The Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

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

The Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Changeling’ by Alan Lee

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

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

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

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

The Meaning of the Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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‘Der Wechselbalg’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

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

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‘Changeling’ original watercolour by Victoria Grimalkin

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

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

References

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

Ashliman, DL, ‘Changelings’ (1997).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lambton Wyrm

As a sideways break from my ruminations on the faeries and their abodes, here are some contemplations on the magico-folkloric tale of the Lambton Wyrm, from the North-East of England. A version of the article was originally published on the Ancient Origins website.

“Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
 Aa’ll tell ye aall an awful story. Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
 An aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the wyrm.”
(C.M. Leumane, 1867)

There are more than twenty folktales from north-east England and Scotland that include the motif of a ‘wyrm’, a huge dragon-like, wingless serpent that terrorises neighbourhoods – sometimes for many years – before being eventually slain (motifs classified in the Aarne-Thompson folktale index as B11.1.3.1, B11.2.1, and B11.11). These wyrm folktales are not exclusive to this geographical area – one appears in Somerset as the Gurt Wyrm of Shervage Wood, and there are several German, Scandinavian and Irish examples. Indeed, Dale Drinnon demonstrates that this folkloric motif can be found worldwide, in both stories and in cryptozoological anecdotes. But there does seem to be a cluster of the story type in Northumberland, North Yorkshire, County Durham and the Scottish Borders. Two of the best known examples are the Linton Wyrm and the Sockburn Wyrm, beasts that hide by day but then emerge at night to scorch the land, eat livestock and occasionally people. In all cases a hero appears on the scene, and due to various ruses, is able to dispatch the wyrm, thus saving the people from further predation. These folktales are always set during the medieval period, but only transfer from oral tradition to literary sources from the 16th century onwards. One of the fullest renditions of this folktale type is that of the Lambton Wyrm, from County Durham, first recorded in 1785, but evidently drawing on a much earlier oral tradition, with the action set in the late 12th century.

The Story of the Lambton Wyrm

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16th-century chap-book cover showing a knight slaying a wyrm

Apart from the wyrm itself, the main protagonist is a young squire, John Lambton, heir to the Lambton estate. One Sabbath he decides to abscond himself from the church service at Brugeford Chapel in order to do some fishing on the River Wear instead. He catches no fish but he does land a small, black eel-like creature with razor-sharp teeth and nine holes along each side of its head. Heading home with his unwelcome catch (in some versions John calls it ‘a devil’), he meets a stranger who warns him that the creature will cause trouble unless the young squire deals with it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain what dealing with it meant and so John decides on a policy of disposal by lobbing it into a well.

Time passes and John goes off to the Crusades, where he stays for seven years. But whilst he is away his tiddler grows into a monstrous wyrm, leaves the well and proceeds to terrorise the locality, ravaging crops, animals and humans. It’s a black, venomous serpent without wings or legs, and is large enough to coil itself round the local Worm Hill three times. The locals manage to placate the wyrm by giving it regular tributes of milk and livestock, but after seven years this has impoverished the village and estate.

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Illustration of Lambton versus the wyrm, from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s 1890 book English Fairy and Other Folk Tales

This is when John returns from the Middle East, where he has evidently been knighted. With a monster abroad and the lands of his father laid waste, he takes the interesting decision to visit the local ‘wise woman’, who, after berating him for causing the disaster in the first place, instructs him to commission a suit of armour covered in spikes, and repair to the river where he caught the wyrm, to do battle. Curiously, she also insists that once the wyrm is dispatched, John then needs to kill the first living thing he sees or else his descendants will suffer the curse of violent deaths for the next nine generations. The spiked-up knight does as he is told and when the wyrm attacks him, it is sliced to pieces by the armour, before John decapitates it with his sword. Unfortunately, John’s father (still the Lord of Lambton) is first on the scene after the battle. John refrains from carrying out the wise-woman’s harsh directions, dooming the next nine lords of Lambton to grisly deaths.

This medieval folktale only gained a literary foothold in 1785 when the antiquarian William Hutchinson picked up what was evidently an oral tradition:

“Near this place is an eminence called the Worm Hill, which tradition says was once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors…the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women.”

During the 19th century the story gained much traction as a popular folktale, finding its way into local histories, ballads, poems, plays and even a pantomime (from which come the lyrics at the top of this article). It’s popularity has continued to this day (there are several Lambton Worm pubs in the locality) and it has become the most celebrated of British ‘dragon’ stories. But from where does the story originate, and what does it mean?

The Genesis of the Wyrm

The etymology of the word ‘wyrm’ derives from either Old Norse or Old English. This might allow an interpretation of the Lambton Wyrm story as being a memory of Viking raids along the north-east coast of England in the 8th and 9th centuries. There were certainly several such chronicled raids that used the River Wear as an access route inland. The dragon prows of the Viking longboats may have become transformed over time into the monstrous beast that ravaged the countryside. The number of wyrm stories in this much-raided area of the country might also support this hypothesis. Although this interpretation would require a long gestation period in the folk memory, it is not inconceivable, and might be supported by the similarly long period of story survivals from other British myths such as the Arthurian legends, where historic fragments from the 5th and 6th centuries were mutated through time, until the characters and narratives became overlain with the customs and mores of the later Middle Ages.

However, this assessment doesn’t quite tally with the relatively close historic dating of the story, which could have included elements of its Anglo-Saxon roots if the events (however radically modified) had been generated from this time. Instead we are given a definite protagonist in the heir to the lordship, John Lambton, and all versions of the story place the time period as during the Crusades. This would put the genesis of the story in the 12th or 13th centuries, and local historian Audrey Fletcher has traced the earliest recorded mention of a John Lambton to a land charter dated between 1183 and 1200, where John de Lamtun is a witness. This would coincide with the Third Crusade, joint-led by King Richard I between 1187-92, where there was a large contingent of English noblemen travelling to the Holy Land.

But even if this is the historic John Lambton, made into the hero of the story, the narrative still requires explanation. The 19th-century antiquarian Robert Surtees suggested the story might be literally true, and wrote to Sir Walter Scott in 1810 with the idea:

”I have lately often been near the supposed haunts of the Lambton Worm, and I really feel much inclined to adopt your idea, that animals of this description may have been formally nourished to a much larger size in our woods and waters. Of four of these prodigies which our bishopric is said to have produced, it is observable that all of them had their haunts on large rivers. The country round Lambton seems particularly favourable for the production of such a creature.”

The possibility of a very large reptile or amphibian roaming the Durham countryside, and terrorising the populace to a state of destitution in the late 12th century seems remote. And there is no surviving mention of the event in any of the medieval chronicles, where these ‘marvels’ can often be found. Dale Drinnon has suggested that stories of this type may have had their genesis in sightings of giant eels (the original creature caught by John Lambton is described as ‘eel-like’) in waterways and rivers, although even if this is a possibility it does not explain the subsequent laying waste of the hinterland that is a vital component of this particular folktale motif. But the belief in dragon-like creatures during the Middle Ages was widespread and persistent. Perhaps if the genesis of the story is placed at some time several generations after the historic John Lambton, we may begin to see an allegorical story overlaying what people would have accepted as a real story, discreetly removed from the actual events by several decades or even centuries.

The Meaning of the Wyrm

Dragon-slaying heroes such as St Michael and St George were common medieval motifs, and are usually seen as allegories for the defeat of paganism by Christianity. At a deeper level the folktale may even encapsulate the suppression of perceived prehistoric earth energies, embodied by the wyrm, through a representative of Christianity. If the geopathic inclinations of pre-Christian belief systems were stored in the folk-memory, the story may be conveying an implicate Christian message of religious victory over a serpentine paganism that viewed reality in a more animistic manner.

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Giorgio Vasari, Altarpiece with the Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew; detail showing the back of the central panel with Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1551

There are Classical precedents for this story of good (the hero) overcoming evil (the serpent) in Phorbas of Rhodes, who rid the island of a nest of giant serpents, and Hercules slaying a dragon on the banks of the River Sagaris. This is codified in the star constellation of Hercules poised next to the Celestial River (the Milky Way) and the constellation of Draco, the Dragon. These eternal stories of good overcoming evil may well be what the story of the Lambton Wyrm is designed to convey. This would require the provenance of the story to have originated from a literate and educated source, but there are also enough elements of morality and vernacular detail to give the story a lasting quality; a tale that could be popularised and told through the centuries in the locality, without the purveyors or the listeners necessarily understanding the more cosmic meaning of the folktale.

The morality comes in the form of the wyrm being allowed to exist through the recklessness of John Lambton and his inattentiveness to the church service. His penance, in this case going on Crusade, permits his cleansing and ability to slay the serpent. The vernacular detail is contained in the specific landscape, including features that would have been well-known to anyone telling or listening to the story, such as the River Wear, Brugeford Chapel, and Worm Hill with the well near its base. We can also glimpse an ingrained vernacular characterisation of the medieval ‘wise woman’, who plays an important role in the story, and is the person John goes to (ahead of a churchman or peer) to find out what to do about the wyrm. There is even the implied doomy kismet foretold for future generations of Lambtons for not following her instructions, suggesting that these women were significant characters in the medieval mind.

As with all folktales of this complex type, there are probably many overlays of meaning that have accumulated over the centuries. The fact that there are so many of these wyrm folktales congregating within the north-east region of Britain, does suggest that they are describing some real set of events (perhaps the Viking raids) however remodelled they have become over time. This local vernacular meaning probably ensured the stories survived from the oral tradition to the literary tradition. We could even entertain the the more prosaic explanation that the wyrm in the well represented a warning against polluting water sources. In the medieval period, fresh water sources were of paramount importance to the health of local communities, and their contamination would be likely to bring pestilence and disease to all who relied on them. The wyrm may simply be a symbolic representative of this, coded into folklore, as an admonishment to look after water sources. Blaming a poisonous wyrm might even provide an excuse for a recalcitrant landlord who had not ensured the cleanliness of a water-head on his land (thanks to Mark Lidster for this pragmatic interpretation).

But the stories are certainly also passing on archetypal symbols, using allegorical language to convey timeless human values. In the Lambton Wyrm story there are several important concepts being transmitted through the idiom of folklore, not only the triumph of good over evil, but also the need for the hero (the good Christian) to be cleansed of sin before being able to achieve victory. The wyrm seems to represent the ultimate evil, conquered only by Christian virtue. It’s another example of ancient folklore containing deeper meaning, layered beneath the telling of a good yarn.

Further Reading

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

Briggs, Katherine, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (New York, 1976)

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, 2008)

Fletcher, Audrey, ‘Worm Hill ‘Serpens Caput’: A Sacred Mound within a Ritual Landscape’ (2012) 

Hartland, Edwin Sidney, English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (London 1890)

Ingersoll, Ernest; et al. The Illustrated Book of Dragons and Dragon Lore (Chiang Mai, 2013)

Jenkin, Andrew, ‘The Curse of the Lambton Worm’ (2009)

Screeton, Paul, The Lambton Worm and other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (Zodiac House Publications, 1978)

McKenzie, Laura, ‘The History of the Lambton Worm and Cockburn Worm’ (2016)

***

There are several folk songs about the Lambton Wyrm, most of them utilising the dialect-rich words of C.M. Leumane. Here’s one by Tony Wilson. More surprisingly, there is also a version by Bryan Ferry, which can be listened to here. Thanks again to Mark Lidster for bringing these to my attention.

The cover image is by the talented artist Martin Cash, whose esoteric artwork can be explored here.

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Cover illustration for C.E Leumane’s lyrical rendition of The Lambton Wyrm (1867)

 

Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales by Mika Loponen

Here’s something new for Deadbutdreaming. The Finnish scholar Mika Loponen has written this piece exploring the variety of medieval faerie folklore from British and Irish sources. Although described as an ‘introduction’, it is an excellent overview and assessment of how deeply embedded the faeries are in medieval folklore. I hope readers will appreciate a perspective slightly different from my own rather more esoteric take on medieval faeries, which can be found on the Ancient Origins Premium website here: Fantasies from Evil Spirits? Faeries in the Medieval Imagination.

Mika is a doctoral post-graduate student at the Department of Modern Languages in the University of Helsinki. His main field of interests are in the translation of culture specific metaphors and in the development of fantasy and science fiction literature. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis on the semiotic issues of translating and domesticating cultural concepts, artifacts and irrealia in fantasy and science fiction literature. Thanks to Mika for permission to republish his work here at Deadbutdreaming.

The original pdf. version of the article can be found here.

FAERIE FOLKLORE IN MEDIEVAL TALES – AN INTRODUCTION

Introduction
Although every country has – at least at some point of time – had its share of beliefs in mythological creatures that have been thought to affect the everyday lives of people, few cultures can boast as widely spread, well detailed and rich tapestry of tales as composes the fairy folklore of the British Isles. In this paper I am going to introduce the faeries of medieval legends, tales and folklore of the British Isles. I will place emphasis on the inspection of the natures and characteristics of the individual faery types in the tales. I will also explore some of the common denominators that bind these different types together, point out a few common concepts that are universal in the faerie legends of the British Isles and mention some of the more curious details, exceptions and variations of the superstitions.

It is not my intention to analyze any of these legends and myths deeply; I will place more importance in introducing a variety of different ideas than in exploring any one of them thoroughly. Although many faerie legends clearly share obvious common roots, the legends and superstitions concerning them can vary immensely between regions. Thus trying to create stereotypes or generalizations is not desirable or even possible. Instead of this I will try to introduce as many aspects of the faerie folklore as possible within the context of this paper, and provide notes on some regional variances as they are found.

Technicalities
Most of the names of the faerie types have several different forms of writing. For instance, the brownie is also known as bwca, hob, hobman, bwbachod, hobgoblin, dobie and bog (and many other names), while the sluagh have been known as slaugh and sluag (Lindeman), and the phooka as pooka, pouka and puck (Briggs 1976: 229). The spelling problem is made even more frustrating by the fact that the different types of spelling might as easily as not point to sub-categories of the same faerie types. One example of this is the sluagh: Briggs (1967: 19) agrees that sluagh (“the host of unforgiven dead”) is the Scottish version of the faerie type, while Lindeman argues that sluagh would be the Irish version and that the Scottish form of the faerie is sluag (the Scottish wild hunt), which in Garvin’s text appears as slaugh. Likewise, the word ‘faerie’ could also be spelled as ‘fairy’, ‘fairie’ or ‘faery’.

I will be using the most commonly known spelling form, or in absence of that, whatever form happens to please me; for example, I have generally chosen to use the term ‘faerie’, but I also use ‘faery’ in certain compound words, such as ‘Faeryland’. When describing all different kinds of faeries, I may at times use the term ‘fae’. For the sake of being more easily comprehensible, I have sacrificed readability by using italics in the names of the faerie types, like pooka or Tuatha de Danann, and in all faerie-specific terminology, such as glamour or Unseelie Court.

Although it is not a major point, I think that it is worth mentioning that many of the names of the different types of faeries lack plural endings. For example Tuatha de Danann, sidhe, sluagh and pooka are both the singular and plural forms of the words. Lastly, the categorization made in the tiles of this paper (e.g. as Lords and Ladies or commoners) are my attempt to enhance the readability of this introductory paper and should not be considered as categories per se among the folklore.

Faeries, Fay, Fey
Defining the term ‘faerie’ is not easy; some definitions include only specific, pre-Christian types of mythological creatures while other definitions include all of the spirits, angels and supernatural animals as well as the souls of the dead. I will take a middle road and include the spirits and the souls of the dead, since the dead and the faeries have an intimate connection in the folklore of the British Isles. I will not include supernatural animals except for the kelpies and selkies, who are portrayed as intelligent and self-aware. I will similarly exclude the angels except in two instances, to which I will return later in the paper.

Although the faeries vary quite much from tale to tale, there are some common faerie types in both legends and folklore. An amusing notion is that the restrictiveness of these types depends on the ‘social status’ of the faerie type; the noble and beautiful sidhe and Tuatha de Danann are well-defined faerie ‘races’, and most of the individual faeries of these types share the same qualities and characteristics, while the goblins, pooka and other common folk have much looser definitions and more variation within their ranks.

The Roles of the Faeries
In every culture there is – and has been – a need to explain the unexplainable; to catalogue the world into understandable concepts related to each other (Lévi-Strauss 1974: 8-10). This catalogization has been performed through the means available to each culture at each specific point of time – through mythological concepts, religion or modern science among other methods. As with all mythology (Lévi-Strauss 1974: 9-13), the faerie folklore of the British Isles is created through this process of catalogization and contextualization – through people’s need to explain the way the world functions and their own place in the world, and through their trying to create boundaries and basis for cultural concepts as well as through trying to explain different phenomena in nature.

It has been speculated that some of the faerie folklore – as well as many other mythological concepts – would be created as metaphoric images used to convey warnings; for example, the kelpies – as explained below – might have been used as metaphoric imagery to warn people from trying to ride unfamiliar horses (which might behave aggressively) or from reaching and falling into lakes and drowning. However, as Siikala (1992: 157-158) argues, abstract conceptualization is foreign to cultures that categorize their world through mythological concepts, and therefore for example a “thunder bird” – a bird seen to represent thunder – is not viewed or understood in such a culture as a metaphor for thunder, but as the concrete personification of thunder; thus, the metaphoric image of a faerie causing somebody’s drowning would not be seen as a metaphor inside the culture, but the faerie would be seen as the real and concrete cause of death.

Although the roles the different faerie types filled within the culture are partially explored in this paper, the paper concentrates on introducing and examining the different types as they are presented in the tales; the scope of this paper does not allow a deeper inspection of the educational and explanatory functions for which faerie folklore was used in the medieval British Isles.

The Commoners
Belief in tutelary spirits is found in nearly every culture. In some cultures there are ancestral spirits who protect the household while in others there are faeries and spirits that are attached to the house or the family. In either case it is seen as extremely bad to lose the protection, help and luck provided by them, and there are many tales to exemplify what happens when the family loses (usually through greed, misery or blunder in etiquette) the help of the supernatural element.

In the British Isles there was belief in both ancestral protectors and faerie helpers, and since the border between the dead and the faeries were quite shallow, it is sometimes hard to draw any lines between them. I will start the introduction of these ‘commoners’ with some of the so-called household faeries, and continue to ancestral faeries.

Household Helpers
The English brownies and its Welsh counterparts, the bwbach and bwca are perfect examples of tutelary faeries. These faeries were usually seen as household helpers (quite like the Finnish tonttu): they cleaned up untidy rooms, finished unfinished tasks, made bread, harvested grain and mended broken items (especially tools). Even more importantly, they were seen to bring luck to the households they lived in. Curiously most of the tales in which brownies appear tell about households that manage to drive them away by angering them, which is usually very easy, for the brownies seem to have a very strict code of etiquette. Although this etiquette varies greatly from tale to tale, there are some common concepts that appear in most of the legends: brownies demand a nightly bowl of milk or cream, and sometimes a honey cake. The milk and cream have to be of good quality, and the cakes have to be made out of good ingredients, or the brownie will be angry; one feature that is common to nearly all English faerie legend is the faeries’ hate of misers and greedy people. The food is to be left out for the brownie to take as he wishes, and not given directly. In fact, the brownies should never be given gifts, for they become extremely offended when offered reward for their services.

Other usual ways of angering the brownies included giving them a nickname (I will give an example of this in the section when discussing the boggarts), performing some of their duties, thanking them, cursing them, forgetting to give them food and giving them clothing. Forgetting to give the brownies food and giving them clothing seems to be the most popular ways of angering them in the tales; many of the tales are center around someone doing either of these. However, these methods seem to contradict each other very often: in the majority of the tales the brownie of a house is angered because the family gives him clothing, yet in some tales he is angered because the family did not give him clothing (Briggs 1976: 32). Sometimes, when a brownie got angry, he was either replaced by or transformed into a boggart, a malicious and unhelpful version of the brownie. The boggarts were dark, hairy and dressed in tattered clothes. They were quite ugly and deformed, and they had oversized hands and clumsy feet. The boggarts were used to explain small accidents and nasty things, as well as the strange noises and creaking in the night. They were also thought to blow out candles, hide small tools and equipment and make babies cry.

The bogies can been seen as a hybrid of boggarts and brownies. They were mischievous but harmless faeries, who amused themselves by doing stupid and uncreative pranks, like pulling blankets from beds on cold nights and hiding small items. The bogies were quite interested in gossip; they liked to spy on people and listen to their conversation.

Although the brownies, bogies and boggarts could be annoying and sometimes even dangerous, in most of the tales the occupants of the boggart-infested houses found ways to make them leave. One of the most common methods was to give the faerie a name (or, in later versions, to baptise him). Briggs tells us a typical version of these tales:

“A Brownie on the Celtic fringe, on the edge of the Gaelic-speaking country in Pertshire, haunted Altmor Burn, not far from Pitlochry. He used to be heared paddling and splashing in the burn, then he would go up with wet feet to the farm near, and if everything had been left untidy he would tidy it, but if it was left neat he would throw everything about. It was counted unlucky to meet him, and the road was avoided at night. He was laid, not by a gift of clothes, but by a nickname. A man returning very merry from the market one dark night heard him splashing about in the burn, and cried out jovially, ‘Well, Puddlefoot, how is it with you this night?’ The Brownie was horrified. ‘Oh! Oh!’ he cried, ‘I ́ve gotten a name! ́Tis Puddlefoot they call me!’ And he vanished, never to haunt the place again.” (Briggs 1976: 29).

The Grieving Dead
The best example of ancestral faeries is the Irish banshee (Briggs 1976: 25) (also known as the bean sidhe), who was seen as a long-dead virgin belonging to the family. At first the banshee was seen as a good, grieving spirit who appeared to warn a family member of a certain death, but after a time the legend evolved to the point where the banshee lost its grief and sympathy and became just an evil harbinger of death. As the tale evolved even further, the banshee’s song transformed from a message to the reason of somebody’s death.

The Scottish version of this faerie is the bean-nighe, who, unlike the Irish version, is anything but beautiful: she has one nostril, one large tooth and webbed feet. She is usually spotted at the riverside washing the clothes of one who is destined to die (Briggs 1976: 25).

The Nasty Ones
Although the boggarts and bogies were seen as annoying and sometimes even dangerous, they were not even nearly as nasty as some of the really bad faeries. Although they caused harm and mischief, and sometimes even caused (directly or indirectly) someone’s death, their actions were usually at least somehow justifiable. In most of the legends they stopped their mischief before any serious harm was done.

Not surprisingly – the line between the less harmful faeries and truly dangerous faeries was between home and wilderness: the helpful faeries lived and worked in the house, courtyard or fields, while the nasty ones lived in forests, rivers, marshes and moors. Prime examples of the evil spirits are the kelpies, will-o-the-wisps and the redcaps.

The Scottish kelpies were spirits of water, who left their watery homes to find victims whom they might drown (quite like the east-Slavic rusalka or the Finnish näkki). In order to accomplish this, the kelpie changed his form into a magnificent horse, handsome, seaweed-haired young lord or hairy man, and lured people into lakes and rivers. Briggs tells a typical kelpie tale:

“One story commonly told was of seven little girls who were out walking on a Sunday, and saw a pretty little horse walking near the lochside. One after another they got on its back, which gradually lengthened itself so that there was room for them all. A little boy who was with them noticed this and refused to join them. The horse turned its head and suddenly yelled ‘Come on, little scabby-head, get up too!’ The boy ran for his life and hid among the boulders where the thing could not get at him. When it saw this it turned and dashed into the loch with the seven girls on its back. And nothing of them except their entrails ever came to land.” (Briggs 1976: 57).

The kelpies had also other ways to lure their victims into the water. For example, dracae (another Scottish version of the kelpie; the singular form is in some tales draca and in some tales drac) lured their victims into their underwater domains by leaving gold or jewels floating on the surface of the water and abducting the people who reached for them, taking them into subterranean caves where the victims were used as slaves. According to some of these tales blessing the floating treasures made them safe for taking (Lindeman, Garvin). Although some of the tales about kelpies tell of resourceful lords who were able to enslave a kelpie with a magic bridle, most tales are quite like Briggs’ story. As mentioned earlier, these tales were used to make children cautious of rivers and lakes, so that they would not drown in them accidentally.

Tales about will-o-the-wisps were used similarly to warn children (and adults) from going to the forests alone. Will-o-the-wisps (also known as ignus fatuus [lit. ‘foolish fire’], Ellylldans, fairy lights, corpse-candles, peg-a-lanterns, will-o’the-wykes, Joan-in-the-wads, Hinky-Punks as well as many other names; Briggs 1967: 52 among others) were thought to be imps, pixies or souls of mischievous, unbaptized children, who appeared as faint lights on marshes and bogs on still nights after sunset. In many tales will-o-the-wisps try to lure people from the road deeper and deeper into the forests, until the victims either drown in a swamp or lose their way and starve to death.

While the kelpies and will-o-the-wisps of the legends were evil and malicious, even they can not be compared with redcaps, the short, bloodthirsty and gruesome goblins of the Lowland (Briggs 1976: 57). The redcaps got their name from the caps they wore: they used to dye them in the blood of their victims. The redcaps were thought to live in abandoned towers and castles where evil deeds had been done (by this aspect they could be seen as even more degenerated boggarts). The redcaps were described as short, old men with red eyes, arms that ended in sharp talons and a large mouth full of sharp teeth. Unlike most of the other faeries, the redcaps were not vulnerable to iron; they even bragged about this by using iron boots. In most of the folklore, travellers who strayed to the dwellings of redcaps were killed and eaten. The only way to defend against a redcap was to recite the scriptures. If this was done, the redcap would vanish with a scream, leaving one large tooth to the spot where it had stood. This form of defence is naturally a Christian addition to the old legend.

In addition to the man-eating redcaps, there were faeries with vampiric characteristics. One example of this would be the Scottish baobhan sith, of whom Garvin gives a good example:

“Four men were hunting in the wilds of Ross-shire, and took refuge for the night in a deserted shieling. To keep themselves warm they began to dance. Three of them danced, and one supplied the mouth music. As they danced one of them wished that their sweethearts were with them. At once four beautiful girls came into the building, in green clothes, with long golden hair. Three of them danced, and one sat by the singer. Presently the singer noticed drops of blood falling from his friends. He started up, and his partner flew at him. He escaped from her, and took refuge among the horses, where he was safe until daybreak. In the morning he went back to the shieling, and found the bloodless bodies of his companions, sucked to death by the dreadful baobhan sith” (Garvin).

The Wild Ones
Not all of the faeries who lived in wilderness were seen as evil or bloodthirsty. Some of the wild faeries of the legends dwelled in forests because they wanted to live with animals, while others wanted to stay as far from humans as possible. The pooka and the selkies are good examples of these kinds of faeries.

The pooka (also known as phooka, pouka and puck) are described by the legends as a truly wild race of faeries, who live in forests and are able to change form from one animal to another. Although the pooka are not evil, they are mischievous: in some tales a pooka appears as a tame pony, offering a ride to careless people. When the traveller mounts the pony, it starts to run faster and faster through marshes, thorn-bushes and forests, until it suddenly throws the rider into a ditch or mudpool (Lindeman). Although this resembles the behaviour of a kelpie, there is one major difference: the pooka’s victims tend to remain alive, with no serious injuries. It seems that the pooka do these trick just to amuse itself, with no malicious intents.

The selkies, or seal people, appear in tales as gentle, humble and loving folk who can change their forms from a human to a seal. In most of the tales the selkies appear in, they are described as dying people, whose death is being caused by ignorant men who hunt and eat them. In spite of this, the selkies are nearly never portrayed as angry, bitter or vengeful. An exception of this is made by some tales where selkies sink ships and cause storms to avenge the hunting of seals (Lindeman). In most of the selkie tales a good-natured seal hunter catches a selkie, realises what he has catched, releases the selkie, promises to change his career and is handsomely rewarded. The other major brand of selkie tales is quite different: in these tales a man sees a female selkie who comes ashore and sheds her skin (the selkies must do this to become human), and sneaks to the beach, stealing the skin. With the skin, the man forces the selkie to remain on dry land and to become his wife; the man usually tells her that he will burn the sealskin if she will not marry him. The tale usually ends in the selkie finding her sealskin and escaping to the sea, although in some versions the selkie dies of her sorrow.

Changelings
Changelings (Briggs 1976: 7) were perhaps the most well known faeries during the medieval times. It was widely believed that if a newborn baby was left alone or unwatched before he is baptised, the faeries might steal him and leave a changeling in his place (the use of male pronoun is intentional; in most of the legends and tales, the faeries steal male babies). In some of the folklore this changeling was said to be made out of wood and earth, with a spell cast on it so that it would look and act as a real baby. More often the faeries would leave an unhealthy, ugly faerie child who would die in a few years or an old faerie, who would remain in the cradle, eating much but never growing.

In the tales, the only way to retrieve the real child was to expose the changeling for what it was. The tales tell of many ways to reveal the true nature of the changeling. Unfortunately, most of these were quite lethal for the baby. Even more unfortunately they were quite often practiced in real life; it was much easier for the parents of a sick or malformed child to think of him as a changeling. Certain ways to expose a changeling’s true nature (according to Briggs, these methods were practiced even at the beginning of this century; Briggs 1976: 117) included placing him on a hot stove, leaving him on the manure pile for a night and mistreating him. It was thought that these things would force the faerie’s real parents to arrive to stop their child from being mistreated or killed. It depended on the legend whether the human parents’ real child was returned or not. In some legends the real child returns from Faeryland years after the changeling has died, and sometimes he has aged many years in a few months or a few days in many years. The amount of wandering orphans might have given birth to these tales; when an orphan appears to the doors of the parents who have killed their ‘changeling’, they would quite likely want to see him as their long-lost son that has been brought home by destiny.

Not all of the ways of exposing changelings were lethal, or even dangerous. One of the most popular methods in the tales is to brew with eggshells. When enough brewing would be done, the changeling would no longer be able to contain himself and would sit up and exclaim something like: “I have seen three forests grow and wither, but I have never seen ale brewed in an eggshell before!” The faeries’ reasons for stealing babies vary greatly between different legends. One of the most common reasons seems to be that the stolen babies were married (naturally after growing up) to members of the faerie nobility. Another, quite curious reason is introduced in some post-Christian legends; once every decade (or seven years) the faeries needed to pay a tithe of one child to Hell, and the faeries try to evade this by stealing human children whom they send as the tithe.

The Lords and Ladies Tuatha de Danann
“These Tuatha were great necromancers, skilled in all magic, and excellent in all the arts as builders, poets and musicians. At first the Milesians were going to destroy them utterly, but gradually were so fascinated and captivated by the gifts and powers of the Tuatha that they allowed them to remain and build forts, where they held high festival with music and singing and the chant of the bards” (Wilde 1992, 21).

The ‘nobility’ of the faeries differed from the ‘commoners’ even more than the human nobles differed from the commoners of the medieval times. While the bogies, boggarts and brownies were seen as ugly, simple and often quite stupid household helpers with little magical abilities, these ‘noble’ faeries were seen the picture of everything high, and respected, envied and even feared; at least in Ireland people used nicknames like ‘the fair folk’, ‘the gentle folk’, ‘the gentry’ or ‘the noble ones’ when talking about the faeries, so that the faeries would not notice them and cause them bad luck (e.g. Briggs: 1967: 218).

The first mentions of ‘noble’ faeries are thought to be in the Irish-Celtic mythology, where the Tuatha de Danann (the children of Dana, mother goddess of Eire) were mentioned in the Book of Invasions as gods who came from the west and defeated the Firbolg (the early gods of Ireland, who invaded Ireland successfully, defeating the Fomorians, the original inhabitants of the islands; the name Firbolg can be translated as ‘Men of the Bags’). Some time after this the Milesians (who represent the first Gaels) conquested the land and drove the Tuatha de Danann into the hills and under the seas. After settling under hills and seas, the Tuatha de Danann became melancholic and bitter, and tried. In time the Tuatha de Danann diminished in size and power into the daoine sidhe (Lindeman), who later evolved into sidhe (the term ‘sidhe’ seems to have originally been a synonym of ‘faerie’, it evolved to mean only the so-called human-like, ‘noble’ faeries), the most beautiful, noble and humanlike kind of faeries.

The Sidhe
“The Sidhe dwell in the Sifra, or fairy palace of gold and crystal, in the heart of the hill and they have been given youth, beauty, joy, and the power over music, yet they are often sad; for they remember that they were once angels in heaven though now cast down to earth, and though they have power over all the mysteries of Nature, yet they must die without hope of regaining heaven, while mortals are certain of immortality. Therefore this one sorrow darkens their life, a mournful envy of humanity; because, while man is created immortal, the beautiful fairy race is doomed to annihilation” (Wilde 1886: 132).

The (daoine) sidhe were seen as heroic faeries who enjoyed the pleasures of the medieval chivalric life. They were seen as nobles, knights and royalty, and were the first faeries associated with glamour (I will return to this subject later). The sidhe were human-sized, unbelievably beautiful beings, who, depending on the tale, could become invisible whenever necessary, or could only become visible when in the presence of humans. It is thought that the concept of these chivalric faeries arrived from France, where they played large parts in medieval romances.

In addition to the generic sidhe, there were some specific sub-categories, like the Leanan-sidhe (originally the Lhiannan-Shee of the Isle of Man) and the bean sidhe (also known as banshee). The Leanan-sidhe were, according to the legends, either spirits of life who inspired poets and singers (Wilde 1886: 134) or spirits who inspire poets and singers and live on their thoughts and imagination, burning the poor artists up. The Scottish version of the Leanan-sidhe is the leanan sith, a fairy lover of either sex. Garvin mentions that translators, who translated the Bible into Scots Gaelic, used this term and some of the common people took this as Biblical proof of the existence of the fairies.

These noble faeries were quite commonly used in medieval legends and tales. Sometimes they even replaced original characters; Briggs mentions Lanzelet, a twelfth-century German version of Lancelot’s tale, where the Lady of the Lake is presented as a faerie, who brings Lancelot to the Faeryland (Briggs 1976: 5). Likewise in the wonderful Lay of Sir Orfeo, the fifteenth-century English version of the legend of Orpheus, Hades was replaced by the King of the faeries and the original land of the dead was replaced by Faeryland. The legend remains otherwise mostly untouched, except for a few changes that nicely reflect the beliefs concerning Faeries. For example, Orfeo’s wife did not die naturally, as Orpheus’ wife did. Instead, the King of Faeries found her in a traditional wild hunt (I will return to this subject later), while sleeping in the garden.

One of the best known legends that tell of the ‘noble’ faeries is the thirteenth-century romance of True Thomas (or Thomas the Rhymer). In several versions of the romance, Thomas is wandering around in the countryside when he meets a beautiful lady with golden hair and jewels sparkled all over her spring green cloak. The lady introduces herself as the Queen of Faeryland, and Thomas, who is mesmerised by her beauty, asks for a kiss, which the Queen grants him. Depending on the version of the tale, Thomas either accompanies Queen willingly to the Faeryland or is forced to go along as a payment for the kiss. In one version of the tale the Queen’s glamour fades and she is revealed to be an old hag. In most versions, Thomas accompanies the queen to Faeryland for three days, which turn out to be seven years in the real world; upon returning, Thomas can only speak truths and prophesies, and returns to Faeryland in a few years (Jarvin 1992: 60-64; Briggs 1976: 9, 89).

The Wild Hunt or Host of Unforgiven Dead
When Christianity came to the British Isles, the legends and tales of faeries began to change. One of the first changes was the nature of the faeries. While in some legends the faeries became associated with demons or angels (yet another subject to which I will return later), it was even more common to associate them with the spirits of the dead.

One of the most notable changes happened with the tales of the sluagh, who were in the original folklore the Scottish version of wild hunt. The original versions of the tales saw sluagh as flying around the land on midnight (Garvin), swooping down to earth and kidnapping people or forcing men to shoot down women milking cows or other men working in the field. After Christianity arrived, the sluagh were transformed into the host of the unforgiven dead: a pack of souls of sinners, who would arrive to a deathbed to grab away the soul of a dying person. In the Irish version of this legend, the sluagh arrived from west and could be kept away from the dying person by keeping the windows and doors on the western side of the house closed. In one Irish version, the sluagh moved in procession from hill to hill, and it was extremely unlucky to build any obstacles on their travel routes (Briggs 1976: 19) – i.e. directly between hills.

One of the tales in which the faeries are associated with demons is the legend of St. Collen (Briggs 1976: 13). In the tale, St. Collen was a Celtic saint, who lived as a hermit in a small cell in Glastonbury Tor. After interrupting two men who were talking about the King of Faeries (Collen announced that they spoke of demons), a stranger arrived and asked St. Collen to join the King of Faeries for a dinner. Three times Collins refused, until deciding to go. When St. Collen and the stranger arrived to the top of the hill, Collen saw a beautiful palace that he had not seen there before. When St. Collen entered the castle, he found the King waiting for him. When the King asked St. Collen to eat some food, Collen announced that he would not eat dry leaves. When the King asked St. Collen what he thought of the King’s beautiful blue and scarlet liveries, Collen told the King that blue was the colour of eternal cold and red was the colour of the flames of Hell, from which the King had come. After saying this, the saint took a bottle of holy water he had brought with him and threw it at the King. When the water hit the King, he disappeared as did the food and the castle. This is one of the only tales where no harm falls on a visitor who breaks the etiquette in Faeryland.

Not-so-Fallen Angels
“One day a great fairy chief asked [saint] Columb-Kille if there were any hope left to the Sidhe that one day they would regain heaven and be restored to their ancient place among the angels. But the saint answered that hope there was none; their doom was fixed, and at Judgement day they would pass through death into annihilation; for so had it been decreed by the justice of God” (Wilde 1886: 132).

One of the most interesting changes in folklore that arrived with Christianity was that the Faeries were associated with a Christian concept – angels. While the tales of faeries as demons (like the tale of St. Collen) see the faeries as fallen angels, there are some interesting and original variations of this tradition. According to a common medieval Irish belief (Garvin), the faeries were angels that sided with the devil in the rebellion in Heaven, and for this they were sentenced to Hell. When God ordered the gates of Heaven and Hell closed, some of the angels had not reached Hell yet and they fell on earth and in sea, where they hid (Wilde 1886: 89). These not-so-fallen angels were not thoroughly evil like those who had fallen into Hell, but they were not above sin. They would obey orders from the devil and do evil deeds, but they preferred being left alone.

A more interesting version of the same legend has these faeries remain unaligned in the rebellion in Heaven, taking arms neither for God nor for devil, and for this, being exiled on earth. This version has these faeries living in hills and under seas, which links this version of the legend closely to the tales of Tuatha de Danann, who were also exiled under the hills, where they mourned for their exile from the lands they had conquested. There are other, quite evident similarities in this version and the legend of Tuatha de Danann; while Tuatha de Danann filled their eternal lives with song and dance so that they could forget the loss of sunlight and their lands, the partially fallen angels did the same things to forget the joys of Heaven, which were now eternally forbidden from them.

One rather nice example of linking the faeries with angels is in the legend of True Thomas. When Thomas accompanies the Queen, they soon reach a crossroads, where they can choose from three paths. The path on the left is wide, flat and straight, and according to the Queen, leads to Hell. The path on the right is narrow, thorny and hard to travel. The Queen tells Thomas that this path leads to Heaven. The path between them is surrounded by wild plants and mostly lost in the forest. This path, as the Queen tells Thomas, leads to the Faeryland.

The Gifts and Woes of the Fae The Gifts of the Fae
Although the characteristics and abilities of the faeries vary greatly between different tales, legends and folklore, there are some common attributes and flaws shared by most of them. One of the most obvious (and most easily explainable) powers of the faeries was the ability to become invisible. So far I have not been able to find a single type of faerie that does not possess this gift; even the selkies are able to vanish from the sight of humans. Another gift that seems to be quite usual is the household faeries’ ability to affect things without touching them: many tales tell of boggarts and angered brownies that cause plates, mugs, chairs and tables to shatter or fly around.

One of the other traits that seem to be quite common to at least the ‘noble’ faeries is immortality (Squire 2000: 25). In many tales the great age of the faeries is pointed out, most often as a comparison to the briefness of human life. The gift of immortality is most often encountered in the legends of the noble faeries, particularly the daoine sidhe, and it is supposed to originate from the tales of the Tuatha de Danann, who achieved immortality through magical ale. Although immortality seems to be a common trait given to the faeries in legends, not all of them seem to possess the gift; some stories of faerie funerals exist as well. Still, whether the tales tell that they are immortal or not, the passage of time is never the same for faeries as it is for humans.

Another curious notion on the same subject is the passing of time in the lands, hills and cities of the faeries. Time spent in these locations does not ever seem to correlate with time in the outside world. There are many legends that tell of men who entered a faerie residence and stayed for one night or several days, while a few years, decades or even centuries have passed outside. Similarly, some tales of stolen babies mention that the children grow up inside the Faeryland, while only a few days pass outside.

The Curses of the Fae
One of the most common flaws of the faeries is a vulnerability to cold iron. Although cold iron is especially useful in the form of a knife or a cross, it can also harm, kill or banish faeries nearly as well in other forms. In the folklore of the British Isles scissors that are hung over the cradle are commonly seen as a sufficient protection against fairies from kidnapping the child and leaving a changeling behind. An interesting notion is that in the original game of tag, the one chasing was called a witch or fairy, and those being chased could declare themselves “safe” if they could reach and touch iron. (Garvin). Another quite common curse of the faeries is that they do not have souls. This attribute seems oddly widespread; although it is a natural notion in legends that describe faeries as fallen angels, it is mentioned in many other legends as well. For example, there are tales of faerie mothers who travel around seeking human mothers, so that they could ask the human to give the faerie child a sip of her milk; this is supposed to give the child a soul (Briggs 1976: 120). Other tales tell of faerie mothers who try to do the same by stealing human babies and leaving their own children in the human babies’ cradles.

Faerie Morality
“The Queen [of the sidhe] is more beautiful than any woman of earth, yet Finvarra [the King] loves the mortal woman best, and wiles them down to his fairy palace by the subtle charm of the fairy music, for no one who has yet heard it can resist its power, and they are fated to belong to the fairies ever after. Their friends mourn for them as dead with much lamentation, but in reality they are leading a joyous life down in the heart of the hill, in the fairy palace with the silver columns and the crystal walls” (Wilde 1886: 133).

As Briggs mentions (1976: 108), faeries tend have a complicated, not easily understandable set of morals in the folklore. Although in many legends the faeries have a strict sense of right and wrong, they do not usually match the human opinions on the same subject: “The morality of even the most ordinary, decent, well-wishing fairy is of a brand of its own” (Briggs 1976: 111).

Although most of the wicked faeries could be seen as plainly evil, some of the ‘good’ faeries do not seem much better. In many tales the good faeries seem to be able to help and hurt people with as great ease, and some of them seem to be just waiting for the humans to blunder so that they could do them some harm. As Briggs mentions, the faeries seem to be much more interested in etiquette and social order than in morals.

The changelings are a good example of this faerie morality; obviously the faeries do not see anything wrong in stealing a human child from his parents, or even enslaving this stolen child. In addition, in many tales the faeries who leave their own child to the humans are portrayed as sympathetic, caring and kind. Another example of this same theme is the stealing of Orfeo’s wife in the Lay of Sir Orfeo: the King of the Faeries is not described as an evil character, just as someone with a very odd morality. Although in the British Isles the division between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ faeries never reached the level of the faerie legends of France, there was some division between these; in Scottish legends the faeries are often divided into the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is comprised of the good, kind fairies, while the outright evil faeries tend to belong to the Unseelie Court (Briggs 1976: 222). These courts were not seen as very confining: the faeries of the Seelie Court could be violent when angered, while the not members of the Unseelie Court could sometimes just have fun in non-lethal ways.

The morality of the faeries seems to be even more lax when sexual matters are in concern. In many tales faeries have casual sexual relationships with mortals or other faeries, or they are searching for a mortal lover (Briggs 1976: 127).

Glamour

Glamour can make a lady seem a knight,
A nut shell seem a gilded barge,
A sheeling seem a palace large,
And youth seem age and age seem youth,
All was illusion, nought was truth.
-Reginald Scot, The Lay of the Last Minstrel

The magic of the faeries, sometimes called ‘glamour’, is seen to be the art of illusions, movement, shape changing and enchantments. While it mostly used in the legends that told of the ‘noble’ faeries, some of the household faeries and wild faeries were said to possess it and to be able to perform some minor tricks with it. A good example of this is a tale in which a mischievous pooka makes a woman lose her way in a forest by making a path disappear from her sight. According to different tales, the use of glamour is not restricted to simple illusions or tricks: in many tales whole castles are built and with glamour. More commonly faeries use glamour to create their magnificent clothes and jewels or to make themselves more beautiful.

These kinds of use of glamour are found most often in medieval faerie romances (see the example of Thomas the Rhymer above), in which a young man or woman (usually a virgin) falls in love with a faerie. In these tales the affair usually ends with the faerie lover leaving the human and the poor man or woman realising that his or her partner pretended to be much more than it actually was. Quite obviously these kinds of tales are used mainly to point out that strangers, no matter how beautiful or charming they are, should not be too easily trusted.

The tales about faerie gold serve similar purpose. There are quite many variations of this basic concept. One of the most common versions tell of a greedy man, quite often an old innkeeper or merchant, who is visited by an enigmatic noble. Since the noble seems very rich, the greedy man proceeds to sell him whatever the noble wants (a room for a night, food, wine, horse etc.), naming outrageous prices for everything. The noble seems happy to pay the horrible costs, giving the man all the gold he had asked. When the mysterious noble leaves, the man is quite pleased with himself, for he has made a fortune in one night. Still, things do not end happily for him: when the man wakes up next morning, he finds out that the gold given by the noble has turned into grass or dried leaves.

Conclusion
The faeries of the British Isles are a fascinating topic: the Isles have a great amount of tales and legends concerning them, and they can be found on any level of the medieval folklore, from romances favoured by the nobility to superstitions of the commoners. Yet, although the amount of material is huge and the folklore and legends are products of many different times, cultures and social conditions, there are many interesting traits that bind the faeries of the different tales together.

As the variation of different versions of faeries is wide, this essay has not been able to discuss some very interesting faerie types, such as the leprachaun, knockers, barghest and the pixies, and many interesting legends, such as the faeries’ common use of human wives and midwives. One of the most interesting things shown in the legends is the effect time and cultural changes have had on them. This change is best shown in the way Tuatha de Danann changed slowly from ancient gods of pre-Christian times into post-Christian partially fallen angels, and the sluagh evolved from the wild hunt to the host of unforgiven dead.

Also interesting is the frequent use of faeries as pedagogic means, as in the stories of kelpies. These tales were used to teach children (and to remind adults) of certain dangers; stories about kelpies were used to warn the children of the dangers of rivers and lakes, while stories about the pooka and will-o-the-wisps were used to prevent the children from wandering into forests alone.

In the British Isles the faerie legends have been used to entertain and teach people. They have been used to explain things that have puzzled people and to give reasons to difficult questions, such as deformed children. The faeries have been used to permit infanticide and to explain miscarriages, diseases and accidents. Whether a family or a farm has had good or bad luck, Faeries have been held responsible for it.

The faeries have been used in legends to bring justice to those with no morals and to personify total lack of morals. In the medieval British Isles, faeries were present from a child’s birth to his or her deathbed. They were present from the minute the proud father tied a pair of scissors over the cradle to prevent the faeries from swapping the baby for a changeling, to the time the grieving wife shut the western windows so that the sluagh could not steal her dying husband’s soul.

References
Briggs, Katherine (1967) The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. London: Bellew
Briggs, Katherine (1976) A Book of Fairies. London:Penguin
Garvin, Allen (accessed 11.10.2000) Faeries. http://faeryland.tamu-commerce.edu/~earendil/faerie/
Jarvin, Gordon [ed.] (1992) Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. London: Penguin
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1974) The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Lindeman, M.F. Encyclopedia Mythica. http://www.pantheon.org/mythica/
Siikala, Anna-Leena (1992) Myyttiset metaforat ja šamanistinen tieto, in Harvilahti, Lauri et al., ed.: Metafora: ikkuna mieleen, kieleen ja kulttuuriin, Tampere: Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura
Squire, Charles (2000) The Mythology of the British Islands. London: Wordsworth
 Wilde, F.S. (1887) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London Wilde, F.S. (1992) Ancient Legends of Ireland. London. New York: Sterling

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

The Faerie Abduction of Anne Jefferies

“Faerie fair and faerie bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.
Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my faerie dear?”

Attributed to Anne Jefferies in Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England (1865)

Outside the dramatic inventions of Shakespeare, Drayton, Herrick et al., most accounts of human interaction with the faeries from the Early Modern period are derived from the disparate records of witch trials. These records often chronicle the accused witches’ testimony (usually under torture) of consorting with faerie familiars, for the purposes of divination, healing and sometimes flying to Sabbaths. Historians such as Carlo Ginzberg and Emma Wilby have teased out the detail from the trial records to create a convincing argument that they encode genuine evidence of shamanic practice amongst the witches, who were frequently able to interact with the faeries in a disassociated altered state of consciousness. The records supply us with the largest body of documentary evidence for the ontology of the faeries between the 16th and 18th centuries. But there is one unusual case that comes down to us from different sources, and yet contains many of the motifs usually contained in the witch trials. This is the story of Anne Jefferies from St Teath, close to the north coast of Cornwall.

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An amalgamation of the faerielands of John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906)

Anne Jefferies’ Story

Anne Jefferies was nineteen, when she went into service in 1645 with the wealthy Pitt family on their country estate near St Teath. A description of what happened to her is contained in a letter, dated 1696, from Moses Pitt to the Right Reverend Dr. Edward Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester. Moses was a young boy when Anne was in service with his parents, and the letter seems to be in part a memoir but also a request for some Christian explanatory guidance from the bishop (although there is no record of any reply). The letter found its way into the hands of the 19th-century folklorist (and scientist) Robert Hunt, who was able to supplement the details with his own collection of local oral testimony, where the story had evidently been doing the rounds for over 150 years. Hunt’s literary rendering of the story appeared in his 1865 publication Popular Romances of the West of England, along with extracts from Moses Pitt’s letter. Hunt’s folkloric version is worth quoting in full, although, as we’ll see, it’s not the end of the strangeness surrounding Anne.

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

ANNE JEFFERIES was the daughter of a poor labouring man, who lived in the parish of St Teath. She was born in 1626, and is supposed to have died in 1698. When she was nineteen years old, Anne, who was a remarkably sharp and clever girl, went to live as a servant in the family of Mr Moses Pitt. Anne was an unusually bold girl, and would do things which even boys feared to attempt. Of course, in those days every one believed in faeries, and everybody feared those little airy beings. They were constantly the talk of the people, and this set Anne longing anxiously to have an interview with some of them. So Anne was often abroad after sundown, turning up the fern leaves, and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time–

“Faerie fair and faerie bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.”

She never allowed a moonlight night to pass without going down into the valley, and walking against the stream, singing–

“Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my faerie dear?”

The faeries were a long time trying this poor girl; for, as they told her afterwards, they never lost sight of her; but there they would be, looking on when she was seeking them, and they would run from frond to frond of the ferns, when she was turning them up its her anxious search.

One day Anne, having finished her morning’s work, was sitting in the arbour in her master’s garden, when she fancied she heard some one moving aside the branches, as though endeavouring to look in upon her; and she thought it must be her sweetheart, so she resolved to take no notice. Anne went on steadily with her work, no sound was heard but the regular beat of the knitting-needles one upon the other. Presently she heard a suppressed laugh, and then again a rustle amidst the branches. The back of the arbour was towards the lane, and to enter the garden it was necessary to walk down the lane to the gate, which was, however, not many yards off.

Click, click went the needles, click, click, click. At last Anne began to feel vexed that the intruder did not show himself, and she pettishly said, half aloud —

“You may stay there till the kueney [moss or mildew] grows on the gate, ere I ‘ll come to ‘ee.”

There was immediately a peculiar ringing and very music laugh. Anne knew this was not her lover’s laugh, and she felt afraid. But it was bright day, and she assured herself that no one would do her any mischief, as she knew herself to be a general favourite in the parish. Presently Anne felt assured that the garden gate had been carefully opened and again closed, so she wait anxiously the result. In a few moments she perceived at the entrance of the arbour six little men, all clothed very handsome in green. They were beautiful little figures, and had very charming faces, and such bright eyes. The grandest of these little visitors, who wore a red feather in his cap, advanced in front the others, and, making a most polite bow to Anne, addressed her familiarly in the kindest words.

This gentleman looked so sweetly on Anne that she was charmed beyond measure, and she put down her hand as if shake hands with her little friend, when he jumped into her palm and she lifted him into her lap. He then, without any more ad clambered upon her bosom and neck, and began kissing her. Anne never felt so charmed in her life as while this one little gentleman was playing with her; but presently he called his companion and they all clambered up by her dress as best they could, and kissed her neck, her lips, and her eyes. One of them ran his fingers over her eyes, and she felt as if they had 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.

At length her eyes were opened, and Anne found herself on the ground in the arbour where she had been sitting in the morning, and many anxious faces were around her, all conceiving that she was recovering from a convulsion fit.

According to Moses Pitt, Anne only related her experience at a later date, after she seems to have acquired healing abilities. This was after her mistress slipped and broke her leg.

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Brian Froud – Girl amongst the Faeries

Anne convinced her to allow her to ‘lay her hands on’ the leg over the course of the next few days, thereby healing the fracture without the need to call a surgeon. Under further interrogation, Anne told her that she had been told about the accident by the faeries, and that she would be able to heal her mistress’s leg through some type of osmotic faerie power. Once this was admitted, Anne spilled the beans about what had happened to her when she had fallen into convulsion in the arbour. She also confessed that the faeries were now frequently visible to her, but to no-one else, and that it was through them and their otherworldly influence that she found herself with clairvoyant attributes and the ability to go long periods without eating any food, claiming that she did not need to as the faeries supplied her with a special bread that sustained her. Pitt also chronicles her apparent ability to make herself invisible, something which she explained as another gift of the faeries to be used sparingly and without malice.

Word of Anne’s healing and clairvoyant faculties soon spread throughout the county and beyond, bringing a steady stream of visitors to partake of her services, for which she never charged. Unfortunately, this brought her to the attention of the notorious Cornish magistrate Jan Tregeagle, who issued a warrant for her arrest on the basis that she was consorting with the Devil, and she was duly imprisoned at a residence of the mayor of Bodmin. She avoided being tried as a witch. Although there were no more than fifteen witch trials in Cornwall through the main period of the ‘witch craze’ in 17th and 18th centuries (a small number compared to some other counties such as Essex and Somerset), only a decade later in the 1650s there was a mass trial of twenty-five alleged witches at the courts of assize in Launceston, six of whom were found guilty and hanged. Anne was lucky to escape such a fate. She was, however, deprived of food whilst imprisoned, but her faerie allies once again came to her aid and kept her fed with their thaumaturgic bread. Interestingly, a 1647 document containing correspondence from the mayor (now held in the Clarendon manuscripts archive) confirms Anne’s presence in the  gaol and that she was deprived of food for several months without any apparent detriment to her health. This is another piece of tantalising evidence to suggest the strangeness surrounding Anne’s life.

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‘An Even Smaller World’ – Josephine Wall http://www.josephinewall.co.uk

Anne was released without trial and went to live with a widowed aunt of Moses Pitt near Padstow, later marrying a labourer named William Warren. She continued to cure people throughout her life by the laying-on of hands and became a strict Episcopalian. But whether she continued to consort with the faeries is unknown. In 1693, in the hope of gleaning some more details about her supernatural visitors, Moses Pitt (living in London) sent a friend, Humphrey Martyn, to interview her, but in a letter from Martyn  to Pitt he made it clear that she was not willing to divulge any details of her experience or of her later life:

“As for Anne Jefferies, I have been with her the greater part of one day, and did read to her all that you wrote to me; but she would not own anything of it, as concerning the faeries, neither of any of the cures that she did… I asked her the reason why she would not do it; she replied, that if she should discover it to you, that you would make books and ballads of it; and she said that she would not have her name spread about the country in books and ballads of such things, if she might have five hundred pounds for it.”

The memory of her time incarcerated at the Mayor of Bodmin’s pleasure, and the fear of repeating the experience, would almost certainly have been another reason for her to hold her tongue. Anne Jefferies died in 1698.

Some Interpretations

Anne’s experience of abduction by the faeries bears many similarities with the recorded confessions of witches on trial in the 17th century. There is much evidence to suggest that these witches were recalling metaphysical rather than physical events and that they were achieving flight, contact with faerie familiars, and journeying to faerieland (or/and Sabbaths) via an altered state of consciousness, brought about by a variety of methods. This correlates with shamanic practice, and several authors have suggested that this was what underlay the witches’ experiences:

“Many of the core attributes of shamanism described by Mircea Eliade (and by many anthropologists since) find resonance in the practices of pre-modern witches. Through a variety of methods – including ingestion of psychotropic plants and mushrooms, fasting, dance, illness, sensory deprivation – the shaman falls into an ecstatic trance. His/her body is left in a cataleptic state, whilst their consciousness is removed elsewhere, always with the aid of a totem animal. The shaman’s consciousness either becomes the animal or is guided by an animal during their out of body experience, enabling them to travel to a variety of metaphysical realms and bring back the required, or sought information. During these ecstasies, the shaman is able to encounter other shamans (both friendly and hostile), who similarly disassociate their consciousness from their physical selves. These are the basic components of the witches’ ecstasies described through the medium of their Christian persecutors. Whether these visionary episodes were remnants of pre-Christian Eurasian shamanism, or whether they were diffused from marginal societies in parts of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Siberia, where shamanism survived (in various forms) throughout the period, remains equivocal. But the ontological correlations strongly suggest that there was a medieval and Early Modern heretical witch cult in many parts of Europe, existing beneath the prevailing Christian orthodoxy, which utilised aspects of shamanism as its modus operandi.”

From ‘Faerie Familiars and Zoomorphic Witches

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17th-century woodcut of witches in flight

Anne’s newfound healing abilities after her visit to faerieland certainly have shamanic undertones. But she was never accused of being a witch and her experiences do not suggest that she was ever involved with any other practicing witches. Her original adventure was unexpected, and whilst many of the story’s motifs find commonality with the confessions of tried witches, Anne’s narrative retains a unique, personal quality that sets it apart from trial records.

However, the details of the story including flight, immersion in a faerie realm, and the ability to continue communion with supernatural beings, do suggest that Anne was accessing a metaphysical reality through an altered state of consciousness. The clues built into the surviving documents suggest this might have been caused by a neurological condition. It is clear from both Hunt’s version of the story and Moses Pitt’s letter that she was prone to ‘distemper’ and ‘convulsion-fits’, and Pitt reports her as saying that ‘You know that this my Sickness and Fits come very suddenly upon me.’ These seizures sound like epilepsy, more specifically Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. This condition has been linked to a variety of transcendent and mystical experiences, with many modern testimonies of those with the condition matching several of the components of Anne’s description of her abduction. Clifford Pickover has summarised some of these experiences, where “people with frequent bursts of electrical activity in their temporal lobes report sensations of flying, floating, or leaving the body, as well as other mystical experiences.” The onset of an epileptic episode often includes a tingling or pricking of the eyes prior to loss of vision, just as reported by Anne after the faeries crawl onto her in the arbour.

One of the most detailed explorations of this condition and how it relates to transcendent  experiences is Eve LaPlante’s 1993 book Seized. She uses historic and contemporary examples to demonstrate that Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can provide access to an altered state of consciousness where the human mind participates in a reality several steps removed from the consensus material world. This often includes full immersion in alternative landscapes and contact with non-human intelligence. Interestingly, LaPlante also links the condition to personality change and creative energy; again providing parallels with Anne’s story:

“Hidden or diagnosed, admitted or unknown, the mental states that occur in Temporal Lobe Epileptic seizures are more than simply neurological symptoms… People with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, whether or not they know the physiological cause of their seizures, often incorporate their symptoms into poems, stories and myths. And the disorder does more than provide the stuff of religious experience and creative work. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is associated with personality change even when seizures are not occurring; it amplifies the very traits that draw people to religion, healing and art.”

passport-to-magonia_0-2She also suggests that the condition might be responsible for the reliably bizarre phenomenon of alien abduction. She notes that one of the most famous alien abductees, Whitley Streiber, submitted to a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan that revealed “occasional punctate foci of high signal intensity” in his left temporoparietal region, which is suggestive of scarring that could lead to Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. As detailed in a previous post, Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT, researchers such as Jacques Vallée and Graham Hancock make convincing arguments for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 20th and 21st centuries. The experiences are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and might suggest a common source for the phenomena. UFO researchers Chris Aubeck and Jenny Randles have even insinuated the Anne Jefferies story has all the attributes of a modern day alien abduction scenario. Obviously, it cannot be definitively proven that Anne Jefferies suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, and the relationship between folkloric faerie abductions and modern alien abductions remains tentative, but Anne’s unusually well-documented case does allow us to speculate that she did experience life-changing supernatural contact whilst in some form of altered consciousness.

The question remains: who were the faeries and where was the faerieland in Anne’s story? If she were genuinely describing her flight to an alternative reality, and the retention of contact with metaphysical beings, was it real? The answer may reside with Anne’s belief in the faeries – the story and Moses Pitt’s correspondence make it clear that she did believe in the objective reality of supernatural faerie entities even before she met them. It simply took the circumstances of an altered state of consciousness (perhaps in the form of an epileptic seizure) for her to realise this reality. As usual with both folkloric faerie encounters and modern experiences, we need to allow for the possibility that consciousness is not constrained to what is usually considered consensus physical reality. Just as for shamans or witches, the potential for consciousness to access non-physical realities by bypassing the usual neurological confinements may explain interaction with non-human intelligence and the matrix in which they usually live. The ex-NASA scientist and Out-of-Body phenomenon adherent Tom Campbell, has coined the phrase ‘entering a different data stream’ to explain the ontological reality of what the mind experiences when it is freed from its incarceration in the brain. It is simply a different reality with different rules. If, like Anne Jefferies, you believe in faeries, however culturally-coded, that is what your consciousness will bring to the table if it is allowed to do so.

***

The cover image is one of Brian Froud‘s hallucinogenic faerie illustrations from the classic 1978 book Faeries.

Interpreting the Faeries

This is a trip through some of the interpretations that have been cast over the faeries during the last hundred years or so. I get the impression that many folklorists are reluctant, even scared, to pin their true feelings to the mast when it comes to saying what the faeries really are. It’s pretty easy to recount folktales and faerie-stories… but what do they mean, and where do they come from? Some people are more willing than others to stick their necks out… here’s a personal choice of some of the best published interpretations of the faeries. It’s not comprehensive, but I think these works are essential if you’d like to come to some sort of understanding about what the faeries are and why they have persisted in our culture.

A brilliant place to start is with Katherine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies from 1976. Katherine Briggs (d.1980) was president of the Folklore Society between 1969 and 1972 and 561850wrote extensively about the folklore of the faeries, including An Anatomy of Puck, which was an adaptation of her Oxford D.Litt. thesis on 17th-century faerie literature. An Encyclopedia of Fairies correlates a wealth of (mainly British and Irish) traditions of the faeries, covering both the stories and anecdotes. It’s a skilful overview of the phenomenon, that doesn’t shirk from ontological discussion of subjects such as ‘the origin of the fairies’ and ‘time in fairyland’… not subjects that were much discussed when she was writing in the 1970s, mainly because to do so was to give some credence to the reality of the faeries beyond their folkloric representation. But the main emphasis of the book is to summarise the hundreds of different faerie types and stories. It is authoritative, beautifully written, well referenced, and is a route into a deeper understanding of why the faeries are such an important element of British and Irish folklore. Unfortunately, it’s been out of print for a while and is difficult to find for less than £100. But if you can procure a copy, you’ll soon realise that it is a prime reference book for beginning to understand the faeries and where they come from. The New York Times Book Review said: “If myths are both the food and fruit of the imagination, then Katherine Briggs has prepared a banquet. There seems to be no end to the information in this enchanted almanac.”

More international in scope, and wonderfully illustrated (by Claudine and Roland Sabatier), is The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins and other Little Creatures by Pierre o-9780789208784Dubois (1992). Dubois has a very playful style of writing that matches the subject matter perfectly, and he covers an extraordinary range of faerie types from around the world, co-ordinated into sections that describe each entity alongside an illustrative story. The description usually includes the ‘behaviour’ of the faerie in question. Typical of Dubois’ tone is this entry for the behaviour of The Mimi, supernatural entities of the aboriginal Australians…

“As we have seen, these elves from the middle worlds are benevolent, hospitable, and gracious. But they are also amongst those elves with a sensitive, versatile and quick-tempered nature – quite suddenly, they can change a serene environment into a disaster zone if someone has dared to stand on a sacred stone, pick their favourite herb, or dirty the water they came to draw in the evening. The Mimi keep kangaroos, pythons, koalas, opossums, and crocodiles as humans keep cats and dogs. So anyone who lays a finger on them is regarded by the Mimi as damaging their pets.”

It seems possible that it is the Mimi that are invoked in the aboriginal rock shelter paintings from Kimberley, Western Australia, c.10,000 BCE (see Shamanic Explorations of Supernatural Realms: Cave Art – The Earliest Folklore for a discussion of the faeries as subjects of prehistoric cave and rock art).

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The Mimi, Kimberley, Australia, c.10,000 BCE

Briggs and Dubois are indebted for many of their interpretations of the faeries to the folklorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these was Edwin Sidney Hartland 9781445508399(1848-1927) whose The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology (1891) is one of the first studies that attempts to place the faeries in an anthropological context. Whilst couched in somewhat sonorous Victorian language, this volume dissects various aspects of faerie lore, such as the changeling and faerie midwife stories, and what Hartland calls ‘the supernatural lapse of time in fairyland’. Hartland is happy to recount the requisite folktales in full, but he provides a constant running commentary on the possible meanings and originations of the stories. It’s an essential primer, both for a window into 19th-century views of the faeries, and as the earliest attempt to understand the phenomenon, using the anthropological toolkit of the 1890s.

Two decades later WY Evans-Wentz went one step further by applying his interpretations of the faeries on fieldwork he carried out himself. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries was published in 1911, and was based on Evans-Wentz’s journeys through the Celtic realms of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany, between 1907-11, where 9780486425221_p0_v1_s260x420he collected stories and anecdotes about the faeries from the rural populations. His language can occasionally seem archaic and quaint, but there is no doubt that he imbued himself in the Celtic communities that he spent time with during his years of travels amongst them. He had the time, that a modern anthropologist/folklorist could only dream of, to visit these communities and spend time with them, soaking up their stories and anecdotes, which revealed so much about the deeply ingrained belief in the faeries and the way these entities interacted with consensual reality. In doing so, he gained a great admiration for the rural people he came across, who would tell it like it was.

“The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition,’ and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial and economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural… they have lost all sympathetic and responsive contact with Nature, because unconsciously they have thus permitted conventionality and unnaturalness to insulate them from it.”

This quote is from the introduction to The Fairy-Faith, and it sets out Evans-Wentz’s stall. He was on the side of the rural peasantry who were the repository of the vast wealth of folklore represented in their tales of the faeries. He recognised the innate importance of what they were conveying, and was not shy about convincing his reader of the authenticity of what they told him, even if it was anathema to the conventual scientific and materialistic wisdom of his age. But by the time Evans-Wentz made his tour of Celtic countries between 1907-11, the general belief in faeries was waning. By cataloguing rural stories, anecdotes and theories about the faeries, just before WWI tore apart many of the traditional ways of life, and by doing it in such an open-minded and empathetic manner, he has left us with a rare treasure mine of Celtic faerie data.

Evans-Wentz spends much time discussing seership and the second-sight that was usually necessary to interact with the faeries. This was taken to another level by the Austrian f8d16e459d4768e8f183e46bcf2a76e4spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who, in a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924, outlined his concept of the faeries as nature spirits (sometimes calling them elementals) and their fundamental role in ensuring the propagation of the natural world. Steiner called second-sight clairvoyance, and took it as a given reality. His language is sometimes difficult and obtuse, but his descriptions of the inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world is compelling, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognise how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine.

Steiner’s theosophist ideas gained traction through the 20th century, and helped shape a new vision of the faeries as elemental forces of nature, that stripped them somewhat of their folkloric mischievous immorality. By 1952 Geoffrey Hodson was able to take this 412j60j79jl-_sy344_bo1204203200_concept further in his book The Kingdom of the Gods. For readers with a materialistic disposition, this work may be a step too far, and will certainly require a re-tuning of the Western mindset to accept what he is conveying. But Hodson is very clear in his description of a hierarchy of metaphysical beings, which exist alongside physical reality and interact with it. Without this hierarchy there is no life. Hodson uses his clairvoyance to investigate the phenomenon gnostically, and takes us into a dense world of cosmic vitality, introducing several Eastern mystical traditions to explain his direct experiences with nature spirits. One such is Fohat:

Fohat is the universal constructive Force of Cosmic Electricity and the ultimate hidden power in this universe, the power which charges a universe with Life, with Spirit; it is described as the Will and the Mind, the very Self, of God. This supreme force is in all creatures. When specialized and enclosed within the spinal cord of man it is called Kundalini, or the power that moves in serpentine path; hence its other name the Serpent Fire.”

Also from the mid 20th-century theosophist tradition (although not published in English seeing-fairies-a-687x1024until 2014) is Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies. Johnson (acting on behalf of the Fairy Investigation Society) collected over 500 anecdotal descriptions from people who claimed to have seen or interacted with faeries, and compiled them together with her own experiences. Some of her correspondents were Theosophists, with an avowed history of clairvoyance. But the majority were not, and their honest appraisals of seeing faeries are usually singular events in their otherwise non-clairvoyant lives. Their subjective anecdotes may be contentious as scientific evidence, but they are a fascinating collection of experience reports. The faeries described range from traditional folkloric types to metaphysical nature spirits, occasionally morphing into the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention.

bb87ade2c078b0b33ec95315fb374992Perhaps that should be Victorian re-invention. The best overview of what happened to the faeries in popular consciousness during the 19th century is Carole Silver’s Strange and Secret Peoples from 1999. She marshals evidence from a range of sources in an attempt to explain how the pre-Victorian folkloric faerie traditions were appropriated by artists and writers through the 19th century, and remoulded into a new vision of what they were and what they meant. Part of this movement spawned the image of faeries as tiny, incandescent creatures with wings – unknown before the 19th century – which has in turn informed our own disneyfied faeries of modern popular culture… the Tinkerbell effect. But there was much more to the re-invention than this:

“That the Victorians were utterly fascinated by the faeries is demonstrated by the art, drama. and literature they created and admired. Their abiding interest shows in the numerous, uniquely British faerie paintings that flourished between the 1830s and the 1870s – pictures in part inspired by nationalism and Shakespeare, in part as protest against the strictly useful and material, but in either case, as attempts to reconnect the actual and the occult.”

As with most academic studies of the faeries, Silver is willing to go only so far into an investigation of the origins of the faeries themselves, and their potential real presence in the material world. But such restraint is not shown by Carlo Ginzburg in his monumental 1989 book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Whilst the main subject matter is the 601fcbfcd9b656f5ed4c06e850a4b918witches’ sabbath in the medieval and Early Modern periods, Ginzburg recognises the essential role the faeries play in accounts of the sabbath. His use of historical sources to recreate what was really going on at the sabbaths is deeply impressive, and he has single-handedly overturned previous cultural historical theses, that the sabbath was simply an imaginary construct of the ecclesiastic and secular elites to close down on perceived heretics and maintain control over subversive groups. The sabbaths were real, and Ginzburg goes into detail as to how and why the faeries were included in these sacred rituals, facilitating ‘ecstasies’ and accompanying the witches on their metaphysical journeys. This eventually brings us to Ginzburg’s main hypothesis, that the sabbath was a survival of Eurasian prehistoric shamanism. The ‘ecstasies’ were brought about through group altered states of consciousness that enabled the witches to partake in a metaphysical reality for magical purposes… they were travelling to the otherworld, accompanied by their faerie familiars, just as Eurasian shamans had done. Ginzburg convincingly argues the case for continuity from prehistoric shaman to medieval/Early Modern witch.

1845190793In her compelling 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Emma Wilby takes up the baton from Ginzburg and looks in detail at the role ‘familiars’ played in British witchcraft. These were the faeries, associated with both witches and ‘cunning folk’ (white witches). Titus L’s review sums up the trajectory of the work:

“Wilby’s hypothesis is that the faerie encounter narratives of cunning folk and witches recorded in the early modern witch trials, evidence a surviving trend of folk beliefs extending unbroken from a pre christian shamanic world view. Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, 2006, the author makes an overwhelming case for the long term existence of an ancient British-Shamanic tradition. She also re-configures our understanding of witches and cunning folk as animist shamans embedded in local communities. This is an iconoclastic reversal of modern academic opinion that witches experience of spirits and their attested narratives were either the product of mental illness or more likely perhaps an enforced or contrived collusion between the often illiterate prisoner and their elite and educated religious inquisitor. That magical practitioners across the length and breadth of Britain had stood up in courtrooms and persisted in telling long and involved stories about faeries despite the fact that in doing so they often knowingly condemned themselves to death, demonstrates in as definite a way as could be possible the conviction, integrity and respect with which the cunning folk regarded their familiar spirits… the faeries.”

412-the_visions_of_isobel_gowdie_magic_witchcraft_and_dark_shamanism_in_seventeenth-century_scotlandWilby’s work is indeed iconoclastic, and has opened the way for a more esoteric and unconventional take on the faeries amongst academic folklorists and anthropologists. Her 2010 follow up book The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, goes even deeper into the concept of witchcraft as a survival of shamanism, using the compendious records from the trial of the Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie (and her compatriots) in 1662. These records are replete with confessions that talk about faerie familiars and zoomorphic witches, and they give us an unparalleled view into patterns of metaphysical belief in the 17th century. Wilby has an unerring ability to differentiate the real words and beliefs of the accused from witch trial documents, from the presumptions imposed on them by the persecuting Christian elites. Her work makes it very clear that in 17th-century rural communities the faeries were an accepted phenomenon, who played an essential role in the spiritual beliefs and practices of the population; under the radar of Christianity, until the witch hunts caught up with them.

But this metaphysical understanding of the faeries can be taken even further. If we step out of the halls of academia we find some truly cutting-edge interpretations of who the faeries are, and their intimate connection with a prehistoric supernatural1shamanistic tradition. In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock puts forward the hypothesis that the shamanistic cultures of the Stone Age were interacting with entities that to all intents were the same as the faeries of folkloric tradition. Around 30,000 years ago there was an explosion of symbolism in human culture, primarily represented by cave art. This cave art is usually located in hard to access underground spaces that must have had significant meaning for the artists and those who would have been experiencing these strange images by torchlight. And strange they are. Much of the cave art represents therianthropic beings, that is half human, half animal shape-shifters. Hancock makes the convincing argument that these cave paintings were produced to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of the anthropologists David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are motifs by the hundred in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these stone age cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings that coincide with descriptions of faeries in the historic period.

Hancock was building on work done by the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée, who, in his 1969 book Passport to passport-to-magonia_0Magonia, suggested that the folkloric faeries were one and the same as the alien abductors of the 20th (and now the 21st) century. His hypothesis is that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore. He suggests the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. He makes special reference to the regular motifs in faerie-tales of the abduction, by various means, of humans by faeries. There’s a lot of data here – it’s the commonest motif in faerie folklore. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to faerieland in the stories, either as midwives or nurses for faerie children, as servants to the faeries, for sex, as punishment or reward, or just because the faeries feel like it. They were also keen on abducting babies, and replacing them with changelings; wizened old faerie creatures who would usually die before the end of the story if a ruse to return the human baby wasn’t discovered. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the monumentally strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s. Vallée uses a range of evidence to tie-up faerie abductions from folklore and alien abductions from modern reports, and goes as far to state:

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

The Secret Commonwealth was the term coined for the faeries by the Reverend Robert Kirk in a manuscript of 1691, and Vallée spends much time in the book linking the descriptions given by Kirk of the faeries to the portrayals of aliens from the 1950s onwards. Whatever you may think of the alien abduction phenomenon, it is clear that there is much consistent evidence to support Vallée’s claims. It’s a classic book, written (like Graham Hancock’s books) outside the remits of academia, and therefore free to break free of conventions, and tell us some truths without the constraints of academic orthodoxy.

376d03c2902c81a79cc6bfe3a0966316Serena Roney-Dougal takes this theme of the faeries as external agents of interference in human culture and runs with it in her 2002 book The Faery Faith: An Integration of Science with Spirit, which pulls in a range of interpretations to get to the bottom of who the faeries are and their place in the world. It’s a nice blend of New-Age thinking and science, and covers a wide range of ideas, from Jungian analysis to quantum theory, written in luminous prose and with an evident understanding of the elusive nature of the faeries when we attempt to pin them down to a materialistic existence.

Finally, special mention needs to be made of the classic 1978 book Faeries by Brian Froud faeries-by-brian-froud-and-alan-lee-magical-creatures-7836336-325-475and Alan Lee. This is a playful, illustrative romp through faerie-lore, based on the descriptions given by Katherine Briggs in her Encyclopedia of Fairies. Froud and Lee capture the essence of folkloric faeries in their intense and atmospheric images of faeries from Britain and Ireland, always with the prescribed conviction that they are acting on ‘inside information’. There are no gossamer-winged faeries here… they’re real and vital, and the consistent republications of the volume prove the popularity of their vision. Take a look at any website about the faeries, and you’ll find some of their illustrations there. It probably ranks as the bestselling faerie book ever.

There are reams of other books about the faeries, not to mention the ever-spiralling online presence covering faerie-lore in all its aspects, but this summary is intended as an overview of what I think are the best interpretative studies of what the faeries are, where they come from, and what their stories mean. Most of the books discussed here also have good reference sections for further reading. But the faeries are elusive; interpretations can be made, but we’re always left with the distinct impression that we have not quite got to the bottom of things… and that we probably never will.

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Froud and Lee Faeries

A companion piece, looking at filmic representations of the faeries, can be found here: Faeries on Film.

For more books on the faeries take a look at the extensive list on the Fairyist website here. If any readers think there are other books essential to the interpretation of the faeries, not  discussed in this article, then please do leave a comment below.

The cover image is by Polish artist Valentin Rekunenko.

Distancing Ourselves from the Faeries

“The piskies, thought of as little people who appear on moonlight nights, are still somewhat believed in here. If interfered with too much they are said to exhibit almost fiendish powers. In a certain sense they are considered spiritual, but in another sense they are much materialized in the conceptions of the people. Generally speaking, the belief in them has almost died out within the last fifty years.” Richard Harry from Mousehole, Cornwall, quoted in WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).

There is a common thread running through the collected folklore of faeries. Stories and descriptions are frequently couched with the explanation that they happened, or were believed to have happened, a generation or several generations previously. You can find this time and again in the collections of 19th- and 20th-century folklorists, where they come across people willing to tell tales about the faeries, but who locate the action in their ‘grandparent’s time’ or at some indistinct period in the past. Depending on the source, this is usually explained as being because the faeries have drifted out of consensus reality, either due to them not being able to exist alongside humans as they used to, or because humans no longer believe in them. There is a large crossover between these two ideas. This may also be due to the storytellers covering themselves in the face of possible ridicule from the perceived modernistic notions of the folklorists collecting the stories. Whilst there is plenty of evidence for a strong belief in the reality of faeries amongst various types of communities up to the present day, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to share this belief openly with outsiders. It’s less problematic for them to use time to give some distance between themselves and the implicit or explicit belief in supernatural beings.

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The Fairy Tree by Richard Doyle

Slightly surprisingly, this vernacular tactic can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In 1452, thirty-four French villagers were questioned by an ecclesiastical commission about a ‘faerie tree’ (arbor fatalism, gallide des fees) in Domrémy, as part of the process of overturning Joan of Arc’s conviction at the hands of the English/Burgundian Gestapo twenty years earlier. In the face of her inquisitors, Joan herself had offset her own belief in the faeries by apportioning it to her godmother, who had apparently seen the faeries gathering at the tree. And, even though they were under no threat from the commission (quite the opposite in fact), none of the thirty-four interviewees would admit in a belief of the faeries, or that they had ever seen them at the tree. Instead, they informed the commissioners that ‘they had heard that in the old days faeries were said to have been seen there.’ As the villagers would have been well aware of the Spanish Inquisition’s requirement for questioning of anyone who confessed to a belief in faeries, this was probably understandable. But the fact that there was a ‘faerie tree’ to begin with, suggests that there was an ingrained belief in the faeries and their gathering places amongst the 15th-century peasantry.

5194hgzuatl-_sx346_bo1204203200_Richard Firth Green, in his 2016 book Elf Queens and Holy Friars, digs deep into the medieval vernacular belief in faeries, mostly by utilising the surviving texts of mystery plays, to demonstrate that there was a widespread acceptance of the faeries as a supernatural race of beings who interacted with humans on a regular basis. He makes the convincing argument that this was a popular cultural reaction to the ecclesiastical conception of faeries as minor-demons. But other medieval commentators and chroniclers were not so quick to dispatch the faeries to the work of the Devil. In the 12th and 13th centuries, English luminaries such as William of Newburgh, Walter Map and Ralph de Coggeshall wrote extensively about the faeries, without portraying them as demons. William and Ralph both recounted the story of The Green Children (see my take on this here: The Green Children) as a real faerie-story that actually happened, and William tells the story of a 12th-century Yorkshire rustic, who stole a cup from a faerie revel inside a hillock, and then goes on to retrace the subsequent history of the cup (of unknown material) until it ends up in the household of King Henry I. These stories were told as genuine occurrences, by educated men, with a certain acceptance of a supernatural realm that was neither Christian nor diabolic. But again, even here the chroniclers are careful to locate the action in the past, to places and societies slightly removed from their own. This is suggestive of a nervousness amongst the medieval educated class when talking about faeries, but also that accounts of the faeries and their engagement with humans were embedded in the culture, even though it’s difficult to penetrate below the writings of the elite class to that of the vernacular.

By the time of the heyday of folkloric collection in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we find the vernacular popular culture mimicking the circumspection of the medieval chroniclers. Faced with an educated, modern folklorist, the parochial purveyors of stories about the faeries seem to have instinctively distanced themselves from the actual events of the stories. T51dyk2tn99l-_sx334_bo1204203200_he rural people evidently had a deep belief and understanding of how the faeries operated, but when asked to recount their anecdotes, they would tend to disassociate themselves from this conviction by placing the stories in an indefinite period in the recent past. The faultless folklorist, Katherine Briggs gives an example of this from late 19th-century Somerset, which also includes an explanation for why the faeries may have made themselves scarce from everyday interaction with humans. The story is a common folklore motif (F388 in the Aarne-Thompson Index) of the departure of the faeries, told in c.1900 but recounting something that happened a few generations previously:

The farmer of Knighton Farm on Exmoor was on friendly terms with the faeries. They used to thresh his corn for him and do all manner of odd jobs around the farm, until his wife, full of good-will, left suits of clothes for them as a reward. As per usual with the faeries, this was a taboo, and they had to leave. But the faeries evidently still resided in the neighbourhood and retained their affection for the farmer. One day, after the local church bells were hung and rung, an elder faerie made himself manifest to the farmer.

“Will you give us the loan of your horses and cart,” he said.

The farmer was cautious as he’d heard how the faeries could use and abuse horses.

“What do you want them for?” he asked.

“I want to take my kind out of the noise of those ding-dongs, as we cannot stand them.”

The farmer trusted the faeries, who moved over the hill and out of the neighbourhood, and when the two old pack-horses trotted home they looked like beautiful and healthy two-year olds.

15622116_372405709769948_1165554650865587739_nApart from suggesting that the faeries were unable to co-exist with Christianity, this story demonstrates nicely an explicit reason why the faeries have disappeared from a locality, leaving us with an impression that they are real, but that at some point in the past they have removed themselves from everyday intercommunication with humans. This idea extends into the later 20th century, as the Isle of Man folklorist Margaret Killip describes: “The true believers, if they may be called that, for they are never consciously so, require no audience, and in fact possess knowledge they may never tell to anyone. They are far more likely to keep it hidden, but if inadvertently they let slip a hint of familiarity with a supernatural dimension, the person listening experiences a strange sensation, as if a glimpse had been given of a country heard of but hitherto unrealised.”

Indeed, in modern times, a belief in, and knowledge of, the faeries can find distance in anonymity as well as time. In his brilliant 2010 book Somerset Faeries and Pixies: Exploring Their Hidden World, Jon Dathen finds out that there is a vibrant living tradition of faerie-lore in the county, and he allows his interviewees much time and space to give their detailed stories of encounters with the faeries. The people he interviews, however, do not place their stories in the past; they are anecdotes recounted by the people who have experienced them, but none of his interviewees were willing to be identified beyond their Christian name. This appears to be a defence mechanism against their perception of an established orthodoxy that takes a scientific worldview, which does not include supernatural beings. They were simply afraid of ridicule. One intriguing tale is told by ‘Frank’, who had farmed his Somerset land since the second world war, and suggested that the faeries were to be found everywhere, but that people needed to slow their pace of life to encounter them. He describes a winter night when all the family except him were asleep. Hearing noises in the kitchen he crept downstairs. His description of the event is worth quoting in full, as it encapsulates the strangeness of many chance meetings with the faeries:

The fire was raging as if some soul had jiffied it up a bit, so that was the only light in the room. There perched in front of the fire, perched on a three-legged stool was a strange little creature about the size of a cat. I sort of froze. Gave me a turn it did, but I peered and peered trying to make it out. For all the world it looked like a hare done up in clothes as if it were a little old man. He or it had his legs drawn up and his head resting on his knees, with his hands clasped in front of his shins. I edged in the room on all fours to get a better look. Great big long hairy feet with long toes. He had little grey trousers on, and a collared shirt that was too small, a green waistcoat, and on his head a sort of cap, but his face… it was ugly, half hare half human, big bulgy wide hare eyes, a long twitchy nose, plenty of whiskers sticking out all ways, and long hairy ears sticking downwards from either side of his cap… I stood up and made a noise doing so. The little thing turned then, and I don’t know who was more surprised and frightened. He opened his mouth in alarm and there were two big buck hare teeth in there. He said, ‘Ohw,’ as if mortified to be caught out. I thought how ugly and strange he was, but he looked scared so I spoke, ‘Hello, what are you doing here?’

The little thing looked at me and said one word: ‘Cold’. Then he flew from the stool and ran on his hind legs really fast for the door. Before I could rouse myself to move, he was through it and away. I sprang to the door and looked out after him. I saw his queer little shape hightailing it up the road towards the copse. Then he was gone… I’ve since heard tell of hare type pixies from other people, but then hares are magical creatures.

brian_faeries_22The rational response is that Frank was indeed asleep and dreaming, but he reiterates that this was definitely not the case; he was lucid and the adrenaline was coursing through him. This might suggest he experienced the faerie in an altered state of consciousness, perhaps as the result of a natural surge of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, a compound released regularly (probably) through the pineal gland in the brain, but which, under certain circumstances, can flood the brain, causing reality to be observed in a remodelled fashion (I investigate this concept in more detail here: Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT).

But as with Dathen’s other interviewees, Frank was nervous about telling the story and quickly changed tact to talk about some older faerie anecdotes, told to him by his father. This sort of discountenance is a common feature of people recounting modern faerie encounters. Unlike encounters with their technologically updated manifestations, extraterrestrial aliens, confrontations with faeries are beyond the pale within the mainstream. They’ve been safely delegated away to children’s stories, cartoons, folktales and as arbiters of psychological allegories and metaphors. They cannot be allowed safely into our five-sense consensus reality. So if they are not distanced into the past, the observer needs to find the distance of anonymity between themselves and the observation.

With an increasing understanding and interest in non-usual states of consciousness, the spiritual aspects of the natural world, and the strange alternative reality of the quantum realm, this distancing is starting to change. The reductionist, materialistic scientific worldview that has imposed itself on humanity for the last few hundred years is being broken down as a growing number of people explicitly and implicitly investigate aspects of reality that do not fit in with the mainstream paradigm. Despite the degraded reputation of faeries, they appear to be making a comeback, without the need to distance them into an indefinite past or to be embarrassed about describing encounters with them. It seems that they were perhaps here all along… just waiting to be rediscovered for what they really are.

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Here is a nice forum for discussion of Modern Fairy Sightings.

Evans-Wentz’s Celtic Faeries

“If fairies actually exist as invisible beings or intelligences, and our investigations lead us to the tentative hypothesis that they do, they are natural and not supernatural, for nothing which exists can be supernatural; and, therefore, it is our duty to examine the Celtic Fairy Races just as we examine any fact in the visible realm wherein we now live, whether it be a fact of chemistry, of physics or of biology.” WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries

Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) was the sort of character who could only have thrived at the beginning of the 20th century. He’s probably best known these days for bringing the first translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol) to the West. But prior to his travels in Tibet, Nepal and India, he was a self-styled American gentleman (i.e. independently funded) polymath, and between 1907-11 his incarnation was as a folklorist, who travelled around the Celtic bastions of Ireland, Brittany, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, collecting, analysing and interpreting the ‘faerie faith’ in these places. His work was published as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries in 1911, and it remains one of the most important testimonies of the belief in faeries amongst the Celtic peoples, collected at a time when for the majority of the rural population in these areas, faerieland was a bona-fide reality, to be revered and feared in equal measure.

His language can occasionally seem archaic and quaint, but there is no doubt that he imbued himself in the Celtic communities that he spent time with during his years of travels amongst them. He had the time, that a modern anthropologist/folklorist could only dream of, to visit these communities and spend time with them, soaking up their stories and anecdotes, which revealed so much about the deeply ingrained belief in the faeries and the way these entities interacted with consensual reality. In doing so, he gained a great admiration for the rural people he came across, who would tell it like it was.

“The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition,’ and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial and economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural… they have lost all sympathetic and responsive contact with Nature, because unconsciously they have thus permitted conventionality and unnaturalness to insulate them from it.”

This quote is from the introduction to The Fairy-Faith, and it sets out Evans-Wentz’s stall. He was on the side of the rural peasantry who were the repository of the vast wealth of folklore represented in their tales of the faeries. He recognised the innate importance of what they were conveying, and was not shy about convincing his reader of the authenticity of what they told him, even if it was anathema to the conventual scientific and materialistic wisdom of his age.

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Anna Brahms – A Faerie Gathering

Evans-Wentz travelled on foot, visiting remote villages and farmsteads throughout the Celtic countries he visited, as often at night as by day, and would frequently take advantage of his hosts’ hospitality for days at a time, so as to hear as many stories as possible. He would take a local translator with him sometimes, as many of the informants spoke only their native Celtic language. The impression is gained of an extremely affable chap, who, by his own admission, gained the confidence of the countryfolk he visited by dint of being an American and not English! Those opening up to him with traditional stories were most often the oldest people of the communities, and whilst many of the stories were either contemporary or dating back to their youth, others were handed down to them from their parents and grandparents, taking the timeline back as far as the late 18th century. Some are first-hand accounts, whilst others are anecdotal, but there is a strong consistency in themes and motifs, that suggest a folklore ingrained into the belief-systems of those telling the stories. Their reality was physical and psychological, with no apparent need to separate the two.

His natural starting point was Ireland, where he found belief in the faeries (commonly termed aes sídhe in Ireland) most vigorous and unquestioned amongst the rural communities. The following excerpt gives a taste of the evidence and Evans-Wentz’s style of transcription, made especially interesting through its setting at the Neolithic passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth:

“Between Knowth and New Grange I met Maggie Tinunons carrying a pail of butter-milk to her calves. When we stopped on the road to talk, I asked her, in due time, if any of the ‘good people’ ever appeared in the region, or about New Grange, which we could see in the field, and she replied… ‘I am sure the neighbours used to see the good people come out of it at night and in the morning. The good people inherited the fort.’ Then I asked her what the good people are, and she said:- ‘When they disappear they go like fog; they must be something like spirits, or how could they disappear in that way? I knew of people, who would milk in the fields about here and spill milk on the ground for the good people; and pots of potatoes would be put out for the good people at night.'”

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Newgrange Neolithic passage tomb, and home of the faeries

Evans-Wentz collected a multitude of these types of anecdotes, but he also sought out ‘seers’, the members of communities who could give him first-hand accounts of interactions with faeries. He met one such (un-named) Irish mystic in Rosses Point, County Sligo. This seer talks about various types of faeries that inhabit the landscape of Sligo, making them sound like a cross between nature spirits and mystical visions. But Evans-Wentz was just as interested in the mechanics of interacting with the faeries as he was with the stories themselves. How did the seer interface with them?

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

Evans-Wentz then asked him what sort of state was he in when he saw the faeries…

“I have seen them most frequently after being away from a city or town for a few days. The whole west coast of Ireland from Donegal to Kerry seems charged with a magical power, and I find it easiest to see while I am there. I have always found it comparatively easy to see visions while at ancient monuments like New Grange and Dowth, because I think such places are naturally charged with psychical forces, and were for that reason made use of long ago as sacred places. I usually find it possible to throw myself into the mood of seeing; but sometimes visions have forced themselves upon me.”

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The Fairy Glen near Uig, Isle of Skye

In Scotland Evans-Wentz travelled extensively through the Highlands and Islands collecting stories about the faeries. There is a sense that here, as opposed to Ireland, the belief in faeries had diminished amongst the most recent generation, and many of the tales and anecdotes relate to the person’s parents or grandparents. In Uignisb on the Isle of Skye, he came across Miss Frances Tolmie, who had a wealth of faerie-tales from an unspecified period shortly before the present. It includes this one about refusing faerie hospitality. It includes many common motifs and encapsulates well the capricious nature of the Highland faeries:

“Two women were walking toward the Point when one of them, hearing churning going on under a hillock, expressed aloud a wish for some buttermilk. No sooner had she spoken th14233106_318304381846748_399534937570341566_n-2an a very small figure of a woman came out with a bowlful and offered it to her, but the thirsty woman, ignorant of fairy customs and the penalty attending their infringement, declined the kind offer of refreshment, and immediately found herself a prisoner in the hillock. She was led to an apartment containing a chest full of meal and a great bag of wool, and was told by the fairy that when she had eaten all the meal and spun all the wool she would be free to return to her home. The prisoner at once set herself to eating and spinning assiduously, but without apparent result, and despairing of completing the task consulted an old man of very sad countenance who had long been a captive in the hillock. He willingly gave her his advice, which was to wet her left eye with saliva each morning before she settled down to her task. She followed this advice, and gradually the wool and the meal were exhausted. Then the fairy granted her freedom, but in doing so cursed the old man, and said that she had it in her power to keep him in the hillock for ever.”

There were more incidents of vindictiveness amidst the faeries from the Isle of Man, where Evans-Wentz found pockets of the rural population with a firmly entrenched understanding of the faeries. John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey, told a story with the familiar motif of being blinded by the faeries (Aarne-Thompson motif F362.1):

“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: “You’ll never see us again”; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”

The faeries in Wales were usually called Tylwyth Teg, and much of the testimony taken during Evans-Wentz’s Welsh visits concerned their nature, and what they were supposed to be. We’re left with the impression of an amorphous race of spirit beings, who usually tolerate humans in their own environment, but who are quick to vengeance for any perceived wrongs. Through an English translator, John Jones of Pontrhydfendigaid told Evans-Wentz:

“I was born and bred where there was tradition that the Tylwyth Teg lived in holes in the hills, and that none of these Tylwyth Teg was taller than three to four feet. It was a common idea that many of the Tylwyth Teg, forming in a ring, would dance and sing out on the mountain-sides, or on the plain, and that if children should meet with them at such a time they would lose their way and never get out of the ring. If the Tylwyth Teg fancied any particular child they would always keep that child, taking off its clothes and putting them on one of their own children, which was then left in its place. They took only boys, never girls.”

Evans-Wentz interviewed more church ministers in Wales than elsewhere, and it is interesting to note their more rationalised, folkloric tone compared to the village natives. The Rev. TM Morgan, vicar of Newchurch parish, two miles from Carmarthen, was keen to impart a Christian veneer to the faeries but was able to convey a range of faerie folklore gleaned from his parishioners over many decades:

“The Tylwyth Teg were thought to be able to take children. ‘You mind, or the Tylwyth Teg will take you away,’ parents would say to keep their children in the house after dark. It was an opinion, too, that the Tylwyth Teg could transform good children into kings and queens, and bad children into wicked spirits, after such children bad been taken–perhaps in death. The Tylwyth Teg were believed to live in some invisible world to which children on dying might go to be rewarded or punished, according to their behaviour on this earth. Even in this life the Tylwyth Teg had power over children for good or evil. The belief, as these ideas show, was that the Tylwyth Teg were spirits.”

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When Evans-Wentz visited Cornwall, he found a much reduced contemporary belief in faeries (usually termed pixies throughout Cornwall and Devon). Most of the stories he recounts are more evidently overlaid with storytelling tropes, and usually relate to an indefinite past. But he did hear from Miss Susan Gay of Falmouth, who articulates, what was then, a modern and novel metaphysical explanation of these entities derived from the ideas of the Theosophical Society, which had evidently made an impression on Miss Gay in the west of Cornwall:

“The pixies and fairies are little beings in the human form existing on the ‘astral plane’, who may be in the process of evolution; and, as such, I believe people have seen them. The ‘astral plane’ is not known to us now because our psychic faculty of perception has faded out by non-use, and this condition has been brought about by an almost exclusive development of the physical brain; but it is likely that the psychic faculty will develop again in its turn… It is my point of view that there is a basis of truth in the folk-lore. With its remnants of occult learning, magic, charms, and the like, folk-lore seems to be the remains of forgotten psychical facts, rather than history, as it is often called.”

In Brittany Evans-Wentz found that the belief in faeries was intimately woven in with the belief of the spirits of the dead, most commonly termed Corrigans in Breton:

“Like the fairies in Britain and Ireland, the Corrigans and the Cornish pixies find their favourite amusement in the circular dance. When the moon is clear and bright they gather for their frolic near menhirs, and dolmens, and tumuli, and at cross-roads, or even in the open country; and they never miss an opportunity of enticing a mortal passing by to join them. If he happens to be a good-natured man and enters their sport heartily, they treat him quite as a companion, and may even do him some good turn; but if he is not agreeable they will make him dance until he falls down exhausted, and should he commit some act thoroughly displeasing to them he will meet their certain revenge.”

The association of prehistoric sites and faerie activity in Brittany is taken fully on-board by Evans-Wentz, and he highlights the myriad of faerie folklore surrounding Carnac, location of a potent prehistoric landscape of stone rows and burial chambers, as evidence for a mutated ancestor worship; a preservation of deep-seated spiritual beliefs manifesting in the faerie folktales. Especially interesting is the testimony from Madame Marie Ezanno, who lived in Carnac and relayed several narratives of the local corrigans. Note the mention of mushrooms (an implicit reference to the method of seeing the corrigans?), the ritualistic silence during the dance, and the belief that they lived under prehistoric burial mounds:

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Prehistoric stone rows at Carnac, Brittany

“They whistled in order to assemble. Where they danced mushrooms grew; and it was necessary to maintain silence so as not to interrupt them in their dance. They were often very brutal towards a man who fell under their power, and if they had a grudge against him they would make him submit to the greatest tortures. The peasants believed strongly in the corrigans, because they thus saw them and heard them. The corrigans dressed in very coarse white linen cloth. They were mischievous spirits (espirits follets), who lived under dolmens.’

Less than half of The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries is taken up with testimonies. For the remainder Evans-Wentz applies the anthropology of his day in an attempt to explain the specific ethnology of Celtic faeries. He does this through an examination of the written faerie-lore, and then an assessment of the prevalent learned opinions on the reasons for belief in faeries, and the origins for these beliefs. These interpretations run the gamut, and although some of the archaic anthropological terms uses by Evans-Wentz can be disconcerting, he takes us through the main ideas about how the faerie faith was originated and propagated:

  • The faeries are a folk memory of a pre-Celtic race, who lived in liminal environmental areas. This might explain faerie motifs such as kidnapping babies and replacing them with their own changelings. Evans-Wentz suggests that the continuation of changeling-type stories represents the depth of this Celtic folk memory, and retained its power even when the faeries had become non-human spirits.
  • The faeries are dwindled gods, and their stories are corrupted vestiges of Pagan nature worship rituals.
  • The faeries are fallen angels, trapped on earth after the Fall.
  • The faeries are the spirits of the dead. Especially in Brittany, but also throughout the Celtic countries, this was probably the commonest belief of the rural people who told and disseminated the stories.
  • The faeries are simply a different race of metaphysical beings, who interact with humanity on their own terms.

Sensibly, Evans-Wentz comes to the general conclusion that they are all right. But they only work as parts of a whole, where the entirety of faerie belief is constructed from a complex range of influences over large spans of time. And Evans-Wentz consistently emphasises the need to fully understand ‘visions’ of the faeries seen through second-sight or altered states of consciousness, and to incorporate them into any interpretation, because the majority of the stories he heard were either told by seers, about seers, or about someone in an altered state of consciousness. In conclusion he even goes as far as to say: “Fairyland exists as a supernormal state of consciousness into which men and women may enter temporarily in dreams, trances, or in various ecstatic conditions; or for an indefinite period at death.”

Evans-Wentz was well-versed in contemporary theosophist ideas about the true nature of reality, and the part the faeries had in it. Whilst he didn’t attempt to use theosophy to explain the faerie faith, he was open to their idea of using seers and mediums to connect with metaphysical entities, if their testament helped to explain the folklore and the reality of the faeries. Once he began his field research and encountered these seers and mystics first-hand, he became even more convinced that these people were (and had been for centuries) conveying legitimate information about the faeries by altering (purposely or not) their states of consciousness and interacting directly with a metaphysical environment.

But by the time Evans-Wentz made his tour of Celtic countries between 1907-11, both people with the second-sight, and the general belief in faeries was waning. By cataloguing rural stories, anecdotes and theories about the faeries, just before WWI tore apart many of the traditional ways of life, and by doing it in such an open-minded and empathetic manner, he has left us with a rare treasure mine of Celtic faerie data.

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WY Evans-Wentz in Tibetan regalia, c. 1919

The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries has been republished several times, but the full text can be viewed online through the Sacred Texts website: WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries