaesthesia, a novel procedure that had come to public attention four years previously when it was administered to Queen Victoria during childbirth.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Alice’s mind-expanding journeys owed anything to the actual drug experiences of their author. Although Carroll — in daily life the Reverend Charles Dodgson — was a moderate drinker and, to judge by his library, opposed to alcohol prohibition, he had a strong dislike of tobacco smoking and wrote sceptically in his letters about the pervasive presence in syrups and soothing tonics of powerful narcotics like opium — the “medicine so dexterously, but ineffectually, concealed in the jam of our early childhood”.8 Yet Alice’s adventures may have their roots in a psychedelic mushroom experience. The scholar Michael Carmichael has demonstrated that, a few days before he began writing the story, Carroll made his only ever visit to Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a copy of Mordecai Cooke’s recently-published drug survey The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860) had been deposited.9 The Bodleian copy of this book still has most of its pages uncut, with the exception of the contents page and the chapter on the fly agaric, entitled “The Exile of Siberia”. Carroll was particularly interested in Russia: it was the only country he ever visited outside Britain. And, as Carmichael puts it, Carroll “would have been immediately attracted to Cooke’s Seven Sisters of Sleep for two more obvious reasons: he had seven sisters and he was a lifelong insomniac”.
Gnomes transporting a fly agaric mushroom, from a German New Year’s card, ca. 1900 — Source.
Cooke’s chapter on fly agaric is, like the rest of his book, a valuable source of the drug lore that was familiar to his generation of Victorians. It refers to Everard Brande’s account of the J. S. family and rounds up various Siberian descriptions of fly agaric experiences, including details that appear in Alice’s adventures. “Erroneous impressions of size and distance are common occurrences”, Cooke records of the fly agaric. “A straw lying in the road becomes a formidable object, to overcome which, a leap is taken sufficient to clear a barrel of ale, or the prostrate trunk of a British oak.”10
The hypothesis is suggestive, though at this distance of time, it’s impossible to know for certain whether or not Carroll read this Bodleian copy, or indeed any other copy of Cooke’s book. It may be that Carroll encountered the Siberian fly agaric reportage elsewhere — we know, for example, that he owned a copy of James F. Johnston’s The Chemistry of Common Life (1854) which includes mention of fly agaric and size delusions11 — or it may be that he simply drew on the fertile resources of his imagination. But some contact with the widely reported Siberian cases does seem much more likely than the idea that Carroll drew on any hidden British tradition of magic mushroom use, let alone the author’s own. If so, he was neither a secret drug initiate nor a Victorian gentleman entirely innocent of the arcane knowledge of drugs. In this sense, Alice’s otherworld experiences seem to hover, like much of Victorian fairy literature and fantasy, in a borderland between naïve innocence of such drugs and knowing references to them. We read them today from a very different vantage point, one in which magic mushrooms are consumed far more widely than in the Victorian or indeed any previous era. In our thriving psychedelic culture, fly agaric is only to be encountered at the distant margins; by contrast, psilocybin mushrooms are a global phenomenon, grown and consumed in virtually every country on earth and even making inroads into clinical psychotherapy. Today the liberty cap is an emblem of a new political struggle: the right to “cognitive liberty”, the free and legal alteration of one’s own consciousness.
1. Everard Brande, “Mr E. Brande, on a poisonous Species of Agaric”, in Medical and Physical Journal 3 (January–June, 1800): 41–44. 2. Albert Hofmann, Roger Heim, and Hans Tscherter, Présence de la psilocybine dans une espèce Européenne d’agaric, le Psilocybe semilanceata (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1963). 3. Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Omniana, or Horæ Otiosiores (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812), 1:218. 4. Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology (London: H.G. Bohn, 1850), 412. 5. Gordon R. Wasson, Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Ethno-mycological Studies 1 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 243–6. 6. For example, see “Psychological Studies on Hachisch and on Mental Derangement, by J. Moreau” in The British and Foreign Medical Review 23, no. 45 (January 1847): 216–236; James F. Johnston, The Chemistry of Common Life (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1854); and Mordecai Cooke, TheSeven Sisters of Sleep (London: James Blackwood, Paternoster Row, 1860). 7. Heather Worthington, interview by Sophie Robehmed, “Is Alice in Wonderland Really about Drugs?”, BBC News, August 20, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19254839. 8. Lewis Carroll, “A Tangled Tale” (London: MacMillan and Co., 1885; Project Gutenberg, 2009), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29042/29042-h/29042-h.htm. 9. Michael Carmichael, “Wonderland Revisited”, in Psychedelia Britannica: Hallucinogenic Drugs in Britain, ed. Antonio Melechi (London: Turnaround, 1997), 5–20. 10. Mordecai Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep (London: J. Blackwood, 1860), 342. 11. James F. Johnston, The Chemistry of Common Life, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1855), 170.
My second novel Dead but Dreaming has just been published. It’s the story of a young folklorist, who travels into the English countryside in 1970 to collect testimonies about the faeries from people in the rurality. The setting is the Tertiary Research Unit of a psychiatric hospital, where the protagonist soon finds there is much more going on than they had bargained for. It’s a tale about the faeries as metaphysical entities, but also includes many tropes and motifs: the concept of solipsism, Dissociative Identity Disorder (termed Hysterical Neurosis, Dissociative Type in 1970), the grief and guilt over the loss of a sister, the simulated reality of dreams, altered states of consciousness, and a musical ambience of period Prog Rock and Psychedelia. The poetry of Byron is embedded throughout; with suggestions of his chimerical reincarnation. And there is, of course, a love story, albeit an unusual affair.
The book can be ordered in paperback or as an e-book:
My little sister; I lost her when she was just a child. One moment we were together, the next she was gone. Her physical memory has become blurred into an arbitrary 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 narrow, dirty brook. I presume it’s still there. We used to spend endless summer days in that gloomy refuge. We read, talked, ruminated, napped. 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 always saw 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 had a musty smell. She came back from one of her spots amid the trees, pale and tearful. The faeries had sung her a requiem. They promised her she would be able to come back to me as a blackbird for a short while, but only for a short while. After her annihilation she would have to disappear from the world. She cried as we made our way through the garden. There were no words, just tears. I cannot think further about 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 seat 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 with vigour. She cocked her head and looked at me with one dark eye.
‘I love you,’ I whispered.
She preened her wing, cocked her head once more and then darted away to a low branch.
‘I love you,’ I said again.
I bowed my head and closed my wet eyes. A gust of wind made itself known. It carried within its airy tone the residue of a voice, modulated through the yew tree: I am dead but dreaming. I am dreaming of you.
The cover image of the book is by the supernally talented Ylenia Viola.
‘Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness that are entirely different.’ William James.
‘Respondents reported the primary senses involved in the encounter were visual and extrasensory (e.g. telepathic). The most common descriptive labels for the entity [encounter] were: being, guide, spirit, alien, and helper. Although 41% of respondents reported fear during the encounter, the most prominent emotions both in the respondent and attributed to the entity were love, kindness, and joy. Most respondents endorsed that the entity had the attributes of being conscious, intelligent, and benevolent, existed in some real but different dimension of reality, and continued to exist after the encounter.’
This study is the most recent in a growing literature of testimonies by people who have apparently contacted supernatural entities after partaking of DMT. It would seem this molecule, in particular, has the ability to alter states of consciousness to the extent that the participant is able to interact with non-natural entities in a supra-normal time and space. Many of the entities, in this study and others, bear much resemblance to the faeries of both folklore and modern descriptions. It seems the DMT experience may provide one possible pathway into understanding what the faeries might be and how human consciousness can connect to their metaphysical existence.
What is N,N-dimethyltryptamine?
DMT occurs naturally in many plants and animals, although the genesis of its production is not currently fully understood. In humans it is conjectured that it is generated through either the pineal gland in the brain or through the lungs. However, the reasons for this endogenous production remain unknown. The structure of DMT occurs within some important biomolecules like serotonin and melatonin, and may be responsible for sleep patterns and dream states, but it retains its ambiguity as a naturally occurring compound. It was first synthesised 1931 by the German chemist Richard Manske, but it was only in 1956 that the Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szára carried out the first trials of the molecule in human subjects (including himself), resulting in the realisation of its potential for producing intense altered states of consciousness. These states had been experienced by the shamanic indigenous peoples of the Amazon for hundreds of years, where the Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana plants, containing DMT, are used in conjunction with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine to produce a brew usually known as Ayahuasca, which acts as a potent psychedelic when ingested. The history and current usage of Ayahuasca has been charted by Professor Benny Shanon in his 2002 book The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomena of the Ayahuasca Experience. Shanon discusses many aspects of entity encounters while under the influence of the brew, and while some of the entities may fit broadly into faerie ontologies, there seems to be a specific range of metaphysical creatures experienced in the Amazonian context. These have been further elucidated by Graham Hancock in his influential 2005 book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind.
But, usually as a synthetic compound either injected intravenously or inhaled as smoke, DMT has disseminated from the Amazon to become a mainstay in underground Western culture over the past few decades. The Johns Hopkins study is the most recent in a series of clinical research studies and surveys to assess the experiences brought on by DMT; many of which include entity encounters that correlate with faerie phenomenology, both from folkloric records and modern testimonies. The following sections describe the findings of these studies with an attempt to interpret what the DMT experience might contribute to our understanding of faerie ontology.
DMT-initiated Faerie Encounters in Clinical Research
Probably the most famous promulgator of the DMT experience was the late Terence McKenna, who coined the term self-transforming machine elves for the entities he often encountered during his many DMT trips:
‘Trying to describe them isn’t easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jewelled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there’s a cheer!’
Stephen Szára’s Clinical Research
But long before McKenna was writing about the denizens of the DMT world, the Hungarian Stephen Szára (as mentioned above) was cataloguing the experiences in the late 1950s. As detailed by Andrew Gallimore and David Luke, once he’d worked out that DMT was non-active when ingested, but instead needed to be injected intravenously (through testing this out on himself): ‘He recruited 30 volunteers, mainly doctors from the hospital where he worked, the National Institute for Mental and Nervous Diseases, Budapest. All received 0.7 mg/kg (about 50mg for an average person) DMT intramuscularly and their experiences carefully recorded.’ Unfortunately, the results were not published, but some reports do survive, and it is clear that many of the study participants encountered entities that McKenna may have recognised. One 28-year old male physician described his experience thus:
‘The room is full of spirits…the images come in such profusion that I hardly know where I want to begin with them! I see an orgy of color, but in several layers one after the other… Everything is so comical…one sees curious objects, but nevertheless everything is quickly gone, as if on a roller-coaster.’
It is a shame we do not have any further assessment of what the ‘spirits’ were, but several of the other surviving experience reports describe meeting ‘beings’ when under the influence of these high-dose events. Two years after the first study Szára extended his assessment to psychiatric patients in the hospital. Again, only a few reports of the patients’ experiences survive, but one, from a thirty-year old female, give a flavour of the types of entities encountered after a 50mg injection: ‘I saw such strange dreams, but at the beginning only… I saw strange creatures, dwarfs or something, they were black and moved about…’
Although there are DMT experience reports from the decade after Szára’s studies, there was only one further clinical research study by William Turner and Sidney Merlis (affiliated to Central Islip Psychiatric Center, New York), where nine schizophrenic patients were given high doses of DMT. Only one of the patients’ testimonies made it into the published report, where she described a distressing episode after being hurled through a tunnel of light: ‘It is as if I were away from here for such a long time… and I was in a big place and they were hurting me. They were not human. They were horrible… I was living in a world of orange people…’
When DMT became a scheduled substance in 1970, any possibility of further research ceased. It was not until 1990 that DMT re-emerged as a legitimate substance for experimentation within a clinical setting, in what remains the most important controlled study of its effects to date.
Rick Strassman’s Spirit Molecule Study
Between 1990 and 1995 a clinical research study was carried out in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman, after a lengthy application to obtain a federal licence was successful. The study found that volunteers injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. Strassman published the results in 2001 as DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which has also been adapted into a documentary.
The research involved sixty volunteers, all of who had multiple sessions in a controlled environment, where they were injected with DMT within the range of 0.2, 0.3 and 0.4 mg/kg. They were monitored during the experiences, which usually lasted between twenty and forty minutes. They were then asked to recount a testimony of what had happened as soon as the effects of the drug had worn off. Sometimes, the participants were able to talk about their experiences during short ‘inter-glacials’ during their sessions. At all doses the experience usually involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, robots, clowns, and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she encountered as ‘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 and often telepathy.
Immediately after the injection of DMT, 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. Here is an abbreviated version of one of the volunteer’s description of his experience; 50 year old Jeremiah. After hurtling through a void he found himself:
‘… in a nursery. A high-tech nursery with a single Gumby, three feet tall, attending me. I felt like an infant. Not a human infant, but an infant relative to the intelligence represented by the Gumby. It was aware of me but not particularly concerned… Then I heard two or three male voices talking. I heard one of them say “he’s arrived.” … I was in a big room… there was one big machine in the center, with round conduits, almost writhing – not like a snake, more in a technical manner. The machine felt as if it were rewiring me, reprogramming me… This is real. It’s totally unexpected, quite constant and objective… an independent, constant reality… I’m lucid and sober.’
45-year old Karl described his interaction with some faerie entities during an ‘inter glacial’ only eight minutes into a high-dose session:
‘That was real strange. There were a lot of elves. They were prankish, ornery, maybe four of them appeared at the side of a stretch of interstate highway I travel regularly. They commanded the scene, it was their terrain! They were about my height. They held up placards, showing me these incredibly beautiful, complex, swirling geometric scenes in them. One of them made it impossible for me to move. There was no issue of control; they were totally in control. They wanted me to look! I heard a giggling sound— the elves laughing or talking at high-speed volume, chattering, twittering.’
35-year old Chris described his DMT sessions as ‘the most reassuring experience of my life… if death is like this, there’s nothing to worry about.’ His fourth high-dose session involved him communicating with a range of entities, who he felt were attempting to heal him:
‘They were trying to show me as much as possible. They were communicating in words. They were like clowns or jokers or jesters or imps. There were just so many of them doing their funny little thing. I settled into it. I was incredibly still and I felt like I was in an incredibly peaceful place. Then there was a message telling me that I had been given a gift, that this space was mine and I could go there anytime. I should feel blessed to have form, to live.’
40-year old Rex, like about half of the participants, had taken psychedelics previously, but was not prepared for the power of his DMT experience. His fourth session (at a medium dose of 0.2 mg/kg) is particularly interesting due to his interaction with a powerful (but benevolent) female, who bears resemblance to folkloric accounts of encounters with faerie queens. He describes the moments after breakthrough to another reality:
‘I realise the intense pulsating-buzzing sound and vibration are an attempt by the DMT entities to communicate with me. The beings were there and they were doing something to me, experimenting on me. I saw a sinister face, but then one of them tried to begin reassuring me. There were creatures and machinery. It looked like it was a field of black space. There were brilliant psychedelic colours outlining the creatures and the machinery. The field went on forever. They were sharing this with me, letting me see all this. There was a female. I felt like I was dying, then she appeared and reassured me. She accompanied me during the viewing of the machinery and creatures. When I was with her I had a deep feeling of relaxation and tranquility… She had an elongated head.’
The language in the testimonials over time is interesting; are the ‘spirits’ and ‘dwarves’ in Szára’s studies 1950’s versions of the ‘elves’ and ‘imps’ of the participants in Strassman’s research? It is certainly the case that many folkloric descriptions of the faeries described them as ‘spirits’. There are plenty of examples of this in WY Evans-Wentz’s 1911 collection of faerie belief, published as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, where (especially in Ireland and Brittany) there appeared to be a high level of interchangeability between the faeries and the spirits of the dead. The folklorist and writer David Halpin has commented about this trait while describing one of Evans-Wentz’s encounter reports from Limerick, where a young doctor equates the faeries as spirits: ‘This may be, perhaps, an unconscious referral to the belief that in many cases the faeries were both the dead and another type of spirit, or it may be that there was more of an acceptance of this crossover than there sometimes is today.’ This ambiguity of language to describe supernatural entities over time is important and will be discussed further below. But it is clear from Strassman’s research study that almost all the volunteer participants encountered various forms of entities during their DMT experiences, and that (whatever the terminology used) many of them can be coded within the broad ontological spectrum that may be described as faerie entities.
Strassman’s study could be seen, at least in part, as correlative to folkloric research. While the volunteers’ physiological processes, and the chemical analyses of these processes, were an important part of the study, the primary take away is the anecdotal testimonies of people who attempted to describe the DMT-induced metaphysical realities they found themselves in and the entities they found there. This is not so dissimilar to a folklorist collecting reports of supernatural faerie encounters. The means of arrival in a reality where faeries appear to exist is evidently different (although, as discussed below, perhaps not that different), but Strassman is in many ways simply recording extraordinary encounters with (apparently) non-physical entities, much in the same way as Evans-Wentz and every other folklorist who has attempted to record human interactions with faeries.
Strassman’s study remains the benchmark for investigating entity encounters via DMT. While much research has continued into the biosynthesis and metabolism of DMT in the brain and peripheral tissues of both humans and animals, there have been no further clinical assessment studies of the subjective experiences of people under the influence of DMT. Fortunately, there is a growing number of non-clinical surveys, which have compiled relatively large datasets of experience reports to allow a meaningful assessment of DMT-induced encounters with entities — many of which are phenomenologically related to what might be considered faeries.
DMT-initiated Faerie Encounters from Surveys
As with any anecdotal, subjective testimony, whether collected from a folkloric context or from a numinous experience brought about by the absorption of a molecule, the first question must be to assess the honesty of the account (this applies to both clinical research studies and surveyed reports). People make things up, and not always for clearly-defined gains or reasons. It is difficult to ascertain whether the person giving the testimony is fabricating the whole or part of the account, or if they are exaggerating for effect. This is a perennial issue in folklore collection – the hermeneutical compounds of the testimonies are difficult to unravel.
And even the most scrupulously honest recall of an event is still subject to the vagaries of memory. This is more of an issue in surveyed testimonies, where the event may have happened weeks, months or even years ago, than in the clinical research studies discussed above, where the experiences were recalled immediately after they happened. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: ‘findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.’ This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event (whether induced by a psychedelic compound or not) may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems. This is (and always has been) an unavoidable component of folklore collection, and extends to any surveys of subjective, remembered events. It does not, however, discredit the experience; the data is fragile, but with a large enough dataset it becomes tenable to draw out some assessments, especially when there is a level of consistency over disparate testimonies. So with these caveats in mind, what might the results of surveys about entity encounters via DMT tell us about the faeries and how they may be able to interface with human consciousness?
340 DMT Trip Reports (2006)
One of the most comprehensive surveys is from 2006, collated by the computational physicist Peter Meyer. 340 DMT Trip Reports documents what Meyer describes as, ‘reports which attest to contact with apparently independently existing intelligent entities within what seems to be an alternate reality.’ This survey built on his work from 1992: Apparent Communication with Discarnate Entities Induced by Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which we will return to later. The 340 (anonymous) reports certainly contain many encounters with faerie-type entities, most often described as elves. Forty-six of the reports describe encountering faeries/elves. Here are some examples:
#49 ‘To start with I was travelling into what looked like a long curved tunnel. The walls of the tunnel were like bright multicolored tiles — pinks, greens and blues especially. After an indeterminate period of time I found myself in a garden, which seemed to be suspended in a sky-blue void, rather than part of any larger land mass. The garden had grass, flowers, trees, even a picket fence and seemed quite convincing and solid. I noticed two ‘faeries’ sitting on a swing hanging from one of the trees. They seemed to be inviting me closer, and I floated in their direction (didn’t feel like I had my body with me). As I approached them I noticed that they were lewdly playing with themselves and each other, I watched them for some time before noticing that there were more inhabitants in the garden. There were more of the faeries and what I assume were their children (there were no males). The children were walking about with watering cans watering the flowers that grew on the borders of the garden. Suddenly several of the children started spraying me with something which stung my face with tiny pinpricks of pain. As my mind objected I received the thought that they were spraying insecticide on me to kill the bugs (dunno where this thought came from but I feel it was relayed telepathically to me from the faeries). After being sprayed, the faeries all formed a group near to me. They seemed to all be adding to some liquid which they were creating inside one of the flowers. They wanted me to pay attention to this, so I watched them all working on their flower thing.’
This account is quite typical of testimonies in the survey in that a transformed natural environment is encountered, and the morality of the faerie entities in ambivalent. This, of course, has much folkloric precedent. The telepathic communication is another common theme in the survey reports. The following testimony brings up memory:
#65 ‘This time I saw the ‘elves’ as multidimensional creatures formed by strands of visible language; they were more creaturely than I had ever seen them before. The message was changing from the initial ‘OK, OK, safe, safe… The elves were dancing in and out of the multidimensional visible language matrix, ‘waving’ their ‘arms’ and limbs/hands/fingers? and smiling or laughing, although I saw no faces as such. The elves were telling me (or I was understanding them to say) that I had seen them before, in early childhood. Memories were flooding back of seeing the elves: they looked just like they do now: evershifting, folding, multidimensional, multicolored (what colors!), always laughing, weaving/waving, showing me things, showing me the visible language they are created/creatures of, teaching me to speak and read.’
The statement that the elves were reminding the experiencer of childhood is interesting. The idea that children are less indoctrinated with a materialistic value system, and are therefore more able to experience a supernal reality is a commonplace motif. In this testimony the encounter may be integrating the memory of a suppressed childhood reality, and bringing it into the present. The next report talks about death:
#139 ‘I know it might sound funny but at this point I came into contact with the classic elves that Terence always talked about. They are real. They came tumbling across my vision, morphing into themselves. Some of them came towards me, and entered my being. Their voices were high pitched and their song sounded very alien like and very old. At this point I would say no more than two minutes has passed since blastoff. The elves’ presence continuing to build to an unbearable frenzy is the last thing I remember before I died. I didn’t think but I knew that I had in fact died. I entered into what I would call a eternal loop. It never ended. I feel a piece of me is still there.’
As mentioned, there is a deeply embedded tradition, which links the faeries with death. The folklore that portrays the faeries as inhabiting the land of the dead often shows them as representatives of the past and what is gone. In the same way as a memory of someone dead can be conjured up in consciousness before disappearing into the subconscious, so the faeries are able to make appearances in our collective stories that attempt to understand death and its connection with life. The DMT experience can evidently invoke an equivalence of death, and also, perhaps, the entities that reside at its periphery. The following testimony invokes the trickery of the faeries:
#151 ‘The intensity grew until I saw myself looking down a hallway type of structure. It tapered down to a point kinda like I was looking down through a cone towards the point. Now from this other end I saw the elves coming up towards me. As if they where coming through a worm hole from another dimension! One looked just like a leprechaun, with the top hat and pointy red shoes. One of them was carrying a big red Santa Claus bag full of tricks. They told me get ready cuz they where coming. Behind them came a circus full of activity… This is what you have been waiting for! So they marched up towards me and as they reached me what was behind them oozed up and all over me. It felt like I was being dipped into this paint like substance made of colors and patterns. Pure psychedelia. I love it! Then one of them proceeded to show me the most incredible scenes and landscapes. Everything had a yellow green hue to it. I thought, what was the purpose of all this, what was I to learn from this? Then they told me stop trying so hard to make sense of anything. That the purpose was just to accept it for what it was, to stop trying so hard. One of the elves had this device in his hand that looked like a remote, and he was controlling everything that I was seeing! He was definitely in control of everything. They where very eager and ready when they came but calm and focused. I realized that I had seen them before but did not realize it until now… They had a lot for me to see, and this one in particular had great enjoyment in showing me all these extraordinary visions and things. Everything folded out for me to see right in front of me.’
The entities were clearly in control of proceedings, another element of some folkloric encounters. There is also a recognition of subsumed memories — the experience invoked something existing only in the consciousness of the individual, manifested in a hyper-real slideshow. And the final example from the survey uses a third-person narrative to describe the common faerie folklore motif of time distortion during encounters:
#307 ‘[He] Smoked synthetic DMT and soon found himself in “bejeweled ‘gardens’ filled with dancing fairies and elves.” Although it seemed like an hour had passed, he writes that only about ten minutes had elapsed. “It did not seem imaginary or hallucinatory at all.”’
There are many folkloric traits in these descriptions, although there is also probably much cultural coding going on, where people in altered states of consciousness carry with them their own memories of what faeries and elves might represent. But there is certainly a general view in the testimonies that these entities are existing in an autonomous built reality not entirely dependent on our own consensus reality. The DMT world appears to be an independent hyper-reality, even if it is a reality built from entirely subjective accounts.
Although only a minority of reports (c.18%) in Meyer’s study explicitly mention faeries or elves, almost all of them do record some type of contact with non-human intelligent entities, described as: spirits, insectoids, therianthropes, orbs, light beings, waves of light or sound, aliens, or distorted humanoids. There is a consistency in the reports of meeting with intelligent beings. This theme continues in subsequent surveys.
Further Research Surveys
Jon Hanna’s 2012 study, entitled ‘Aliens, Insectoids, and Elves! Oh, My!’ used experience reports posted on the drug-advisory website Erowid, as well as three new surveys of Erowid users. While the surveys included entity encounters brought on by a range of psychedelic substances, it is clear that DMT was always the molecule most likely to facilitate such encounters. The initial assessment of over 22,600 experience reports showed that 1,159 described entity encounters. 38% of these happened on DMT and 36% on Ayahuasca. In Hanna’s three new surveys it was also clear that DMT was the drug most likely to initiate an experience involving discarnate entities. Many of the respondents described the entities as alien, but there is a large sub-set of faerie-type beings within the testimonies, such as that described in 2009 by ‘Ohayoco’ after smoking 50mg of DMT:
‘After a few draws the world began transforming. I first noticed my hands multiplying and overlapping in washes of colour… Patterns began forming, but I expelled them by opening my eyes a few times and regulating my breathing to check that I wasn’t dying (the thought crossed my mind!). I then felt confident enough to let the experience take me where it wanted me to go… colourful diamond shaped patterns whirled around me then formed the walls and heavy romanesque columns of what seemed to be a palace kitchen. These diamonds pulsed and changed colour and shape in a friendly and playful manner, to the sounds of the music that I could still hear coming from the real world.
Elusive entities reminding me of Anime beings were flitting around the room busily. They had large heads and dumpy bodies, each body part a different colour as if wearing strange leotards, with barely perceptible beady little eyes in their big flat heads. One of the little guys was jovially stirring a large cauldron in the middle of the room. If Pokemon bred with alien dwarves and moved to a psychedelic medieval land then it would have looked a bit like this place. Suddenly the little guys became aware of my viewing them from above (I must have been floating in the air to them) and, perhaps sensing my first-time anxiety, the diamond shapes pulsed into heart shapes, and one of the little guys flew right up to my face and turned heart-red to put me at ease. A kindly voice in my head then told me: ‘You should get out more, do the things you’ve got to do, don’t shut yourself away!’, which I guess was their friendly advice to me.’
David Luke’s 2020 paper Anomalous Psychedelic Experiences: At the Neurochemical Juncture of the Humanistic and Parapsychological also surveys the altered state of consciousness effects of people using a range of psychedelics. Luke has written extensively on the subject, and is one of the leading researchers into the DMT experience. This latest study uses a range of sources to review ‘the nature of 10 transpersonal or parapsychological experiences that commonly occur spontaneously and in relation to the use of psychedelic substances, namely synesthesia, extradimensional percepts, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, entity encounters, alien abduction, sleep paralysis, interspecies communication, possession, and psi (telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance and psychokinesis).’ When it comes to entity encounters Luke makes it clear that DMT is the substance most likely to induce the phenomenon. He notes that ‘encounters with elves, gnomes, pixies, dwarves, imps, goblins, and other “little people” (though clearly not human people), are extremely prevalent and have long been at the spearhead of the debate on the reality of DMT beings.’
The most recent survey (as mentioned above) is the Johns Hopkins study, which used a filtered dataset of people to categorise many aspects of the DMT experience. The published paper does not give details of the subjective reports, but classifies them into typologies based on a range of determinants, and provides statistical analyses. In the table for ‘descriptive labels for entity’ 14% of respondents described their entity as elves, 8% as faeries and 5% as gnomes. But there are many other categories that are more ambivalent and, without seeing the original data, may be considered faerie-type entities. These include ‘beings’ (60%), ‘plant spirits’ (10%), and ‘animal spirits’ (7%). Perhaps the biggest take-way from the survey is the effect such entity encounters have had on the experiencers:
‘Such experiences often result in changes in world view including the belief in the reality of such entities. The current survey provides strong evidence of such changes. More specifically, even after the experience, 65% of respondents rated the experience as more real than everyday waking consciousness. 96% believed the entity was conscious and intelligent, 75% thought that from their current perspective the entity existed, at least in part, in a different dimension or realty, 72% endorsed that they believed the entity continued to exist after the experience, and 80% indicated that the experience altered their fundamental conception of reality.’
The DMT experience is evidently a real subjective phenomenon. Even filtering for misrepresentations through deceit and false memories, the large number of testimonies, from both clinical research and surveys, over a long time period, point to the conclusion that this particular molecule consistently produces entity encounters via an altered state of consciousness. And many of the entities correlate with folkloric and modern faerie typologies.
The DMT Experience Compared to Folkloric and Modern Faerie Encounters
While folkloric faerie encounters (and modern encounters) were obviously not caused by inhalation or injection of DMT, many of the stories and testimonies from the record do involve the immersion of the participants into an ulterior reality inhabited by non-human intelligent entities. Little is known about how endogenous increases in DMT levels in the human brain can affect perception and alter states of consciousness, but this might be a mitigating factor in parapsychological experiences, in all time periods. Insufflating DMT is just one way of altering consciousness, which then results in an encounter with supernatural entities, but its potency may be endogenously available at all times, allowing altered states of consciousness whenever natural DMT aggregates are escalated.
One story from the folkloric record that does sound as if it were an historic version of a DMT experience is the well-documented description of Anne Jefferies, who, in the late 17th century experienced a vivid trip into an otherworld populated by faerie entities. After going into service with the wealthy Pitt family near St Teath, Cornwall she, one day while sitting in the arbour of the house, found herself accosted by ‘six little men, all clothed very handsome in green.’ The folklorist Robert Hunt recounted the subsequent testimony in his 1865 publication Popular Romances of the West of England. One of the little men ran his fingers over her eyes and she felt as if they’d been pricked with a pin…
… Suddenly Anne became blind, and she felt herself whirled through the air at a great rate. By and by, one of her little companions said something which sounded like “Tear away,” and lo! Anne had her sight at once restored. She was in one of the most beautiful places — temples and palaces of gold and silver. Trees laden with fruits and flowers. Lakes full of gold and silver fish and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the more brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about. Hundreds more were idling in the most luxurious bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing, engaged in sports of various kinds. Anne was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she had previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Anne found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes. So grand, indeed, did she appear, that she doubted her identity. Anne was constantly attended by her six friends; but the finest gentleman, who was the first to address her, continued her favourite, at which the others appeared to be very jealous. Eventually Anne and her favourite contrived to separate themselves, and they retired into some most lovely gardens, where they were hidden by the luxuriance of the flowers. Lovingly did they pass the time, and Anne desired that this should continue for ever. However, when they were at the happiest, there was heard a great noise, and presently the five other fairies at the head of a great crowd came after them in a violent rage. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but this was soon beaten down, and he lay wounded at her feet. Then the faerie who had blinded her again placed his hands upon her eyes, and all was dark. She heard strange noises, and felt herself whirled about and about, and as if a thousand flies were buzzing around her.
Anne woke up in the arbour surrounded by concerned people and was taken to convalesce. It is conjectured that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition which manifests traits similar to DMT-induced experiences. Interestingly, like many of the people on Strassman’s study and respondents to the Johns Hopkins survey, Anne found she was a changed person after the experience, and became transformed into a natural healer, gaining much fame for this in her subsequent life.
Anecdotal folklore about faerie encounters is rarely as detailed as Anne Jefferies’ story (Hunt’s narrative is backed up by contemporary letters, civil records and other accounts about her), but there are numerous testimonies about people who claim to have left consensus reality and entered another, where they meet faerie entities. This is perhaps best seen in the common motif of the faerie dance – where an individual enters into a circle of dancing faeries and remains in their otherworld for a short period of time, only to return to this world and find they have been absent for weeks, months or even years. This is perhaps the folklore turning a real numinous episode via an altered state of consciousness into a palatable story, with the allegorical slant that the trip into an otherworld gives an enhanced cubit of wisdom (even though that wisdom often leads to depression, a longing to be back in the faerie world, and even death) in a very short time – much like a DMT-induced episode.
While most people partaking of DMT will perhaps not be overly familiar with faerie folklore stories and motifs, they will probably be imbued with the faeries in popular culture. Put this alongside their likely knowledge of Terence McKenna and his various descriptions of machine-elves, and there may be a predisposition for the DMT experiencer to encounter faerie-type entities. The cultural code is locked into their subconscious and the molecule unlocks it, creating an apparently real encounter with a supernatural creature based on their hard-wired expectations.
This is also the case for modern faerie sightings where the participant has not engaged with DMT or any other mind-altering substance. As the recent census by The Fairy Investigation Society shows, there continue to be many people reporting encounters with faerie entities. Indeed, the rate of modern testimonies of non-psychedelic induced experiences far outstrips the number of people detailing their DMT encounters. But both may be culturally coding their experiences (or maybe not, as explored below). There are certainly many similarities between DMT and non-DMT testimonies of faerie encounters. This example is from The Fairy Investigation Society’s census (#114) and happened to a female in her twenties during the 1990s in Somerset, UK:
‘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 [of faeries] 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 time dilation and feeling of numinosity, and, of course, the meeting with (apparently intelligent) humanoid entities, could come from a DMT-trip report (she also reported a prickling of the skin during the event). The woman also explained how the event changed her life and made her more open-minded. But the main difference is that (despite the missing time) the respondent encountered the faerie entities within consensus reality. She was not in an alternate reality. This is the main contrast between most (but not all) modern faerie experiences, which have not been induced by a mind-altering substance and DMT encounters, which always happen in a hyper-space. This could suggest that with DMT rushing through the brain the experience is taken further, and those people encountering entities without its benefit only get a partial view, constrained within their natural environment. The folkloric record is more divergent on this. The stories such as Anne Jefferies’, and the circle dancing experiences transport the participant into the otherworld of the faeries, but, the majority of faerie folklore happens in the everyday world, where the entities infringe upon our reality and make their appearances there.
The intersect to this may be found among people who claim clairvoyance, usually deemed second-sight in the folkloric record. This is prevalent from the observations of the Reverend Robert Kirk in the late 17th century through to the testimonies gathered by WY Evans-Wentz at the beginning of the 20th century. Certain people appear to be able to alter their state of consciousness to the extent where they experience faerie entities. While the experience usually happens within their own reality, they also seem to enter otherworlds for short periods, much in the way a DMT psychonaut might. The 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 order to enter what he termed the elemental world. 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).
This ability is still to be found in the modern world. Marko Pogačnik is a contemporary clairvoyant, and he writes lucidly about the states of consciousness he is able to manifest, and the faerie-type entities he experiences when this is achieved. For Pogačnik the location of the encounters with entities is malleable and sits more comfortably within a space of consciousness – a liminal place that is neither of this world nor out of it. It might be termed the metaphysical intersect.
The Metaphysical Intersect
If we can accept that people do have subjective encounters with faerie-entities (however induced), the main questions to ask would seem to be: How can it happen? Where does it happen? And where do the entities come from? For the DMT experience, the first question appears relatively easy to answer; a person takes a potent psychedelic substance and it alters their state of consciousness to the degree where they are present in an otherworld, where the entities are frequently encountered. The encounter thus takes place in an entirely non-physical location. This does not mean the location is not real – our entire perception of reality is mediated through (non-physical) consciousness, and if it is altered by a substance such as DMT, the experiences can be seen to be as real as our everyday existence. This fits within the recently reinvigorated theory of idealism. A number of philosophers and theoretical physicists, among them Bernardo Kastrup and Amit Goswami, have applied interdisciplinary methodologies to theorise that the tenets of idealism are the best explanation for how reality works, as opposed to any materialist explanation, which supposes that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The basic tenet is that Mind (not the material brain) is the ontological primitive, making material reality a product of consciousness, not the other way round. There is a single universal consciousness and we are sub-sets of it. Without it or us, there is no physical reality.
This outlook allows for anything experienced within consciousness to be real. If consciousness is altered in any way, or even if the electro-magnetic physical environment is shifted, there is room to allow in things that are not usually within our consciousness horizon. If consciousness is primary we can perhaps explain all entity encounters (faerie and otherwise) as attributes of our fundamental, principal non-physical experience. This reasoning could also be applied to folkloric and (substance-free) modern entity encounters. It’s all culturally coded, but can be allowed within our perceptive frames of reference.
However, this does not really answer the question of where faerie entities come from. Neither does it explain how there can sometimes be a physical residue from the encounters, a common motif in folklore, and even more common in entity experiences related to what are usually termed alien abductions. The late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack was especially articulate on this point. Here he is talking about the alien abduction phenomenon, but it is pertinent to any encounter with non-human intelligent entities:
‘The idea that we live in a multidimensional universe populated by beings or life-forms that are less densely embodied than we are, or perhaps not embodied at all, is not new to Eastern religious traditions or to most of the indigenous peoples of the world. But it is not a cosmos that is familiar or accepted as existing by the scientific culture of Western society, which has, perhaps once necessarily, constructed a universe in which the material or psychological, the seen and unseen realms, have been kept largely separate so that the physical world might be understood and mastered in its own right.’
This has been further explored by Jeffrey Kripal, Professor in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In his most recent book, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, and in conjunction with Whitley Streiber in the 2017 book The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, he has attempted to get under the skin of the metaphysical intersect, which apparently allows humans to experience supernatural entities. While allowing for the possibility that all such encounters may be reduced to an equivalence of a dream, Kripal attempts to suggest something more is happening:
‘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.’
The DMT experience of supernatural entities is only a part of this metaphysical intersect, but it is important, not least due to the consistency of the testimonies. Most people who take DMT experience intelligent entities, and many of their encounters are similar enough to folkloric and modern faerie testimonies to allow for the possibility the experiences are related. David Luke has spent much time attempting to codify the ontology of DMT encounters, and his most recent paper Anomalous Psychedelic Experiences (discussed above) has a full bibliography of his work. Part of his investigation into the ontology of the entities is based on Peter Meyer’s 1992 (revised 1997) study Apparent Communication with Discarnate Entities Induced by Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and so it might be appropriate to return to Meyer’s eight-point interpretative framework, which still holds good as a code of assessment for explaining the DMT experience and, most especially, where the entities might be coming from:
It’s all merely subjective hallucination; there are no entities. The DMT state may be interesting, even extremely so, but there are no independently-existing entities to be found there.
DMT provides access to a parallel or higher dimension, a truly alternate reality which is, in fact, inhabited by independently-existing intelligent entities forming (in the words of Terence McKenna) “an ecology of souls”.
DMT allows awareness of processes at a cellular or even sub-atomic level. DMT users are tapping into the network of cells in the brain or even into communication among molecules themselves. It might even be an awareness of quantum mechanical processes at the atomic or sub-atomic level.
DMT is, perhaps, a neurotransmitter in reptilian brains and in the older, reptilian parts of mammalian brains. Flooding the human brain with DMT causes the older reptilian parts of the brain to dominate consciousness, resulting in a state of awareness which appears totally alien (and sometimes very frightening) to the everyday monkey mind.
A non-human intelligent species created humans by genetic modification of existing primate stock then retreated. So that we would have a way to call them if we needed to they left behind biochemical methods for contacting them. The psychedelic tryptamines are chemical keys that activate certain programs in the human wetware that were placed there intentionally by these entities as a way to contact them.
The realm to which DMT provides access is the world of the dead. The entities experienced are the souls, or personalities, of the departed, which retain some kind of life and ability to communicate. The realm of dead souls, commonly believed in by cultures and societies other than that of the modern West, is now accessible to Westerners by using DMT.
The entities experienced are beings from another time who have succeeded in mastering the art of time travel (or the art of moving from one time stream to another), not in a way which allows materialisation but in a way which allows them to communicate with conscious beings such as ourselves when in an altered state.
The entities are probes from an extraterrestrial or even an extradimensional species, sent out to make contact with organisms such as ourselves who are able to manipulate their nervous systems in a way which allows communication to take place.
Points 3 and 4 could be expanded to incorporate Carl Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious where archetypes of human consciousness manifest as specific entities (sub-groups of archetypes) when certain conditions are met. Folkloric faerie entities do often adhere to known sub-archetypal typologies and seem dependent on time-specific cultural codes. The DMT experience appears to have updated these codes to include some sci-fi characters, while also retaining many of the folkloric elements.
There are evidently many differences between experiences of faerie entities in folklore/modern encounters and those from DMT use. But there are also enough similarities for us to ask the question about the phenomenological correspondence. People in the past and the present appear to have experienced a range of faerie entities, through a variety of means; injecting or inhaling DMT can invoke analogous experiences. Faerie entities, however experienced, and while morphing through different taxonomies through time, do seem to be resistant to cultural changes – they retain their form and remain recognisable as a category of supernatural entity. Whether they exist in an autonomous reality, which interacts with ours occasionally, or whether they are aspects of human consciousness, accessible under certain conditions, they remain with us; liminal but exclusive, at a metaphysical intersect.
The upsurge of interest in faerie traditions over the last decade suggests there is an innate, newly invigorated, understanding that the faeries represent a fundamentally important part of our cultural zeitgeist. This is partly the result of the internet and the wide spread of information that is now available about a phenomenon, which was previously relegated to the sidelines and even disregarded as an irrelevant, fossilised remnant of past superstition. While folklorists have always maintained the tradition in public consciousness, there has recently been a more dynamic delivery of the faerie phenomenon, which suggests it may have much more to offer, and that its place in the 21st century is an ongoing process.
In fact, the exponential growth in faerie literature, both in print and online, has meant it’s become difficult to keep track of new thinking on the phenomenon. There is great diversity in this new thinking, ranging from reassessments of the corpus of traditional folklore through to radical interpretations of what these metaphysical entities might represent in our modern world. Morgan Daimler’s new book thus comes at a good time. It’s a work that grounds much of the faerie folklore from the Western tradition and provides a digestible survey of many of the key elements. This grounding is essential; however far out we might want to go with an investigation into the faeries, this can only be achieved via a thorough understanding of what the traditions are and where they come from. Daimler understands this, and has written extensively about faerie folklore, from a range of perspectives, in previous work. This evidently underpins the current volume, which has been meticulously researched and co-ordinated with much acumen. It is a solid resource for anyone (from professional folklorist to interested lay-reader) who wants to gain insights into the ontology of the faeries.
In the introduction, Daimler wisely makes reference to Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies (first published in Britain as A Dictionary of Fairies in 1976) as the original compendium of faerie folklore:
‘This book has become the cornerstone for many as a reference on the subject, yet in the last 40 years the field of folklore and fairy lore has moved on from where it was when Briggs was writing. There have been new ideas advanced and new material covered, and in some cases uncovered, yet there is no work that equals Briggs in its scope and depth on the subject. If one is looking for a single go to resource on fairy lore, the 1976 A Dictionary of Fairies remains, I believe, the best option despite the fact that it is out of print and ageing.’
This is a gracious nod to one of the foremost folklorists of the 20th century, whose work has indeed inspired many people (myself included) to further investigate the faerie phenomenon. Daimler’s new volume does not replicate Briggs’ in any way, despite the obvious overlap. It might be better to see it as a tangental updating; not a replacement, but a complementary work. Ideally, anyone investigating the faerie traditions would have both volumes on their bookshelf.
The entries range in scope and length and carry a vast array of subject matter (there are over 250 entries in all). As the title suggests, the book is weighted towards Celtic traditions, and Daimler is particularly good on Irish lore, something Briggs touched on only lightly. But there is also much on more ambiguous subject matter such as the physicality of faeries, possession, the connection between faeries and aliens, and their relationship with people claiming second sight. There is a good mix of descriptive narrative and interpretation throughout, perhaps demonstrated best by referencing two entries, which give a flavour of Daimler’s intention. After discussing various manifestations of the Púca and the different etymology from disparate geographical locations, Daimler pins down some of the essential attributes:
‘The Púca is a mysterious being, if indeed there is only one of him as some claim, or a complicated type if there are more than one. Generally, all of the above named beings – the Púca, Pwca, Bucca and Puck – are considered to be the same, however, while it may be that they are different cultural iterations of one being it might also be that they are simply similar enough to be classed together. The Welsh Bucca is said to be a single being who was once a god, while the English Puck is thought by some to perhaps be a type of pixie. In contrast, some older Irish folklore would clearly indicate the Púca was not solitary but a group of beings.’
The Púca is an (albeit complex) example of a faerie tradition that can be brought into a narrative framework. But Daimler tackles many more conceptual subjects, such as in the entry for Selling the Soul:
‘Most of us are familiar with the idea of classical witches selling their souls to the Devil, but there is another concept we see as well in folkloric sources: a person selling their should to the fairies. The implication in the wider narrative is that the soul is being pledged to the Queen of Fairy but it is rarely spelled out as such. This is usually done as a combination of a required renunciation of the person’s previous faith and either a pledge of loyalty to the Good People or else a more formal agreement to give over one’s soul to them, with the implicit understanding that ultimately one’s loyalty then is owed to the Fairy Queen or King. We see this in examples from the Scottish witch trials where an agent of the Fairy Queen approaches a person and offers them things they would want, often good luck and success, in exchange for the person giving up Christianity and swearing loyalty to the fairies instead.’
This is one of the strengths of the book: the building blocks of the traditions are clearly delineated but there is also a willingness to roam outside the reality box of folklore in order to convey the meaning of the lore. Joseph Campbell describes this approach (with approval) as the conceptual appropriation of mythology. The folklore (or mythology) will lose its meaning unless it is appropriated and reinterpreted by each generation, but this needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding, something which Daimler does with aplomb. There is no judgement applied to any entry; only an overview, even-handed interpretation, and summation. This is very much in the style of Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies, and it allows the reader enough space to form their own conclusions, and to pursue the subject further if they wish. This is aided by a good footnoting protocol and an extensive bibliography, which brings the reader up to date with the latest thinking on the faerie phenomenon.
And as noted above, Daimler is not averse to tackling some of the more controversial faerie subject matter. In the entry on ‘Aliens’ we are provided with the range of similarities between faerie traditions and the modern UFO phenomenon, from the uses of ‘glamour’ by the faeries/aliens, to the commonalities of sleep paralysis and abduction techniques, which bear remarkable similarities in both the folklore and modern testimonies. Daimler prefaces the discussion in succinct style:
‘Fairies have been a part of belief and folklore for as long as we have written stories from the various cultures we find them in. However, as we have moved, culturally, into the modern and post-modern period fairies have largely, in the dominant culture of America, become relegated to children’s story and nostalgia. This left a contextual void for people having experiences to explain what they were experiencing. This void was filled by fiction and film, as popculture embraced the idea of extraterrestrials and our cultural consciousness became saturated by these new stories.’
As throughout the book, this typifies the clean, solid prose-style, which Daimler maintains, and gives the reader confidence in the purveyed information, which is free from perceptual tenets. We are being given well-researched and comprehensive information, which can be followed up if so desired. While some equitable interpretation is applied, it never overbears the narrative elements of the entries.
A New Dictionary provides both a consolidation of faerie folklore from a range of sources and a new, insightful way of viewing the phenomenon. It’s pitched in a way that allows resonance with both practised folklorists and newcomers, describing a myriad of faerie types, themes and motifs in an accessible but scholarly fashion. It is an important addition to the literature, and is likely to remain a go-to source for anyone interested in getting under the skin of faerie folklore for many years to come. As such, it is a worthy complementary successor to Katharine Briggs’ work, and that is high praise indeed.
The story of Marjorie Johnson (1911-2011) is fascinating. Her primary legacy is the book Seeing Fairies, but, as recounted here, her interactions with the faeries took many paths and she may legitimately be seen as a mystic, and perhaps even a modern shaman, albeit a very unusual one. She also became secretary of The Fairy Investigation Society, a role now inhabited by Dr Simon Young. Simon has written extensively on faerie folklore and currently teaches at the University of Virginia Program (Siena, CET), Italy. This article appeared originally in the newsletter of The Fairy Investigation Society (no. 7, 2018), a twice yearly publication available to members. Membership is free, and deadbutdreaming strongly recommends readers head over to the website and sign up. The newsletters are always packed with faerie data, from a vast range of perspectives. And the FIS website is also excellent, including a downloadable version of the 2017 Census, which updates the accounts of faerie interactions from Seeing Fairies with over 500 modern testimonies from around the world. Thanks to Simon for permission to republish this article here.
At first glance her life seemed so normal. Marjorie Johnson, Nottingham’s fairy woman, was born in a lower middle class street, in 1911. She would die, a hundred years later, having lived through the Somme, the Blitz, the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, in the same terraced house on Brooklands Road, Carlton. Stability was an essential part of her remarkable development. Not only did she live in the same building, she lived, for much of that time, with the same individuals. Mum and Dad had an idyllic marriage: a prized family possession were the courtship letters between the two. Then, there was sister Dorothy, nine years older, who would become Marjorie’s soul mate: neither married and neither seemed to have had any inclination to do so. The worst that could be said about this family was that perhaps it was too happy, too self-contained.
The outlines of Marjorie’s life suggest a buoyant normality: not quiet desperation, but essential satisfaction. She had met D.H. Lawrence and Freida as a young girl: the writer and his lover had come over for tea. Later in life, she worked in a law firm as a secretary. Her sister Dorothy worked, meanwhile, as a professional pet painter and travelled around the country to undertake portraits. Marjorie had the typical quotient of outside interests: she was, for example, a passionate member of the anti-vivisection league, and became a vegetarian; she and her sister kept dogs; she also was interested in gypsy culture. She was universally liked by those who knew her: again and again in talking or writing to her acquaintances the words ‘kind’, ‘good’, or ‘considerate’ come up. The closest Marjorie came to decadence was that she, later in life, would allow herself a tipple of Baileys in the evening. Oh and then there were the fairies…
There is no easy way to say this but Marjorie Johnson, from very early in life, until her death heard, saw and conversed with fairies. Sometimes they were glimpsed out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes they came in dreams. Sometimes she believed that the fairies were sending her messages: for example, a series of dead birds in the garden were interpreted as the fairies wanting her to bury their animal friends. Once she was pushed on a beach by invisible hands: a sea nymph was apparently angry that she had tried to take a shell. On another occasion the fairies played tricks on her and she lost an important letter only for it to turn up in a place she had already looked for it. With the right expectations we could perhaps all convince ourselves, on grounds like these, that we have fairies in our lives. Things go missing but then are found. You slip on the sand while trying to reach a shell. There is an ornithological murrain and bird corpses appear in the garden. A bee or a butterfly glimpsed in the loaming becomes a fairy on patrol.
But Marjorie’s experiences were often stronger, and more difficult to explain away. She once, for instance, stood by while a fairy procession passed in front of her and was invited to join the fairies in their feasting: she declined because she was worried about being made to eat their food. In advanced middle age Marjorie, was misled by fairies at a cemetery and came face-to-face with a fairy house that then vanished. On yet another occasion she watched fairies running to and fro in the street and dancing, getting ready for a summer solstice festival: they warned her telepathically not to approach. Then, when Marjorie wanted to buy some land for gardening a fairy came to tell her not to, shaking its finger energetically: thanks to the fairy Marjorie was able to rent the land for practically nothing and saved a good deal of money. In these cases it would be difficult for someone to live these experiences without a schizophrenic condition or access to hallucinogens; neither of which, needless to say, featured in Marjorie’s life.
Marjorie had always seen fairies. An old friend of the family confirmed that as a toddler, in the Great War, Marjorie had babbled about the colours of fairies she saw among the flowers. However, Marjorie’s most significant fairy experience came when she was six. We know about the experience because, aged twenty-five, Marjorie wrote about what she had seen to the letters page of a then much-read national magazine, John O’London’sWeekly, where a number of readers had contributed their own fairy experiences:
On this particular morning I was lying in bed enjoying the early morning sunshine which streamed in through the low, open window, when suddenly I felt compelled to sit up in bed and turn my eyes to the empty fire grate. There, on a filmy cobweb on the bars, sat a strange little creature. It seemed quite unafraid and, from the broad grin on its face, appeared to enjoy my observation. At first I just kept still and stared, and it blinked back at me with a blank expression which showed very little intelligence. Soon I had to satisfy my childish curiosity by climbing out of bed. The elf immediately disappeared. I climbed back, and when I turned round it was perched in the same place. This disappearance and reappearance continued until I brushed away the cobweb. I never saw the nature sprite again.
The elf episode was, for Marjorie, a wake-up call. As we shall establish, below, many people and perhaps especially young children have experiences of this kind. But very few twenty-five year olds are ready for their name to appear under an account like this in a national publication, particularly in the stifling and judgmental Britain of the late 1930s. Marjorie, as noted above, was repeatedly described as ‘good’ and ‘considerate’ by friends, but she also had a steely resolve. She would not ignore the evidence of her senses. Here it is worth stressing that a small part of the population do see impossible things: ghosts, fairies, monsters, aliens…. The first great survey of the paranormal, the wonderfully named ‘Census of Hallucinations’, began in Britain in 1889 and 16000 people, from all runs of life, were interviewed. Of those interviewed about ten percent had had a striking paranormal experience in their lives. Since then there have been other surveys. Some have put the number of visionaries in our society as low as five percent, others as high as twenty percent. It is possible that the number contracts or grows according to factors within a given society: totalitarianism, war, hardship, busts and booms… But what is clear is that, in every society, a small, but not a vanishingly small, part of the population have supernatural experiences. It is also interesting that many of these have frequent supernatural experiences; there seems to be a predisposition in certain individuals to have visions and unworldly meetings.
This all makes sense in terms of evolution. These five, ten or twenty percent are likely the men and women who were supposed to become sibyls and druids, soothsayers and healers in early societies; the elders who painted dreams onto cave walls, or who worked miracles in the first human villages. These were the spirit-folk who would speak to the ancestors. They would bring wisdom and cohesion to the tribe. They would give medical relief, with herbs and by ‘faith’. The problem is that, again in evolutionary terms, these visionaries no longer have a straightforward role in a world dominated by automated machines and by the internet. There is, then, the danger that the mystic tendency has become like our tail-bones, a relict of a previous epoch, which has no relevance to us today. This is why most people with such dangerous ‘gifts’, conscious of the potential for embarrassment or even humiliation, ignore or hide them.
Yet Marjorie Johnson had, already by her mid twenties, decided to be defined by her fairies. We know, for example, that aged twenty-three, two years before she wrote to John O’ London’s, she made a bamboo pipe and took it out to play to any fairies she might happen upon. There is an extraordinary photograph of Marjorie in 1934 kneeling in the ferns at Castle Rising (in Norfolk) and playing passionately to something invisible: she looks like a snake charmer without the cobra. A smudge of light on the negative is described, on the back of the photograph, as ‘Nature spirits veiled in ectoplasm’.
Marjorie was at it again a few days later, playing as she and her sister Dorothy strolled through the countryside, and when she reached a copse of trees the fairies answered with music. Marjorie being Marjorie she stopped and wrote the notes down: she would later, always thorough, get a composer to give proper notations to the fairies’ riffs and harmonies.
Why is it that Marjorie embraced mysticism, when most of the visionary ten percent try, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, to turn off this part of their hardwiring? The first reason was her family. There is no clue that there was any special interest in the paranormal in the Johnson household, though Marjorie later wrote that her mother had premonitory dreams. But Dorothy had seen fairies, too, as a child and continued to do so through her life: even if with less frequency than Marjorie. As a young child Dorothy had lost a ring in some woods outside Nottingham. After asking the fairies to help her find it she returned to the wood at twilight and, in her own words, ‘I was able to discern in the dim light the ring moving towards me about a foot above the ground, as if floating on air or being carried by some invisible being, and, as I watched, it dropped at my feet.’ Dorothy, Marjorie later revealed, had also seen the elf in the fireplace – she had been fifteen: the sisters had been sleeping in the same bed when the elf had appeared and Marjorie had nudged her sister awake.
Had the parents perhaps fostered, then, a belief in fairies? It seems unlikely. Marjorie believed that her mother had once seen a fairy. While washing Mrs Johnson had thought she saw, at the upstairs bathroom window, a tiny face peeping through. But there is no suggestion that the Johnson parents had any interest in small men or winged sylphs or, indeed, knew anything about supernatural forces. There is not even any sense of strong religious beliefs in the household. Their most important contribution to Marjorie’s development was that of providing a loving and understanding environment while the girls grew up. Some imaginative Victorian and Edwardian children were punished for ‘lies’ or simply mocked into conformity. As one of Marjorie’s later correspondents put it: ‘It is so nice to know that someone else has seen fairies besides myself. I saw them when I was a child, but I was laughed at so often that gradually I ceased to go where they were, and did not speak of them again….’
This was not how such things worked in the Johnson household. This is Marjorie’s description of Dorothy’s first fairy experience and her mother’s model reaction:
[A] fairy had appeared in front of [Dorothy] in the old orchard when she was a small child and I was not yet born. It stood smiling at her – a dainty little fairy dress with silvery wings. It had a pretty coronet on its head, and in its hand was a wand with a tiny, twinkling star on top. My sister said she was so thrilled that she ran up the garden path to fetch Mother, who hurried back with her, but of course, by then, as usually happens, the little creature had disappeared. But Mother knew from Dorothy’s joy and excitement that she was telling the truth. We were very lucky in having wise parents who never scoffed at us or crushed our excited outpourings, but always found time to listen understandingly to what we had to say.
Marjorie was born, then, into a tolerant and imaginative family. However, she had another advantage, she was born at just the right time, the time that a new kind of fairy was emerging into the British imagination. In the nineteenth century there had been two kinds of fairies. There were the rather frightening fairies that ‘infested’ the most rural and isolated regions of Britain and Ireland, stealing children and cursing crops: it must be remembered that just sixteen years before Marjorie’s birth a woman, Bridget Cleary, had been burnt in County Tipperary because it was believed that she was a fairy. These traditional fairies were viewed, by almost everyone who cared to write about them, as unhappy fossils of medieval (and in Ireland Catholic) barbarism. Then, there was the sugar plum fairy, a proto-Tinkerbell in children’s books, in art and, perhaps most importantly, in the theatre. These were the priggish white winged fairies of the Victorian imagination, fairies that are still with us today in Disney films and toy franchises: these fairies, it goes without saying, were understood not to be real. They were like our unicorns or dragons.
Had Marjorie Johnson been born in Nottingham in, say, 1850 she would doubtless have had visionary experiences, but she would not have described those experiences with the word ‘fairy’. After all, the fairies in her children’s books would not have been living things; and she would have had no contact with the scary fairies of Wales or northern England. Her experiences would have been difficult to situate or she might have been taught the word ‘ghost’. However, in the late nineteenth-century, a third fairy emerged, the spiritualist fairy. The spiritualists were a breakaway Christian movement and they are most famous today for their energetic efforts to contact the dead with rapping in darkened rooms. As spiritualism developed, though, and particularly in the branch of spiritualism called theosophy, there was an attempt to reduce the entire universe to supernatural mechanics. Yes, there were the spirits of the dead, said the theosophists. But there were also ‘elementals’, forces that inhabited flowers, rocks and other objects in the natural world. These ‘elementals’ were, it was argued, what our ancestors had called ‘fairies’.
This idea burbled gently away at the end of the nineteenth-century in spiritualist books and occasional newspaper columns: impressing several important figures, not least W.B. Yeats, whose fairy visions were based, in part on traditional lore and, in part, on theosophy. It became more and more commonplace in the early twentieth century. Then, the idea went mainstream after the First World War with the Cottingley fairy photographs. In 1917 two girls from Cottingley in West Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, saw and photographed fairies. We now know that these photographs were faked by the girls. But when they were published in 1920 and 1921, after theosophists had publicized them, the photographs divided opinion. Those who did support their authenticity, among them Arthur Conan Doyle, did so, on the basis of the spiritualist idea of fairies: these were nature spirits from the beck at Cottingley, caught on camera for all the world to see.
Marjorie saw her cobweb elf in 1917, the same year as Elsie and Frances took their first photographs. It is not impossible that she had already picked up, from school or friends, the idea of ‘nature spirits’. But by the time she wrote to John O’London’s Weekly, in 1936, she had very definite ideas about fairies and these ideas were theosophic. In fact, in the letter to John O’London’s she quotes, approvingly, Geoffrey Hodson, a theosophist, who had gone to Cottingley to look for the fairies with Elsie and Frances; and who had published accounts of his fairy encounters elsewhere. Hodson memorably claimed to have met a nature god on Hellvellyn in Cumbria, among many other visionary experiences. Marjorie, then, by her mid twenties had not just decided that she could see fairies: she had also found an explanation for this mystical force. She would remain true to that explanation for the rest of her life and she would even project it backwards onto her early experiences. She came to believe, for example, that the elf she had seen aged six was actually the nature spirit of a rambling rose outside her window. It had presumably crept in, having decided to treat the cobweb as an improvised hammock. The remarkable thing about Marjorie is not that she had a personality programmed to having these experiences; in that, as we have seen, she was far from being alone. But, rather, what is striking is that her personality survived, where many others conformed to modern ideas about what the senses should and should not do. Marjorie had grown up in a family where these experiences had been accepted. The society she had grown up in had also, even if only as a minority opinion, attempted to explain what Marjorie was seeing and Marjorie enthusiastically took up this explanation. But, with a happy childhood, and books on theosophy, she would have led a very lonely and frustrating existence in her terraced house in Nottingham, sustained only by her sister. Marjorie, though, made a concerted effort to find others like herself. She clutched at every chance: and this was, remember, a young woman with a gift for friendship. So after she had published in the John O’London’s Weekly she reached out, through the editor, to those who had written in with their experiences. Some of these became pen friends with whom Marjorie would have a decades-long correspondence. She would also write to Geoffrey Hodson, a man she stoutly defended against charges of fakery in the 1980s and the 1990s. It was not that she joined a tribe. There wasn’t one. She painstakingly created her own around a fairy totem.
1936 was a special year in Marjorie’s life not only because of the John O’ London letter. It was also the year that she began to collect fairy accounts in a systematic way, ‘cuttings of true experiences’: Marjorie loved the word ‘true’. She wanted not only to live as a fairy seer (the term she used for herself and for others with her gift of fairy sight) she wanted to educate society more generally. ‘[A]s I grew older’ she wrote many years afterwards, ‘I became filled with a burning desire to keep the Fairy Faith alive and to know more about this fascinating evolution that runs parallel to and merges with our own.’ Her clippings collection got bigger as did her contacts with other seers and the idea slowly germinated that she should publish a book of these encounters between human- and fairy-kind. But there was a problem. Would the fairies approve?
Folklorists will tell you that fairies do not enjoy publicity. In fact, in traditions from all over Europe the fairies punish or abandon those who betray their confidences. The typical story goes like this: a child becomes friends with the fairies who leave a coin at a certain tree every day for their favourite. But the child is bullied, by a parent or sibling, into revealing where this small fortune comes from. The child tells the secret, and the fairies immediately cease to leave gifts and want nothing more to do with the child. This was Marjorie’s greatest concern. She apparently had personal relations with some of the fey, her ‘familiars’ to use a witchcraft term, her ‘spirits’ thinking of shamans, and she did not want to risk a break in the relationship. She was not receiving money, but she was receiving insights and direction.
To talk about a relationship with the fairies might seem bizarre, but though Marjorie did not know this, there were strong British precedents for what she was experiencing in the 1930s and the 1940s. We know that in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern period, and as late as the nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland, certain men, and particularly women claimed to have relations with fairies, communicating with these fairies for the good of their communities. These reports, especially in the early period, often come out in witch trials or ecclesiastical records where cunning men or cunning women were investigated for holding unorthodox religious opinions. There is, indeed, the suspicion, one that has been articulated by a British historian of witchcraft, Emma Wilby, that many ‘witches’ who were executed in England and Scotland, in the early modern period, were not devil worshippers, but fairy seers, who got on the wrong side of authority.
A striking case, and one with some relevance to Marjorie was Joan Tyrry of Taunton, who, in 1555, was called before the diocesan court in her home city. There she revealed that ‘the fairies taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’: her powers of healing animals and people and picking out witches from among her neighbours, depended, by her own testimony, on the local fairies’ good will. Joan was let off but told to stay away from the fairies: she was lucky, a century later she might easily have been executed. Joan, though, was bereft. She replied that this staying away from the fairies would not be a problem because now that she had revealed fairy secrets, her magical neighbours would want nothing more to do with her. It is remarkable to see two individuals separated by about four hundred years with the same gifts and the same problem, the desire to respect the fairies’ confidences.
Let us give, in her own words, Marjorie’s negotiations with the fairies, because it is the only time that she reveals in writing her private communications with these spirit guides. The word ‘deva’, in what follows, is a Hindu word that had been adopted by theosophists in the late nineteenth century:
One day in the 1940s, I was thinking seriously about [publishing a book on fairies], but was a bit apprehensive as to whether the fairies themselves would like it, and I wished I could obtain their consent. That night I went to bed thinking about it, and early the next morning I had a wonderful true dream. Standing in front of me was one of the higher devas, or ‘Shining Ones,’ and I had never before seen such a vision of loveliness. She glowed with light; her hair was long and golden; her gown was flowing and opalescent; and the aura, which surrounded her, coruscated with all the colours of the rainbow, I christened her ‘Iris,’ and felt she was a Guardian of the Fairy Borderland. She was standing in front of a symbolic filmy curtain of gauze, which she drew aside and beckoned me through, so I knew I had been accepted. She was showing me some interesting things when something – perhaps a sudden noise – made me waken, but not before she had impressed on me that whenever I saw the rainbow-flash of her aura I was to ask the person who might be next to me in a street, shop, or other building, etc., if he or she had, or knew someone who’d had, any fairy experiences.
So the deva fairy had not only given Marjorie permission to gather accounts, she had given her a magic power to do so as well. Whenever Marjorie was to see someone with a ‘rainbow flash’ around them she was to ask about fairies. And Marjorie, as she put it, ‘plucked up my courage to do it’. Her rainbow informants represented a goodly range of men and women: one can only imagine their bewilderment as the earnest middle-aged woman bustled towards them. There was a concert pianist, a man at a printer’s shop, someone at a meeting, a clairvoyant housewife and ‘a tourist in the porch of Coventry Cathedral’, among many others. The deva’s advice proved good. All were able to talk to Marjorie about fairies, with Marjorie naturally keeping notes. Marjorie was a shaman in the age of the printing press. She would collect ‘true’ accounts of fairies and, then, publish them. She now had her life mission.
Marjorie was helped towards this goal, in 1950, by a new and exciting role that was offered her. In that year, aged thirty-nine, she became secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society. The FIS was a body that had been founded in 1927 by a number of theosophists and bohemians in London. It had fallen apart by 1932. But, after the Second World War, one of its original members, Quentin Craufurd, a naval commander and scientist, refounded the organisation and recruited Marjorie, recognizing her talent, her energy and her convictions. Marjorie was responsible for welcoming new members – the only condition for membership was a belief in fairies – and for bringing out the FIS newsletter, an occasional publication that detailed new sightings and fairy projects. The FIS was, in terms of its members, a remarkable organisation: there were just over a hundred in the rosters including several famous men and women. Walt Disney, for example, was a fairy believer and was on the FIS lists. So was Lord Dowding, the man who had won the Battle of Britain for the RAF, and who, later in life, wrote an introduction to a fairy seer book. Walter Starkie the controversial Irish author, who wrote entertaining descriptions of his wanderings with the Roma in eastern Europe, had also signed up. There was, then, a marvelous crop of lesser known eccentrics. Take Daphne Charters, a fairy seer who attempted to create a fairy League of Nations. Ithell Colquhoun, a gifted occultist and artist. Naomi Mitchison, a fantasy author, whose reputation has risen in the last years. There was Wellesley Tudor Pole who founded the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, where many Britons still go to see fairies, and there was, moving down into the C list of celebrities, June Kynaston, author of Nude Dancing for Health.
Addresses were shared in the newsletters and members were encouraged to get in touch with each other. Indeed, group visits were organized. Marjorie, in one of her letters describes a holiday where four members met in Iona in the Hebrides to look for fairies. Marjorie herself responded with her sister Dorothy to a call from Lincolnshire about some elves that had been seen in a forest there in ‘a very rudimentary phase of development’. In 1956 she took two field trips and saw a fairy dog and a ‘green, shapeless, ectoplasm mass’, which she interpreted as an ‘embryo elf’. Marjorie may have become a fairy administrator but she was still given to strong mystic fits. In the late 1960s, about ten years after her investigations on the east coast, she was at her house when she had a vision of these Lincolnshire elves ‘and was able to watch swarms of them climbing up the stems of plants and sliding down again’. ‘Though I knew I was at home’, she wrote, ‘I seemed no more than a yard away from them in the woodland and could even sense their strong, magnetic quality.’
The FIS brought another boon to Marjorie: Alasdair Alpin MacGregor. MacGregor was a gifted Scottish writer and folklorist who wrote a number of books on fairies, ghosts and other unworldly traditions. He was a member of the FIS and he soon came into contact with Marjorie Johnson. A bold, charismatic man MacGregor and Marjorie, ten years his junior, seemed to have quickly established a working relationship of unusual intensity. They were both passionate anti-vivisectionists and they both, of course, believed in fairies. The two decided to publish together the book of Marjorie’s fairy accounts. But MacGregor was used to doing things on a larger scale and proved a canny publicist. In 1955 and 1956 MacGregor took the whole idea of collecting fairy accounts to another level. He wrote letters to newspapers and journals, asking whether readers had fairy sightings to contribute to Marjorie’s survey.
Marjorie’s clipping book now seemed modest, as accounts, some very dramatic, began to pour in from around the English-speaking world, and sometimes from beyond: South Africa, Italy, Canada, California, Germany, New Zealand… MacGregor detached himself from the project in the next year: he was a brilliant but restless man and announced that he wanted to travel abroad. But Marjorie had gathered scores of accounts, convincing her more than ever that she was not an isolated eccentric, but part of a global encounter between humanity and nature spirits: an encounter that had to be proved and, then, explained to the general public. This was not the age of Aquarius but of Oberon. It is interesting that after MacGregor came into her life Marjorie no longer saw the rainbow flashes around total strangers. In fairy terms, perhaps the time for magic had passed; or perhaps it was simply that MacGregor’s more efficient but louder strategy had unsettled the fairies’ always delicate sense of decorum.
Collecting fairy accounts might have been central in Marjorie’s life, but the mystic quality of her day-to-day existence continued, often with her new FIS friends provoking and assisting. Marjorie reports, for example, the visit of a fairy seer named Vera Westmorland who found a fairy on one of Marjorie’s chairs. The fairy, after complaining about Marjorie’s decorating – this fairy did not like the smell of paint – decided to go on a journey with Vera and rode away in her car, returning several days later. Marjorie considered Vera the more powerful seer: her ‘psychic gifts far exceeded my own’, not least because Marjorie had not been properly aware of the fairy and had certainly not seen it. However, some days afterwards Marjorie spotted for the first time ‘a misty little figure’ in an upstairs’ room. Marjorie was, forever bumping into nature spirits in her house. Another day the dogs of two visitors alerted her to ‘the semi-transparent figure of a gnome or dwarf, one and a half to two feet in height, with a large head, a beard, and a pointed cap,’ in a downstairs corridor. ‘Although I was unable to see any colouring, he appeared to be wearing the traditional belted jacket and trousers of his kind.’
If Marjorie’s mystic experiences continued progress on the book was more uneven. MacGregor had claimed that Fairy Vision, as the two had wanted to call their opus, was almost ready for publication in 1956. But Marjorie was still looking for more accounts in 1960, when she had her most traumatic fairy experience. Through MacGregor she had learnt of the value of the media and had sometimes spoken to the press to drum up publicity for the FIS and more particularly for the fairy survey. In 1960 she was offered an interview with the Sunday Pictorial and met with one Tom Riley, a journalist, to talk about fairies. The article when it was published was cruel. It focused in on one small part of Marjorie’s interview where, unwisely, she had spoken about how fairies reproduce: no doubt goaded by Riley, who saw this eccentric Midlander as a meal ticket. A small photograph of Marjorie appeared under the title: ‘She Does a Kinsey on Fairies…’ To be mocked in this way in the national press, in an article with words like ‘bisexual’ and ‘polygamous’, must have been mortifying: this was 1960, remember, the year of the Lady Chatterley Trial and this was a middle class area of Nottingham where ‘keeping up with the Jones’ was as much about propriety as possessions.
Worse, though, was to come. The story was syndicated and slowly made its way around the world: appearing in a reduced form in newspapers from Florida to Australia. Journalists scented blood and turned up at Marjorie’s door: according to a later memory they ‘camped out’ there. The consequences, for Marjorie, were terrible. She demanded a retraction from the Pictorial and wrote imploringly to FIS members, many who had been shocked and embarrassed by the episode. Craufurd’s FIS now entered a hibernation from which it would never properly recover. Even ten years later, Marjorie’s successor as secretary, an English writer Leslie Shepard still talked about members’ privacy concerns. The organization was, finally, closed down in the early nineties. As Shepard himself noted the fey had fallen out of fashion as aliens, fairies with jetpacks, had taken their place.
The story of the visitor to a fairy feast is widely known. The human spent an hour in the underground halls of Titania, only to reappear in the world to find that a hundred years have passed. In fairyland times passes at a different rate. Marjorie’s book now entered fairyland. Marjorie was distracted, first, by her mother’s poor health, then by her sister’s and her own health problems. Through the next decades she continued to collect encounters but at a reduced rate. The fairies and nature spirits remained, however, loyal.
Perhaps the most moving passages in her writing, and one that gives an excellent flavour of her remarkable personality, is about a walk that she and Dorothy took to Colwick Woods in Nottingham, where the two had played together as children (it was where Dorothy had seen the floating ring many years before) and where they had walked with their dogs in middle age:
Now, after a long interval of many years, we were wandering again over the familiar haunts, this time in our old age, and (though we did not know it) for the last time together. We were in a nostalgic mood, and we sat down to rest on a hilltop, trying to recapture the old magic. After a while, feeling more peaceful and relaxed, we began to retrace our steps and were walking towards a tree, which had known us intimately in our younger days and grew apart from the others, when to our amazement it suddenly became illumined. This was no trick of the sunlight, for the tree shone from within, and its radiance rayed out in a golden-white aureole, ethereal and translucent. The tree wanted us to know it had recognized us, and we stood in silent communion under its branches, enfolded in its welcoming vibrations. After a while we had to say goodbye, and we continued our walk home feeling blessed and uplifted. It was a truly wonderful and touching experience to be greeted and remembered so lovingly by an old woodland friend.
Dorothy herself died in 1988. Marjorie describes how, the night before her sister passed, fairies came to dance in the air around her head. ‘I had a strong impression that they were preparing me and trying to strengthen me for something that was to come.’ The book, finally, emerged from fairyland in 1996. Marjorie, now eighty five, had rearranged the contents, added some new accounts and the title had changed from FairyVision to the more winsome Seeing Fairies: the entire work included some four hundred fairy sightings and encounters, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the vast majority of which had never appeared before in print. British publishers turned up their noses. By 2000 Marjorie was ready to give up, but she had a dream. She was walking up a hill and was getting tired. But Dorothy, who had died fourteen years before, and a group of fairies, urged her to continue. She awoke with a new sense of determination and soon afterwards she learnt that a publisher was interested in bringing out the book in German: and so Seeing Fairies or Naturgeister as it came to be known, enjoyed some modest success among German New Age readers. Four years later thebook was translated into Italian and Czech. Marjorie now had her book in print in threelanguages, none of which she could read. She continued to look for an English publisher but had no success and, in her final illness, she even misplaced the English manuscript. That manuscript re-emerged after her death and Seeing Fairies was finally published, postmortem, in English in 2014.
As the dream of Dorothy and the fairies suggests, Marjorie’s mystic life continued into her twilight years. There is an account in Seeing Fairies of her homehelp, at that time, Maureen having a peculiar experience in Marjorie’s sitting room while cleaning:
[Maureen] told me that ‘a little shining thing’ had flown under the table on a beam of sunlight towards her and had risen into the air in front of her. She saw that it was about three inches in length and was sparkling all over as though speckled with stardust. It was so bright that she could not see its face, and as she watched, it flew down again and disappeared. ‘It was so wonderful, and so lovely,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in my life before. I wish I could see it again.’
A one off and presumably unrepeatable incident? Well, Rose, another homehelp, in the years that followed, was shocked to see, on her first day at work, a transparent blue light pass before her while she was doing the washing up. Marjorie was now in advanced old age but her magic was still there, leaking out into the rooms where she and her sister had lived.
We all know the famous lines of Frost about two roads dividing in a yellow wood. There is the well travelled, and the less travelled path. Which should we choose? When, in her late teens or early twenties, Marjorie came to that fork, she, bamboo pipe in one hand, notepad in the other, ignored both. Instead, she thrashed her way through the undergrowth making her own way among the trees. Whatever, the reader thinks of Marjorie’s fairy experiences it is impossible not to admire the integrity of a woman who listened to her inner voice and lived her entire life according to its dictates. ‘They broke the mould when they made, Marjorie’, said one of her friends: it is the best epitaph I know for Nottingham’s fairy seer.
But the greater problem remains. What is the place of these natural mystics, in our industrial and post-industrial societies: particularly those who lack sympathetic support networks, or who have visions that do not cohere with the whims of a changing society, or who, worst of all, get lost in our mental-health system? What should they do? We have seen in recent years that archaeological and nutritional work into the Paleolithic diet have given us insights into how we should eat: we are digital men and women living in caveman bodies, goes the mantra. Perhaps new investigations into Paleolithic religion and the visions of our cave-dwelling ancestors will give us insights into our psychological well being. The propensity for some of us to have visions is well-established; the prehistoric roots of these visions are likewise generally accepted; the relevance of these visions to the modern world is interesting, but as yet unproven.
Author’s note: this article was based in large part on Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times (Anomalist Books, 2014). I also used information from a number of interviews, and also back numbers of the FIS newsletter from the 1950s, which Marjorie edited.
The great Anthony Peake was kind enough to invite me on to the January 2020 edition of his Consciousness Hour podcast to talk about the faeries and how they might interact with human consciousness. For those unfamiliar with Anthony’s work, I recommend checking out his website, which holds a big dataset of information, or, even better, sourcing some of his books, which investigate consciousness from a variety of perspectives. They are always deeply insightful. His most recent publication is The Hidden Universe: An Investigation into Non-Human Intelligences, published in December 2019. It’s excellent.
During our hour-long conversation we talked about:
My background and how I became interested in folklore, and especially the faerie phenomenon.
The chronology of cultural representations of the faeries, from Palaeolithic cave paintings to Tinkerbell.
The place of faeries in modern culture.
What are the faeries? Are they physical or non-physical?
How are the faeries experienced? This led down the cosmic path, which always ends up with an investigation of altered states of consciousness.
We finished with some of my own experiences and how they have affected me.
Please make an allowance for some garbled sentences, but I hope the basic concepts of the subject matter are conveyed.
There is a long tradition of metaphysical entities becoming manifest in our consensus reality as distinctive attributes of nature. They interact with the material world but they are never fully consolidated within it. They are deemed essential to the propagation of nature but their presence remains supernatural and beyond the bounds of relativistic inquiry. They are usually termed nature spirits, or sometimes elementals, and while they are frequently equated with the faeries of folklore there is a disparity between these classes of beings, which has, however, become increasingly enmeshed, to the point where they are often seen as the same thing. Are they the same thing? Are nature spirits faeries and vice versa? This post investigates the, sometimes complex, entanglements of these metaphysical entities beginning with the 16th-century progenitor of the concept of nature spirits: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more often (and conveniently) known as Paracelsus.
Paracelsus and Nature Spirits
Paracelsus was born in 1494 in the district of Einsiedeln, in what is now Switzerland. He trained as a physician, specialising in chemistry, but also incorporated astrology into his practice (as did the majority of Renaissance physicians), and produced several volumes investigating what he called the alchemical catechism. In fact, he produced an enormous body of work (most of it published posthumously) ranging from philosophy to toxicological treatises, which had much influence on post-Renaissance thought, from medicine to spiritual traditions such as Rosicrucianism. While some of his philosophical works touch on the subject of metaphysical nature spirits, it is in the volume Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris, et Gigantibus etc. (1566) where he treats the subject in detail, and sets the blueprint for what were to be later termed elementals.
Paracelsus drew on Greek and Roman mythologies, which suggested the metaphysical world interacted with the physical world via the four Empedoclean elements of water, earth, air and fire. But his classification of the entities that made up the interaction went much further than his classical sources, and he designated particular attributes to them as well as new names. The title of the volume is somewhat misleading in this respect, probably due to the need of the publisher to apply classical appellations to attract an educated readership. In the body of the work Paracelsus consistently applies the following names to describe supernatural nature spirits, which were able to manifest within physical reality: Undines (water), Gnomes (earth), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire). Each nature spirit was only able to operate within its own element, but their presence in these elements was essential to the continuation of the physical world. They were the underlying metaphysical reality, which enabled our own to exist. In order to make this palatable Paracelsus ascribed human-like characteristics to these entities: “They are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb like we who are from Adam.” They were supernatural, with the ability to live in environments in which humans would not survive, but under the right circumstances (Paracelsus describes these circumstances as ‘when we see naturally’) they could interact with humanity and even form relationships with humans – an important point explored below. He was also keen to iterate that these beings were created by God as guardians of nature. Paracelsus was twice accused of sorcery for his beliefs (although never tried in an ecclesiastical court) and he was on thin ice when discussing entities that would customarily be seen by the 16th-century Church as nothing more than demons. So he encapsulated the nature spirits within a Christian epistemology, even though they had no doctrinal credence. He reinforced this by suggesting they had no souls and could only be redeemed by being brought into the human world and accepting Christianity. But the tenor of his thesis implies this was a cover to make his concept of an overriding spirituality to nature acceptable. Paracelsus was importing pagan metaphysics into a Christian world, but he was pragmatic enough to realise this needed to be coded to the prevailing 16th-century Christian worldview.
The Influence of Paracelsus on the Rosicrucian and Theosophical Movements
Most of Paracelsus’ alchemical works only gained traction after his death in 1541, as they began to be published from the 1560s. Perhaps most crucial was the influence of his ideas on the Rosicrucian Order, which originated between 1614-17 and promulgated a wide range of esoteric and occult mysticism, which followers claimed to be based on an ancient and hidden tradition. One of the core tenets of Rosicrucianism was that through alchemical techniques (including the purging of eyes with a Panacea) the unseen spiritual world could be made manifest in the material world to the benefit of humanity. The Rosicrucian spiritual world was made up from a range of ‘Nature Forces’, which existed in an extra dimension but which were fundamental to all life on earth. Among these were the metaphysical representatives of the Empedoclean elements, as described by Paracelsus. By the 18th century these ideas had seeped out from Rosicrucianism into general occultism, so that influential writers on alchemy such as George von Welling, felt able to use the exact terminology of Paracelsus to describe nature spirits who lived beside us unseen and non-physical, but were responsible for the propagation and wellbeing of the natural world in his Opus Magocabalisticum et Theosophicum(1719). Many of these concepts of elemental nature spirits were collected and expanded on by Max Heindel in his 1909 book The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (with an annexed treatise Nature Spirits and Nature Forces), which contains perhaps the fullest description of the cosmology of nature spirits from a Rosicrucianesque perspective. His linguistic style rides on his Rosicrucian predecessors:
“With respect to the consciousness of the ELEMENTALS OR NATURE SPIRITS, it is quite correct to assume that they have what may be called a fourth dimensional consciousness, for in addition to the height, width, and depth which are the dimensions of space in the physical world, there is what we may call “thoroughness” in the ethers. With the etheric sight you may look into a mountain and if you have an etheric body such as the nature spirits possess, you may also walk through the hardest granite rock. It will offer no more obstruction than the air does to our progress here. But even among nature spirits there are different entities and a corresponding variation of consciousness. The bodies of the gnomes are made of the chemical ether principally and therefore they are of the earth earthy; that is, one never sees them fly about as do the sylphs. They can be burned in fire. They also grow old in a manner not so greatly different from human beings. The undines which live in the water and the sylphs of the air are also subject to mortality, but their bodies being composed of the life and light ethers respectively, make them much more enduring, so that while it is stated that the gnomes do not live more than a few hundred years, the undines and sylphs are said to live for thousands, and the salamanders whose bodies are principally built of the fourth ether are said to live many thousands of years. The CONSCIOUSNESS, which builds and ensouls these bodies, however, belongs to a number of divine hierarchs who are gaining additional experience in that manner; and the FORMS which are built of matter and thus ensouled have attained a degree of self-consciousness.”
The natural inheritors of Paracelsus’ ideas and Rosicrucian alchemy were those involved in the Theosophist movement (founded in 1875). This movement suffered from various schisms during its early years, but its followers remained consistent in their mystical doctrine of the need to practice unmediated contact with nature, where divinity was to be found. Aspects of theosophy may perhaps be seen as contingent to Animism and panpsychism, where the natural world is deemed alive and conscious at every level. This ‘natural consciousness’ was responsible for the continued wellbeing of the biosphere and could be communicated with by humans when their consciousness was correctly attuned. Indeed, a main tenet of theosophy is that this communication is essential to the health of the natural world, and that the interaction point for humans is with the metaphysical representatives of nature: the elementals. The theosophical nature spirits/elementals are non-material but, as with Paracelsus’ alchemical catechism, they can manifest within consensus material reality when certain conditions are met.
One of the prime-disseminators of the theosophist nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. This was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:
“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, ‘Perception of the Elemental World’ (1913).
Steiner goes on to describe the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world when perceived clairvoyantly in what he calls the Supersensible World. The elementals in the Supersensible World exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits/elementals charged with the maintenance of local biosystems. Steiner uses Paracelsus’ terms for these elementals: Gnomes (earth), Undines (water), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire), in order to integrate specific supernatural characters (who had clearly defined tasks relative to their element) into the natural world. He (and Theosophists in general) were integrating a 400-year old alchemical philosophy into a new way of interacting with nature; one that involved entities that could only be recognised through attaining an altered state of consciousness (clairvoyance).
Such Theosophist doctrines continue to the present day, sometimes morphing into occult philosophies and practices, which may view nature spirits as fundamental attributes to a worldview based on respect for nature and a connection to metaphysical belief systems. This is a broad church and includes a variety of pagan, animistic, mystic, esoteric and philosophical strains, but there remains in all a recognition of a force in nature, which can sometimes make itself known in the forms of recognisable supernatural entities. These forms still often manifest as the nature spirits described by Paracelsus, most particularly in the chthonic guise of gnomes and ephemeral air-borne sylphs. There is evidently a deep-set recognition of these entities in our cultural consciousness. But are they faeries? Are faeries and nature spirits part of the same cultural tradition and (more importantly) are they emanating from the same metaphysical place?
Faeries vs Nature Spirits
There is certainly an ontological gap between the faeries found in folklore and the elemental nature spirits described by Paracelsus, Theosophists and modern occultism. While traditional folkloric faeries are often found in natural surroundings, they do not appear to be propagators of nature. The faeries can be kind to humans, and sometimes require our help, but their role is more often ambivalent or even malicious. While nature spirits are sometimes held responsible for adverse weather events or vegetation failure, they are usually deemed benign benefactors of the natural environment – either equivocal to humanity or in lockstep with us; at least those of us who respect and believe in them.
But the differences are perhaps more cultural semantics than epistemological. Paracelsus relates several (allegoric) stories of Undines being enabled to leave their water element in order to marry humans. These trysts always end badly, which put them in the same category as the folklore of lake faeries, where a supernatural entity used to existing in a watery environment is persuaded to join with a mortal, only for the relationship to end when a taboo is broken. Undines are humanoids – lake faeries are humanoids. The stories told about their behaviour contain the same motifs and the ontological gap between them seems narrow. Likewise, gnomic entities have long since become mainstays of faerie folklore, as described by John McVan: “Following their conception in Renaissance alchemical theory, gnomes became a popular subject of 18th-century fairy tales and romanticism, their traits often changing to suit the needs of the writer but their short stature and close association with the earth and underground generally remaining consistent.” While a theosophical viewpoint may see gnomes as an anthropomorphised agent of the natural environment (in this case the elements of earth and minerals), their generally consistent appearance and behaviour through a long time period makes them appear much the same as the descriptions of many folkloric faeries. Their archaic clothing, diminutive stature, a tendency to distrust humans, and their proclivity for living in underground environments are all indistinguishable from recognised faerie appearance, behaviour and story motifs.
Perhaps most interesting are the sylphs. As nature spirits, described by Paracelsus, they are aerial entities responsible for pollination and the cultivation of vegetation as it transitions from earth to air. Their form finds description in Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, written 150 years after Paracelsus, where Kirk attempts to convey the ability of faeries to move through the air: “Their chamælion-lyke bodies swim in the air near the Earth.” Neither Paracelsus nor Kirk suggested these entities had wings, but from the 18th century (perhaps earlier) the imagery of faeries with wings took hold in both literature and art until by the late 19th century a flying sylph or faerie were indistinguishable and accepted as one and the same thing. Once JM Barrie introduced Tinkerbell into the cultural zeitgeist in his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, aerial, winged faeries became the predominant form of the phenomenon. Barrie even describes Tinkerbell as a sylph. This had much cultural influence. Whatever the metaphysical components of the elemental sylphs and flying faeries, through the 20th century they were culturally integrated as the same thing. This cultural integration is important; because however we may attempt to differentiate faeries from nature spirits (in all their forms), they appear to be coming from the same place; a place that can be tapped into and experienced when certain conditions are met within our consciousness. Whether folkloric characters or alchemical manifestations they are supernatural entities that somehow find their way into our consensus reality and are culturally coded accordingly. They have done this for a very long time, and our conception of them as a phenomenon has perhaps evolved to a stage where now semantic differentiation and classification is less important than discovering the source of their existence and how (in true alchemical convention) their apparently non-physical forms can interact with the physical world.
A Modern Perspective
In the 2017 Fairy Census conducted by the Fairy Investigation Society, the most common explanation of respondents (of those who offered an explanation) to their experiences of interacting with faeries was that they were some form of nature spirit. There is not a single example of these respondents questioning their encounter as anything but a faerie experience, even though their descriptions tally more with nature elementals rather than folkloric faeries. This suggests, at least in popular culture, that numinous experiences with supernatural humanoid entities have come to be considered, to a majority extent, faerie encounters. And in many reports the entities could be straight out of either a traditional folkloric anecdote or a theosophist description of an elemental, as in report #18, from a woman who was in her teens during a family holiday in Cornwall, UK, 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.”
An American woman, who experienced faerie beings while on a student exchange visit in Sussex, UK, articulated an important view of what these entities might be, which correlates with many of the respondents, while also bringing some Eastern mysticism to the table:
“[Fairies are] nature spirits. [Fairies] could be tulpas that manifest with group consciousness. When you dwell on them in thought, they will manifest. They are protectors of the earth and remind us that there is more to our plane of existence than just physical.” (Report #128).
To ‘dwell on them in thought’ mirrors the intentionality of Paracelsus’ alchemy, Rosicrucian ideas and Steiner’s brand of theosophy. The thought can, of course, only originate in human consciousness – consciousness that is culturally coded and, when altered from its usual view of consensus reality, may tap into non-usual states. The entities that consciousness experiences in these states will, nevertheless, be informed by personal and cultural memory. Many of the census reports describe winged faeries. As discussed, this particular faerie/elemental archetype has become deeply embedded in our culture for well over a hundred years, even though it has no folkloric precedence and does not adhere to any historic epistemological classification of nature spirits. But for over a century, winged, Tinkerbell-like, faeries have become a dynamic cultural trope. When, for whatever reason, a person becomes able to see or interact with non-physical entities, there appears to be a good chance they may experience faeries/nature spirits as the winged sylphs so ubiquitous in our culture.
If we accept these types of testimonies as genuine experiences with something supernatural it would seem as if what is being manifested in these encounters is from a collective experience. Carl Jung’s theory of a Collective Unconscious is a starting point for understanding that perhaps these numinous encounters with supernatural entities are actually individual human consciousnesses plugging into the totality of human existence. The totality is represented by archetypes, which are present in many fairy-tales, but which also appear in dreams and altered states of consciousness, where the individual is in the presence of the collective. The (non-physical) entities residing in the collective (un)consciousness make themselves known as faeries or nature spirits depending on the cultural expectations of the experiencer. They might be the ambivalent characters of folklore, benign propagators of nature, or winged Tinkerbells. Their appearance and purpose will depend on the observer and their particular cultural, psychological, philosophical and spiritual backdrop.
Jung’s Collective Unconscious is adapted and expanded in the theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:
“Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.”
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 an overall lifeforce acting as (what he terms) the memory of nature: human, animal, vegetable and mineral. This memory may be what manifests itself in anthropogenic form as faeries or nature spirits when we are in a state of consciousness to experience it via our cultural lenses. Sheldrake’s theorem finds resonance in animism and panpsychism (where everything is alive with consciousness) as well as a wide diaspora of environmental spiritual movements and occultism. But his idea of a metaphysical memory takes things one step further. It allows for the prospect of us remembering the collective of existence. When this remembering happens, we are liable to enter a state of consciousness where reside a myriad of entities, who we encounter in forms to suit our cultural and psychological expectations. They may be gnarled faeries dressed up in 18th-century garb and beckoning us to dance with them in a circle, elementals ensuring the propagation of the soil and flora, or fluttering Tinkerbells. They may have even morphed into grey aliens to meet our sci-fi sensibilities. But whatever they are, they would appear to be coming from the same place, deep inside our collective consciousness and nature’s memory – places we seem to be able to tap into when circumstances allow. Faeries and nature spirits may or may not be the same phenomenon, but they are both non-physical entities, and so it is perhaps logical to attempt to understand them via the only non-physical thing we know to exist definitively: consciousness.
taboo [ta·boo | tə-‘bü] NOUN
A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
Taboo motifs are common in both traditional faerie-tales and folklore. In traditional tales they can form the centrepiece of the plotline; the crux that everything turns on, usually marking a change in state from supernatural to natural or vice-versa. In more anecdotal folklore their function is also often central to the didactics of the testimony. Whether the action takes place in a faerie Otherworld with a human placed under the edicts of a taboo, or whether it is a faerie in consensus reality imposing unbreakable taboos on humans, the motif appears to represent a fundamental premise concerning the interaction between physical and metaphysical reality. It would seem the taboo is a coded message that may help unlock the meaning of the tales and folklore. But the code is usually deeply embedded and buried beneath metaphors and symbolism that often appear too layered and hidden to elicit any explanation as to the purpose of the taboos. They are most often surreal and even absurd parts of tales and folklore. So are these taboo motifs inserted into stories simply as useful plot devices and to invoke a sense of magical realism in folk tales, or do they have a more profound significance, locked into the transpersonal memory of folklore as hermeneutic tools to interpret aspects of reality and the human condition?
Taboos in Faerie-Tales and Folklore
Faerie-tale taboos come in many forms but in essence, they represent prohibitions invoked by faerie entities that cannot be broken. Invariably, they are broken and the consequences are as promised. These consequences are nearly always (though not exclusively) detrimental to the human protagonists of the stories. The motif is ancient and finds its way into several early-medieval Irish tales, the most well-known being Oisín in Tír na nÓg, which includes a double-taboo. Oisín is a poet of the Fianna, and falls asleep under an ash tree. He awakes to find Niamh, Queen of Tír na nÓg, the land of perpetual youth, inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann, summoning him to join her in her realm as husband. He agrees and for three years he finds himself living in a paradise of perpetual summer and where time and death hold no sway. Oisín and Niamh even have three children together. But soon he breaks the taboo of standing on a broad flat stone, from where he is able to view the Ireland he left behind. It has changed for the worse, and he begs Niamh to give him leave to return. She reluctantly agrees but asks that he return after only one day with the mortal inhabitants. She supplies him with a magical black horse, which he is not to dismount, and ‘gifted him with wisdom and knowledge far surpassing that of men.’ Once back in Ireland he realises that three hundred years have passed and that he is no longer recognised or known. Inevitably, he dismounts his horse and immediately his youth is gone and he becomes an enfeebled old man with nothing but his immortal wisdom. There is no returning to the faerieland of Tír na nÓg. In other variations of the story, the hero breaks the taboo and turns to dust as soon as his feet touch the ground of consensus reality.
Medieval prose and poetry from Britain and France also used the taboo motif frequently, usually within the Arthurian cycle of stories, which often involved a faerie Otherworld as an essential component of the mythos. Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, is the earliest text example (12th century), where Yvain (like Oisín) falls in love with the Otherworldly faerie, Laudine, and lives with her in a magical land. After a time, he leaves to return to his own world under her stipulation (the taboo) that he returns after a year and a day. He fails to do so and is therefore rejected by her and prohibited from re-entering the faerie Otherworld. In the 14th-century Middle-English romance Sir Launfal by Thomas Chestre (based on the 12th-century Lanval by Marie de France) Launfal is undone by uttering the name of his faerie lover Tryamour (a theme explored below), who had previously bestowed gifts on him – including a faerie horse, an invisible servant and a self-replenishing bag of gold coins – and promised to come to him whenever he wished, provided he adhered to the taboo of never naming her to another human. Once he has uttered her name (to Queen Guenevere no less) and broken the taboo, she comes to him no more and the gifts she has given him disappear.
This Arthurian mythos was plugging into earlier Celtic stories, which may have dated from at least the 8th century in written form and to the pre-Christian era in oral tradition. So the regurgitation of the taboo motif through the Middle Ages demonstrates a continuation of its Pagan metaphysical significance, even if the composers of the stories in the later medieval period were not fully aware of the coded meaning of the motif. They may have been using it as a useful magical plot device, but they were, in fact, perpetuating an ancient symbolic motif that was an intrinsic part of stories where a faerie Otherworld formed part of the narrative.
The taboo motif evidently continued to form part of evolving oral folklore in the post-medieval period until the stories began to be recorded in the 19th century. When Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm recorded their traditional European faerie-tales in the early 19th century about a third of them incorporated a taboo motif. The motifs found many forms but are all recognisable as magical prohibitions. In Cinderella, the midnight curfew is the prohibition invoked by the ‘fairy godmother’, which allows the heroine to maintain an aura of glamour to achieve her goals, but which has a defined time-period before the magic is taken away. When Cinderella breaks the curfew/taboo she has to quickly escape the constructed reality, losing her slipper as she does so, and thereby setting up the rest of the story. In Little Brother and Little Sister, a witch (a common propagator of taboos in faerie-tales) sets up the prohibition to the siblings of drinking from streams. The taboo is communicated telepathically to the sister every time her brother is about to drink from a stream: First, he will be turned into a tiger and the next time into a wolf. He resists the urge to drink but at the third stream breaks the taboo, drinks and is turned into a roebuck. This allows the story to continue along the theme of sibling love with magical realism embedded in the narrative, but only because it has been countenanced through the symbolic breaking of the taboo, which is the arbiter of the magical situation.
The Grimms’ Rumpelstiltskin was a version of a story that was paralleled in the English Tom Tit Tot. Here the put-upon and imprisoned heroine is aided in her duties of spinning flax by an ‘imp’. But his aid comes with the condition that she will need to guess his name before a year and a day otherwise she becomes his. She eventually hears him yabbering his name beneath her prison window and so on the final night she is able to repeat his name and avoid being taken from the natural to the supernatural. This story is embedded with the taboo motif of ‘not naming’ (a theme returned to below). A supernatural entity imposes the taboo in a form of competition, which is won by the heroine. She has broken the taboo, in this instance, to her benefit.
By the time most of these classic faerie-tales were collected by folklorists in the 19th century, they were being recorded alongside less structured types of folklore, which often incorporated localised events and known people (usually from the past but not always) overlain by a story narrative. Taboos are frequently found in this type of folklore, as exampled by the Cornish story Cherry of Zennor, collected by Robert Hunt in 1865. Cherry is a young girl about to enter service in the locality of her home in Zennor. But as she finds herself on a lonely hill she is taken to an alternative reality through the persuasions of the ‘master’; a faerie entity. She finds the faerie world much more to her liking than the one she left and is pleased to stay there under the spell of the master. She is obliged to look after the master’s child and to anoint his eyes each day with an ointment, which she is told to never apply to her own eyes. Once she breaks this taboo she is able to see the faerie realm in its completeness and the faeries that ‘seemed to swarm everywhere.’ But she is soon found out for contravening the prohibition and is escorted back to the windswept hillside. Her breaking the taboo had given her temporary cosmic vision, but the price had to be paid in the expulsion from a magical reality.
The magical ointment motif is common in this folklore type, where the human protagonist is most often a midwife who is persuaded to help out the faeries. She is usually given access to the ointment for washing the babies while being warned not to apply it to her eyes. When she (inevitably) self-applies the ointment the realm of the faeries becomes clearly visible. The most frequent punishment for breaking this taboo was to be blinded at a later date when the ability to see the faeries was revealed to one of their own. In some folklore, this is watered down so that the midwife only has her ability to see the faeries taken away while retaining her natural sight.
The many folktales about swan maidens and lake faeries always contain a specific taboo implemented by the supernatural being while living in physical reality. While the swan maiden stories are Europe-wide, lake faerie folktales seem concentrated in Britain and especially Wales. Once again, there is a crossover quality about these stories, where a recognisable environment and a not-too-distant past is overlain with certain classical faerie-tale archetypes and symbology. The standard scheme of the stories is that the supernatural female is lured from her watery existence by a male, either through a ruse or by charm. They are married and will usually have children together. But at some point, a taboo is broken and she deserts her husband to return to the water, which always seems to represent the portal between the physical world and a non-material reality.
The most detailed of these folktales is the Welsh tale The Lady ofLlyn y Fan Fach, which though only recorded in the 19th century contains named personages that appear to date the origin of the story to the 12th century. In this tale, a young farmer called Gwyn regularly frequents Llyn y Fan Fach, where he pastures his cattle. One day he sees a golden-haired woman, combing her locks and using the lake as a mirror. He woos her and she agrees to marry him. But there is a faerie taboo attached: “Silver and gold cannot buy me. Your love is beyond price so I will marry you and live upon Earth with you until you give to me three causeless blows. The striking of the third blow will be the breaking of our marriage contract. I will leave earth and we shall be parted forever. Do you accept?” He does.
Their marriage prospered and they had three sons, but inevitably the three blows were dealt over time, all as accidents: a playful flick on the shoulder with a glove, a tap on the arm and then a third touch when the faerie wife displays joy at the funeral of a neighbour’s infant. She explains that she still sees with the eyes of the Otherworld and that her joy was that the child had transcended the pain and suffering of mortality. But when the third blow is struck she returns to the lake, with her dowry, and disappears below the surface. Distraught, Gwyn follows her, drowning himself in his grief.
Once again, the taboo motif is central to the narrative arc of these folktales. It always represents the jointure between the physical and the metaphysical, and its breaking will sever whatever link has been made between the two. The taboo appears to be a coded message embedded in the folklore, which is perhaps purveying the idea that any interaction with a metaphysical reality has to have a subsequent consequence. The taboo is the key that locks or unlocks the door joining the natural with the supernatural.
More Folkloric Taboos
The taboo was evidently an important element of many folk tales but it is also a vital part of many folk beliefs existing outside structured tales. These beliefs often manifest in anecdotal folklore, where the lore doesn’t need a story loop. One long-standing folk belief was that mortals should not consume faerie food or drink if they ever found themselves in a faerie reality. This was a taboo – to break it meant to leave the physical world and stay in the faerie Otherworld. It is a motif that can be dated back to the 12th century at least, when the chronicler William of Newburgh recounted a story told to him by ‘a reliable person’, where a somewhat inebriated horseman comes upon a prehistoric burial mound known as Willy Howe (Humberside), at night only to be drawn into it via an opening, where he finds a band of faeries in the midst of a revel. He joins in, but when handed a silver goblet to drink from he remembers the warnings against consuming faerie food or drink (evidently a well-established tradition as early as the 12th century), and threw out the contents before making off with the goblet.
The taboo against ingesting anything from the faerie world found its way into many of the 19th- and 20th-century folklore collections. WY Evans-Wentz collected anecdotes with the motif throughout the Celtic world in the early 20th century. In Brittany, the faeries were frequently associated with the dead and if a mortal consumed offerings of food when inhabiting their world, s/he would have to stay there. And a seer in County Sligo told Evans-Wentz, “that once the faeries take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever.”
There is also a prevalent motif of the faeries not liking to be named. This has resulted in the faeries being euphemised with tags such as ‘The Good People’, ‘The Other Lot’, ‘The Fair Folk.’ The motif comes from faerie-tales such as Tom Tit Tot, but it is retained within folklore as a general taboo: the faeries do not want to receive human appellations. Evans-Wentz found the majority of people in all the regions he visited reluctant to name the faeries as such. In Wales, the term was usually the Tylwyth Teg (Fair Family) and several testimonies collected by Evans-Wentz suggested that as long as they were euphemised as such they would remain on good terms with humanity. Too much investigation into what they really were was likely to invoke their hostility.
This feeds into the folkloric idea of the faeries requiring privacy. They usually liked to choose their own time of interaction with humanity and often dealt retribution on those who pried too deeply into their affairs. They lived in a different dimension and it was private, with taboos to protect its autonomy and to ensure a limited transaction between the natural and the supernatural. These taboos are everywhere in the folklore. But where are they coming from? What is generating them as essential elements in so many faerie-tales and in much of the folklore? What do the taboos mean?
The Coded Meaning of the Faerie Taboos
19th-century proto-anthropologists such as W. Robertson Smith, Sir James Frazer, and Robert R. Marett, applied the word taboo mostly to the religious customs of pre-industrial indigenous peoples. For them the taboo acted as a socio-religious code, most often used to control access to the supernatural. Sigmund Freud adapted their ideas to compare mentally ill patients in early 20th-century Europe to indigenous people, and he retained the colonialist language in his primary thesis on the subject: Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics(1913). Freud suggested (like his predecessors) that indigenous societies were ‘degenerative’ through their inclusion of magic in everyday life. They were delusional and the delusion was kept in check partly through the elites controlling access to the source of the magic by imposing taboos – prohibiting general social inclusion into Mysteries. Freud compared the indigenous mindset to the ‘neurotic’s’ disorder. The ‘neurotic’ is unable to assimilate the social taboos against breaching ‘normal’ behaviour and will develop according behaviour patterns, usually described as mental illness.
Franz Steiner consolidated a lot of this anthropological and psychological data but argued, in his 1956 book Taboo, that the taboo was not exclusive to preliterate societies but was alive and well in the industrial West. Steiner separates religious and political taboos from those that appear to be socially sanctioned and appear organically. But he makes the important observation that there appears to be a core attribute to most taboos, in that they: “have been originally inspired by awe of the supernatural, and that they were intended to restrain men from the use of that of which the Divine power or powers were jealous.” Taboos were devices that helped keep the supernatural from being too accessible. They were warning signs.
These writers seldom touched upon the taboo motif in faerie-tales or folklore despite its ancient presence in the stories. As a folklorist, Evans-Wentz was perhaps more able to consolidate the anthropology of his time with his own insights into the folklore and the living faith in faeries at the beginning of the 20th century:
“Irish taboo, and inferentially all Celtic taboo, dates back to an unknown pagan antiquity. It is imposed at or before birth, or again during life, usually at some critical period, and when broken brings disaster and death to the breaker. Its whole background appears to rest on a supernatural relationship between divine men and the Otherworid of the Tuatha De Danann; and it is very certain that this ancient relationship survives in the living Fairy-Faith as one between ordinary men and the fairy-world. Therefore, almost all taboos surviving among Celts ought to be interpreted psychologically or even psychically, and not as ordinary social regulations.”
As the taboo survived in folklore for centuries it suggests the motif was central to understanding the relationship between the humans who were the main elements of the stories, and their relationship to the supernatural world, regularly manifested through the agency of the faeries. The taboo motif was most often included at the intersection between physical reality and the supernatural. This could work both ways, even in the same story; so whereas Oisín was a part of the supernatural world when he broke his first taboo, his second taboo was committed in consensus reality and closed off his access to the Otherworld. Launfal also closed off his access to the non-physical world by breaking his taboo, and Cherry of Zennor’s chance of staying in the faerie Otherworld away from the harsh realities of her physical life was curtailed when she broke the ointment taboo. These taboos represent the marker-points in the stories where there is a breach between the physical and the metaphysical. The actuality of such a breach is coded in the taboo, which expresses a real transcendent experience in the metaphor of language in a story.
The flat stone Oisín stood on, despite it being taboo to do so, is a symbol of the intersection between material reality and non-material reality, illustrated in plain-form in the story where Oisín is able to behold the physical reality of Ireland and the faerie Otherworld at the same time as long as he remains on the stone. The taboo stone is the link between the worlds but interaction with it also marks the central moment of transition from one reality to another. And the lesson is usually that the supernatural world is not something to be accessed indefinitely by mortal humans. There are entrenched cosmic protocols that seem to legislate against the prolonged joining of natural and supernatural. The taboo acts more as a moment than a thing in the stories – contrasting realities and forcing choices on the protagonists. And in the folklore where the use of an ‘ointment’ is the subject of taboo, there is perhaps a clue that there are compounds that can alter a state of consciousness and so facilitate interaction with an ulterior reality. But their use is sanctioned – they are taboo. The folklore seems to project a consistent message via the taboo motif: We are not supposed to access the supernatural. Under special circumstances, access will be allowed but there will always be a price to pay, and this will be arbitrated by the breaking of a prohibition – the taboo. But is there anything to glean from this folkloric message? What are the modern faerie taboos?
In the Fairy Investigation Society’s 2017 census of faerie encounters, there are over 500 testimonies. They are anecdotal and carry no story arc and so it is no surprise there are no taboos in the narratives. Their anecdotal nature does not allow for any heavy symbolic features. But perhaps the nature of the taboo is just operating at a different level in these modern testimonies. The taboo has become the fear of talking about the faeries and thus confirming a belief in supernatural entities. All of the census correspondents remain anonymous and even then many felt the need to reiterate during their testimonies that they were not intoxicated or mentally ill. This is the case in much modern testimony of people who believe they have experienced a faerie encounter. The fear of ridicule, or worse, acts as the socially sanctioned taboo, which may hinder or prevent people from making a disclosure. This applies to most parapsychological phenomena. Our culture has adopted materialism as its primary ideology and anything psi or supernatural is deemed inadmissible and the product of delusion, misapprehension, hallucination or fakery. This outlook permeates all parts of Western society and so a person claiming to have encountered anything supernatural risks placing themselves outside of accepted, conventional social-norms. This is especially the case with faeries, who have a peculiar niche in the supernatural hierarchy, mostly due to their transition from folkloric creatures to amorphous winged beings in the 19th and 20th centuries. In today’s world talking about encountering faeries has a specific taboo placed on it – the faeries have a particular quality of otherness that is different from other psi phenomena such as UFOs, ghosts, precognition, telepathy etc. There is something deeply subversive about disclosing an encounter with a supernatural life-form that, according to the folklore, appears to have been around for millennia, but which has been marginalised to children’s lore for at least a century. The disclosure has become the taboo that will have consequences for the purveyor, and just as in the tales and folklore this modern taboo is at the intersect between physical and metaphysical.
The taboo motif seems almost to operate as an archetype – a prohibition that is always in place to prevent too much contact between the natural and the supernatural. In faerie-tales and folklore, a taboo-breakage is the means to take a human out of the Otherworld or to take a faerie out of this world. The stories need the taboo key, and the key always ends up locking the door between different realities. Modern faerie-encounter anecdotes have a social taboo placed on them created by a fear of discussing such supernatural interaction, thus stifling any chance to understand them. In all cases, the taboo manifests as an apparently inherent barrier between physical and metaphysical. The breaking of a taboo is the moment where the necessary closure between natural and supernatural is maintained. The coded message seems to be that while we live we can only have limited contact with any transcendent reality. Any transgression of the taboos that hold the contact in place will sever the link – the taboo acts as a metaphysical control-mechanism. From the faeries’ perspective of needing and requiring only limited contact with humans, the taboos have been very effective.
During the past couple of years, there has been a burgeoning number of online sources discussing the faeries in all their guises. This perhaps represents a renewed interest in these supernatural entities that have been part of our culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There appears to be an extended realisation that they have something important to add to our understanding of reality; whether it be through the lens of folklore or through a modernistic, esoteric view. There are many approaches to the subject matter. These range from the purely folkloric remit of discussing faeries as a fossilised remnant of our culture through to encompassing them into a phenomenology as extreme as alien abduction scenarios. Deadbutdreaming has always attempted to provide a holistic overview of what the faeries might be, but I am always reliant on, and grateful for, the excellent research and interpretations of others – folklorists, historians, archaeologists, Forteans, esoteric writers, artists, and just thoughtful commentators – who are attempting to make sense of what is a very strange but pervasive phenomenon, which remains below the mainstream radar.
This post is an attempt to list and describe briefly some of the sites that I have found insightful and useful. They cover a wide range of research and come at the phenomenon from many different angles. I hope this will be a beneficial tool for readers looking to scope out the faeries and their place in the present cultural zeitgeist. Inevitably, I’ll miss some sites and so would very much appreciate pointers towards any not listed below, so that I can update the post.
Love it or loathe it, some of the best up to date information about research and writing into the faerie phenomenon can be found on Facebook within groups and community pages. Deadbutdreaming has a companion community page called The Faerie Code, where I link to recent articles and historic and new faerie artwork. The following groups and community pages all contain regularly updated posts and are invaluable for anyone wanting to know more about the faeries in all their forms.
Circle Stories A special mention for this excellent community page, which is administered by David Halpin, where he frequently posts articles about his research into the folklore and mythology of Ireland. It is well-sourced and often exhumes folklore from the archives that has not seen the light of day for a long time. But the posts are more than a simple recounting of historic folklore – David always applies a keen interpretative (and esoteric) eye on what the folklore might mean and what we can learn from it. There is much coverage of Irish megalithic sites (hence the page name) and their relationship to folklore, and the faeries find their way into many of the posts.
The following pages are those I have found most useful, in terms of regular updates, interesting links, personal testimonies and artwork, which shed some light on the faerie Otherworld:
There are not that many websites devoted exclusively to the faeries. Articles and research tend to find their way onto the liminal and folklore sites listed in the following sections. However, there are some, which are excellent. First among equals is The Fairy Investigation Society, which also has an exemplary, regularly updated Facebook page (listed above). The website has a wealth of resources for anyone wanting to dig deep into faerie-lore, including the results of the 2017 census, which includes over 500 anecdotal faerie encounter reports from around the world. A new survey is currently being conducted and there is a form on the website for anyone wishing to give testimony to their own faerie experience. The Fairy Investigation Society has an interesting history, being first founded in 1927 before folding before the second world war, refounded in 1950 and then falling into abeyance again in 1992. The current incarnation began in 2013 and the society continues to be an important hub for understanding what the faeries might represent in our culture.
One of my favourite sites is British Fairies, the blog site of researcher John Kruse. As the name suggests, this concentrates on the faerie folklore of the British Isles, and John has, over the past three years, compiled a large archive of studies into the faeries covering a wide subject-matter. The posts are always well-referenced and researched, and will encourage the reader to delve deeper into the folklore. Likewise, Laura Coulson’s The Faery Folklorist site contains a wealth of data, ranging from folktales to personal experiences to book reviews. Laura has travelled the British Isles to gain insights into regional aspects of faerie folklore and has been posting since 2009. Coming from a more esoteric outlook is Morgan Daimler’s site Living Liminally. Morgan has published several incisive books on the faeries and while her blog site is not exclusively about the faeries, they feature heavily on the site, and Morgan’s research into faerie folklore, its modern interpretation and how our culture might incorporate the faeries is always illuminating.
Faerie of Ireland – Encounters with the Good People is a relatively new site, which has already accumulated lots of articles and links, and there is also a series of podcasts, mostly covering Irish faerie-lore. And from across the Atlantic comes the slightly leftfield blog site of George Harvey that has many takes on the faeries. As the constitution states: “It is our firm belief that a human society can only be healthy if the Wee Folk who live with it are comfortable and happy.” This is The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Wee Folk. There have been no recent posts but the archive from 2012-14 is recommended reading. The Fairy Podcast has been set up recently by Dan Baines (see below under Liminal Sites, for his blog) and produces monthly features on faerie folklore and modern lore.
Coming from a distinctly spiritual perspective are three first-rate sites: Sisters of the Fey (which covers a wide subject-matter but contains much faerie-lore) and Celtic Faerie Teachings. Both approach faerie phenomenology from an esoteric perspective and attempt to place the faeries within the context of magic(k)al modern practices. And the faeries as nature spirits are discussed in depth at RealityWalker, an incisive esoteric website, which also covers a mass of anomalous and paranormal phenomena.
Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is a particularly well-written site by the author Katherine Langrish, which looks primarily at faerie-tales and what they might be attempting to tell us. But the faeries in all their folkloric forms appear in many of the articles, including some of Katherine’s excellent fiction writing.
And The Big Study is currently accumulating a range of historic and modern faerie experiences from around the world, including the ongoing Summa Faeryologica, which is attempting to categorise faerie-types and apply some interpretations. It’s a difficult site to navigate, but there is a wealth of information here.
Much modern thinking on faerie phenomenology appears on what can be deemed liminal websites; that is sites that consider a wide variety of Fortean, esoteric, paranormal and occult subjects. But the faeries make regular appearances on these pages, confirming their position as intrinsic supernatural icons in our underground sub-culture.
Two sites that are especially good are The Anomalist and The Daily Grail. Both have large databases of articles and also produce excellent daily digests, giving a breakdown of links to the latest thinking on subjects from UFOs to quantum physics to NDEs… and to faeries. The Anomalist (through its adjunct Anomalist Books) has also published Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and Joshua Cutchin’s Thieves in the Night – the faerie phenomenon is well-recognised here.
The faeries are also represented on the following liminal sites, which cover a broad range of subject-matter but consistently refer back to faerie phenomenology in both folkloric and esoteric forms:
Ancient Origins This is a large site, which covers a vast topic range, from pure archaeology to more esoteric thinking. It has a good search engine, where you will be able to find a large number of articles related to the faeries.
Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog Dr Beachcombing’s site contains a wealth of Fortean articles, always resonating with a sly sense of humour. There is much Leftfield perspective on the faeries in this blog.
Dan Baines A blog site with many takes on the faeries from an exceptionally talented author.
Håkan Blomqvist´s blog This site is primarily about the UFO phenomenon, but also contains much other Borderline research, which contains the faeries at regular intervals.
Haunted Ohio Books The website of Chris Woodyard is a Fortean cornucopia. There are many incisive articles discussing the faeries in all their forms.
Metaphysical Source Jonny Enoch’s site, which encompasses the faerie otherworld in many articles. It also has a forum section for discussion on any metaphysical subject.
Mysterious Universe On the woo-woo side of things, but there is still some good writing on the faeries, with many articles to make you think outside of the reality box.
Patheos A magazine site that moves from politics to esotericism in the blink of an eye. But there are a lot of articles about folkloric and modern faeries, which can be found via the search engine.
The Centre for Fortean Zoology An exemplary blog site by Ronan Coghlan (founding editor Michael Newton), where the primary focus is on cryptozoology, but where faerie-type entities make regular appearances. Ronan has produced a large archive of articles since 2013.
Weird Tales Radio Show This is a wonderful podcast series produced by Charles Christian. It covers a range of Forteana and has now accumulated a well-populated archive of hour-long shows. The faeries wriggle into much of the content and my own interview with Charles is episode #15 from April 2018.
The following sites include articles and podcasts that come at the faerie phenomenon from a folkloric perspective. This ranges from academic articles to content for general interest. In order to understand what the faeries may represent to us in the modern world, it is essential to understand their roots in folklore. This will, ideally, require reading lots of books, but I’ve found these sites contain the best online content.
Academia.edu This site requires a subscription, but once you have that you will discover over a hundred academic articles (published and unpublished) about folkloric and literary faeries from diverse frames of reference. The search engine is effective.
Ali Isaac Storyteller Ali Isaac’s site has a deservedly high reputation and encompasses a wide spectrum of Irish folklore that frequently engages with faerie folklore.
Emerald Isle This site has an extensive range of articles investigating Irish folklore and mythology, geo-located with a very useful map. There is an especially good section on Folk Tales and Faerie Tales.
Folklore Thursday has accumulated a large database of articles that investigate folklore from around the world. As per the name, every Thursday is #FolkloreThursday on Twitter, when enthusiasts can post articles, images, testimonies etc. relating to the theme of the week. The faeries are regular subject-matter.
Icy Sedgwick This is a folklore blog with many posts about faerie-lore. Icy also writes supernatural fiction – she’s a very accomplished writer.
New England Folklore Peter Muise’s blog site, which has been examining the folklore of the region for over a decade, and has accumulated much faerie folklore.
The Folklore Podcast is produced by the folklorist Mark Norman and includes regular audio shows discussing folkloric subjects. It is now in its fourth season and episodes are browsable… plenty of faeries within these podcasts.
The Folklore Society is the main hub for the academic study of the subject and produces the venerable Folklore journal. If you subscribe you’ll have access to a searchable database of the journal’s articles from over a hundred years, many of which investigate faerie traditions.
Writing in Margins could perhaps have been placed in the ‘Faerie Websites’ section above, but its content frequently stretches into a wider folkloric remit. There are many articles on the faeries, including a dictionary of faerie types. There are special sections on ‘The Thumbling Project’ and ‘The Snow White Project.
There are also a couple of free sites, which are invaluable for finding primary source material. Sacred Texts has a large collection of faerie folklore, ranging from folktales to more anecdotal stories collected by 19th- and 20th-century folklorists and contained in classic volumes; for instance, WY Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries and JF Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands. And Dúchas is University College Dublin’s digitised Irish national folklore collection, which has an excellent search engine to aid research into a mine of faerie folklore from Ireland.
I haven’t included any YouTube channels as they tend to be quite disparate, but a simple search will bring up many videos, from animated films to documentaries and video-blogs. Here’s a taster from Thomas Sheridan’s always insightful channel Beyond Room 313.
Recently, I was sent an email from a woman wanting to share her experience of encountering what appeared to be faeries or nature spirits. As with many people who interact with faerie-type entities for the first time, she wanted to make clear that she was not intoxicated, had not taken any drugs and has no history of mental illness. In our rationalistic culture, this is understandable; any contact with something that may be termed supernatural is often met with suspicion, derision or concern as to the person’s mental state. Western culture is predominantly reductionist – anything that appears to contravene the accepted consensus reality based on material physical laws is usually deemed as a misrepresentation of a natural phenomenon, a hallucination, a dream, or chicanery. This is a narrow vision of reality. There are mountains of data describing supernatural, parapsychological and anomalous phenomena from around the world, but most of it is anecdotal. The data cannot usually be scrutinised by scientific protocols because most of it happens spontaneously; it is not possible to recreate the circumstances in a laboratory. Does this make the anecdotes less real? Does it disqualify them from our attention? It shouldn’t. Our entire lives are made up of a series of anecdotal incidents, stored in memory and recalled when necessary to inform the present. If an anecdotal account of an experience that seems supernatural is recounted with honesty and clarity, we should perhaps attempt to escape any reality boxes we find ourselves in and assess it on its merits, even if it contradicts an ingrained worldview. The following anecdotal testimony describes an encounter with faerie-like entities, which may be compared to the hundreds of reports made to The Fairy Investigation Society’s recent census, suggesting that whatever the faeries are, people are still experiencing contact with them in the 21st century. There is a palpable, authentic interface with a metaphysical reality, which doesn’t sit well with mainstream culture but is nonetheless continuing to happen.
The woman was 39 years old when the experience happened in July 2018. She has insisted on anonymity but given permission to publish her testimony on deadbutdreaming along with any interpretative assessment. The main body of her text is reproduced here in full, with minor spelling, grammatical and formatting corrections. She has seen the article in its first draft, corrected some points of fact and agreed for me to post it.
A 21st-Century Faerie Experience
“I live in London with my husband and two daughters aged 4 and 6. My husband and I are both professional people living what I guess you would call a middle-class life. We are happy and enjoy the culture available in London. But sometimes I find the city a bit pressured and claustrophobic. But I am lucky enough to have an aunt who lives in a cottage in Somerset, who I have visited twice a year since my eldest was born. The cottage has a very large garden (over half an acre?), which is the pride and joy of my aunt. She has help to look after it, but she does a lot herself and it is a beautiful mixture of lawn, borders, summer house, wild areas and a small orchard of a dozen apple trees and half a dozen plum trees. It is such a contrast to my London life and the girls have come to love being there.
The event I want to tell you about happened in July 2018. My husband was away at a conference and so I took the week off and took the girls to my aunt’s place. On the second night, once I’d put them to bed, I went out to sit on a lounger next to the apple trees. The sun had just set after a very warm day and I was feeling very relaxed, content to just gaze out beyond the trees to the soft light on the hill beyond the garden. I’d just been through a very stressful couple of months at work and this felt like heaven.
After about fifteen minutes I noticed what I thought were a couple of squirrels racing up the trunk of one of the trees. They were moving a bit oddly and so I pulled myself up from the recliner to focus in on them more clearly. When they moved into sight from behind the trunk I was suddenly jolted. My heart was in my mouth. The two squirrels were actually two small humans! They moved strangely, with jerky movements but I was convinced they had human form, although I could not tell the gender. They could have been no taller than two feet and seemed dressed in dull brown clothing that sometimes melded into the tree bark. I was about twenty feet away and although the dusk was coming they were very clear to me. They seemed to be ‘mucking about’ on one of the boughs, as if playing a game. But I heard no sounds. My feeling was amazement. I shut and opened my eyes several times and pinched myself. They continued to play their game for about five minutes, during which time I watched intently but did not move a muscle. I could just make out their facial features, and would be willing to testify in a court of law that they were human, albeit distorted and maybe slightly cartoon-like. After approximately five minutes they simply vanished. I mean really vanished. One second they were there, the next they just popped out of sight.
When they had disappeared I became slightly agitated. I watched for a few more minutes and then felt I needed to get back to the cottage. The next day I decided to ask my aunt outright if she had ever seen anything strange in the garden. She’s an old-school country woman and has lived there for over three decades. She told me she was always hearing laughter and tinkling bells when working in the garden but had never seen anything. I told her what had happened and she seemed quite relaxed to hear it. She suggested there might be ‘nature spirits’ in the garden and for some reason they had made an appearance to me.
The next evening at the same time I sat in the lounger again, but there was nothing. I started to doubt my memory even though I knew what I had seen. The following day the girls were playing in the garden under the apple trees while aunt and I took tea. I was convinced we were being watched. It’s hard to describe and I know it sounds like paranoia, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were all being observed by something. I said nothing to my aunt about this and obviously nothing to the girls. So once again that evening I sat in the lounger by the apple trees. I was relaxed but thinking about the feeling of earlier that afternoon. Then, again, I saw two squirrels on the same tree. This time they seemed to ‘drift’. I mean they were squirrels but they seemed to levitate from the bough, at which moment they became something else. It’s hard for me to describe. They appeared to form into misty shapes, slightly illuminated, which flew around the branches of the tree. Again, I watched for maybe five minutes and there was a deep feeling of peace as I did so. And the moment before the shapes faded away I heard a distinct voice, as if next to my ear, which said: ‘We tend the trees.’ It was like a whisper, maybe childlike, but ever so real. It made me jump from the lounger. I investigated the tree for about fifteen minutes before returning to the cottage. Again, once they were gone I became agitated.
I discussed this with my aunt the next day and she was very blasé about it, which surprised me. She didn’t seem to see the big deal, but it was definitely a big deal to me. Nothing else like this happened for the rest of the week and we returned to London. I haven’t said a word to my husband about this as he is a very practical, no-nonsense sort of person and I don’t want to rock any boats. In fact, I am a very practical person, non-religious and have never considered the supernatural anything more than delusion. But these experiences seemed very supernatural. I really don’t know what to make of it. All I can say is that I am as convinced as I can be that the incidents happened as I describe. They had a dream-like quality but I WAS NOT asleep. I haven’t drunk alcohol for eight years, have never taken illicit drugs and have no history of mental illness.
Since the experiences, I have researched into ‘nature spirits’ and found out something about fairy folklore, which is something I knew nothing about (although the girls have always loved fairy stories). I found your website and was amazed to read about modern people interacting with ‘faeries’ (why do you spell it like that?). You speak a lot about altered states of consciousness in your writing. Maybe I was in an altered state, but if so it must have been totally natural, because, as I say, I take no intoxicants. The experiences have definitely changed the way I look at the world. I feel that since they happened I have become more open-minded and questioning of the way the world works. It’s been almost a year now but the effect remains. I haven’t visited my aunt since, but the family is due there in July 2019, and so I’ll let you know if I see any more fairies!”
Assessing the Experience
There is a lot to unpack here. As with any anecdotal testimony, the first question must be to assess the honesty of the account. People make things up and not always for clearly-defined gains or reasons. Without knowing the person giving the testimony it is difficult to ascertain whether they are fabricating the whole or part of the account or if they are exaggerating for effect. This is a perennial issue in folklore collection – the hermeneutical compounds of the testimonies are difficult to unravel. However, in this particular case (augmented by some additional email correspondence) I’m as sure as I can be that the person is telling the truth as far as she remembers it. It seems to be the deposition of someone who is genuinely confused and intrigued about an incident for which they have no explanation within their ordinary and familiar worldview.
But even the most scrupulously honest recall of an event is still subject to the vagaries of memory. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: “findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.” This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems. This is (and always has been) an unavoidable component of folklore. It does not, however, discredit the experience. So with these caveats in mind, what might this incident tell us about the faeries and how they may be able to interface with human consciousness?
First, the state of consciousness of the woman had been altered by her transplantation from her usual urban environment to a rural setting. This is not an uncommon occurrence for city-dwellers holidaying in the country, but it evidently had an effect on her state of mind, perhaps heightened by a period of work pressures leading up to the stay with her aunt. Many of the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census reported their experiences as happening during various types of special circumstances, where they were somewhere away from their usual habitat. The census also contains many descriptions of people being calm, happy, relaxed or meditative just prior to their experiences. These states of mind (along with more negative states such as grief, depression and anxiety) also play a part in many historical folklore accounts of interactions with metaphysical entities, where the protagonist is removed from their normal everyday existence and find themselves in a different mindset. This was the case with my correspondent. She had moved from an intense, stressful lifestyle to one of relaxation and calmness in a short space of time. While there were evidently no intoxicants involved in constructing her experience, the swift change of environments is an important element in terms of how her consciousness may have been altered and perhaps rendered more susceptible to a numinous incident.
Relaxed and calm, enjoying the ambience of a special natural environment she found herself encountering something outside her usual cosmology. The shock of what was happening finds common cause with the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, where disbelief is a customary reaction. Such consternation is a natural response to something so out of the ordinary. And the disturbance of normality is likely to cause an adrenalin rush. This can have a variety of effects on how the reality of the moment is perceived, but one is that attention is concentrated so that events can appear so super-real that they become abnormal. However, it is this type of intense concentration that was advocated by Rudolf Steiner when, in the early 20th century, he was suggesting we are able to recognise metaphysical realities sitting alongside our usual material reality only when we are capable of relaxing our usual sense-filters. He suggested that once this filter removal was achieved we would be able to ascertain the Supersensible world, where, he proposed, reside a multifarious realm of nature spirits, sometimes known as faeries. Steiner called this clairvoyance, and this is perhaps what was pervading my correspondent’s consciousness when she experienced supernatural entities in the orchard garden.
The observed entities themselves conform to folkloric and esoteric taxonomies. Most faeries (though by no means all) are described as humanoid. This may be the human observer translating what they are actually seeing into something tangible in order to make sense out of it. Although she did not describe any details of clothing, the description of them ‘melding’ into the tree bark has resonance with many historic and modern faerie encounters, where the entities seem almost a part of the natural environment, but not quite. They also seemed playful: ‘mucking about’ on the tree. This is another common attribute of the faeries – they like games. Are they doing this for the benefit of the human observer, or is this once again a trick of consciousness to make the supernatural more palatable? Childlike behaviour is less threatening than an intense encounter. The suggestion that faeries have in recent decades been updated to a new tech-form in the shape of alien abductors may indicate that our collective consciousness has lost the ability to code metaphysical encounters and that our cultural neurosis has turned them into specific sinister confrontations. However, although my correspondent felt agitated after the experiences, the actual time of the encounter was marked by a feeling of peace and wonder. She was not frightened, only amazed.
The second experience seems to have turned the relatively traditional faerie-types into ‘nature spirits’. There is much discussion among folklorists, Fortean investigators and occultists about whether ‘nature spirits’ and faeries are two different forms of metaphysical entities. It is certainly true that most folkloric representations of faeries do not see them as environment propagators. But there is also a long tradition of allowing elementals into the faerie taxonomy. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus defined the metaphysical spirits of nature into gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), undines (water) and salamanders (fire), a typology followed by 19th- and 20th-century Theosophists, including Rudolf Steiner. And a large minority of respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census described the entities they encountered as ‘nature spirits’. The difference between folkloric faeries and nature spirits is perhaps only semantic. They all seem to be coming from the same place and interact with human consciousness in the same concerted manner. The fact that my correspondent saw her entities on the same tree might strengthen the idea that they were simply different aspects of a common phenomenon.
The Faerie Phenomenon
What that phenomenon is, however, is a difficult question to answer. Deadbutdreaming has made several attempts to get to the root of faerie phenomenology:
But they are evasive, like many supernatural or metaphysical phenomena. This particular encounter is perhaps rather typical of modern faerie experiences in that there is an oblique quality to the interaction; the person is confronted by what they deem an irrational occurrence. From a materialistic perspective, it should not have happened. But if that perspective is allowed some leeway, then it is possible to accept that a human consciousness is interacting with a physical environment and what is intrinsic within that consciousness, albeit latent, makes itself visible (and audible) in a coded way within that environment. The concept of a collective consciousness, storing all human experience, allows the explanation of a transceiving brain to plug into mythological and archetypal subject matter when certain conditions are met. Faeries and nature spirits are deeply embedded within the mythological cycle of humanity. Historically, they have manifested in folklore and occult literature, but more recently (as in this incident) they appear anecdotally, often within the lives of people who do not expect their presence. This does not mean they are not real. They are subjectively real within the consciousness of the observer, just as any experience in life, and just because they cannot be captured within experimental conditions does not exclude them from an overall reality. Consciousness itself is not material; it exists as a metaphysical construct and, despite many centuries of scientific endeavour, its true nature remains elusive – it cannot be wedded to matter. It usually operates within the bounds of material physical laws, but when the bonds are loosened and the state of consciousness is altered – through psychotropic drugs, meditation, clairvoyance, emotional disturbance, trauma, or just a peaceful mindset – we appear to sometimes view things that are operating outside of normalised reality. They are non-local, i.e. they come from somewhere else; perhaps a collective consciousness to which we do not normally have access.
So do faerie and supernatural entity encounters have a purpose? If we allow the possibility of their existence at whatever level, are they conveying a message? In this particular testimony, they may have been simply manifesting in order to draw the woman out of her stressful lifestyle; to recalibrate a potentially unhealthy mindset. Her consciousness was perhaps tapping into a deeper, archetypal reality (as it might also do in dreams) to demonstrate to her that there is more to life than she had been believing. Her comment that she had become more “open-minded and questioning of the way the world works” since the encounter suggests the experience has had a fundamental effect on her worldview. This is a common motif among people who interact with faerie entities. Folkloric examples often describe a changed person after the faerie encounter and The Fairy Investigation Society’s census is replete with people who say their experience has changed them, usually for the better. Perhaps the faeries and nature spirit-type entities appear simply to drag us out of the dogmatic materialistic/reductionist cosmology we have become entrenched within. They may be (and have always been) metaphysical messengers, reminding us of William James‘ words: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness that are entirely different.”
But there can be specific messages as well. “We tend the trees” does appear to be a definitive communication conveying the point about the nature spirits’ purpose in the metaphysical cultivation of the natural world to a person who had no idea this might be a possibility. Despite my correspondent insisting she was not asleep during the encounter, this does sound like the sort of audio-communication that takes place during a hypnogogic episode, when we are on the edge of sleep. This is, of course, another form of altered state of consciousness, when the waking state partly crosses the border into the unconscious realm. Once again, this state of consciousness is no less real than our everyday state and may constitute a special place where we are able to access information that is not usually available.
Whatever the various interpretations of this particular experience, it does seem clear that interactions with supernatural entities, which may be described as faeries, are still taking place in the 21st century. They do not seem to be consigned to folklore and appear to be a genuine phenomenon that pervades our contemporary culture. While there is a tendency in recent literature to relate faerie-type encounters to altered states of consciousness invoked by psychotropic substances, my correspondent’s testimony, as well as the hundreds of experiences recorded in the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, do suggest that anyone can interact with these metaphysical beings if certain circumstances are conducive. It would seem the faeries are with us for the long haul, unwilling to depart from human consciousness and perhaps hanging around to teach us a few more lessons about ourselves.