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.

Swapping Babies: The Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

I have a new article published on the premium section of the Ancient Origins website. It’s an introductory to the faerie changeling phenomenon.

By the end of the 19th 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.

Here is the link to the article: Swapping Babies: The Disturbing Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

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PJ Lynch – A mother threatens a changeling with a roasting

Here is Heather Dale’s musical take on the Changeling Child

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

 

Shamanic Explorations of Supernatural Realms: Cave Art – The Earliest Folklore

Here is a new article on Ancient Origin‘s Premium site. The full article requires subscription but there is an extended preview on the free to view site. It investigates the nature of Palaeolithic cave art, its folkloric motifs, and the altered states of consciousness that ancient shamans used to access supernatural realms, bringing back with them messages that were encoded within the cave art…

Around 30-35,000 years ago there was an explosion of symbolism in Paleolithic human culture around the world, 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 experienced these strange images by torchlight; And strange they are. Whilst many of the images are naturalistic images of humans, mammals and birds, there is also extensive representation of therianthropic beings, that is part human, part animal shape-shifters. There are also many beings that seem to be distorted humans, perhaps better described as humanoid. These images suggest that the Paleolithic artists were attempting to tell stories and incorporate messages and meaning within the stories, which they deemed important. The fact that many of the beings represented in the cave art are of a supernatural quality is symptomatic of what we might call folklore.

Here is the link:

Shamanic Explorations of Supernatural Realms: Cave Art – the Earliest Folklore

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Ancient Origins homepage

Neil Rushton’s author page on Ancient Origins

 

 

The Origins of the Faeries

The website Ancient Origins have been kind enough to add me as a guest author. Below is a link to a new article The Origins of the Faeries.

The faeries appear in folklore from all over the world as metaphysical beings, who, given the right conditions, are able to interact with the physical world. They’re known by many names but there is a conformity to what they represent, and perhaps also to their origins. From the Huldufólk in Iceland to the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland, and the Manitou of Native Americans, these are apparently intelligent entities that live unseen beside us, until their occasional manifestations in this world become encoded into our cultures through folktales, anecdotes and testimonies. In his 1691 treatise on the faeries of Aberfoyle, Scotland, the Reverend Robert Kirk suggested they represented a Secret Commonwealth, living in a parallel reality to ours, with a civilization and morals of their own, only visible to seers and clairvoyants. His assessment fits well with both folktale motifs, and some modern theories about their ancient origins and how they have permeated the collective human consciousness. So who are the faeries, where do they come from, and what do they want?

Here are the article links:

Part 1 – The Origins of the Faeries: Encoded in Culture

Part 2 – The Origins of the Faeries: Changes in Perception

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The Space-Time Continuum in Faerieland

Time moves differently in faerieland. Once they’ve got you to step through the veil to their world, you’re no longer constrained by the usual passage of time. You are, in effect, outside of time. Folklore is very consistent in its portrayal of this phenomenon, where characters setting foot into faerieland are transported into a distinct, separate reality, with its own laws of physics and its own space-time continuum. Why would this be? And what does it mean?

9781445508399_p0_v1_s192x300In the 1891 publication The Science of Fairy Tales, the folklorist Edwin Hartland devoted three chapters to ponder over The Supernatural Lapse of Time in Fairyland. He makes it clear that this motif is deeply embedded in worldwide folklore and mythology from a wide variety of chronological periods. He suggests that the consistency of the story elements involving the strange relative movement of time in faerieland, must stem from a common mythological theme, although he usually stops short of discussing this theme in favour of telling the actual stories. Within these supernatural lapse of time tales there are essentially three ways that time can behave in contradistinction to normal reality: 1. Time stops in the outside world, whilst in faerieland many years can pass with the human participant living a life of enjoyment or suffering with the faeries. The protagonist usually breaks a taboo of some sort and finds themselves back in the real world, where no time has passed. These stories are in the small minority. More often the time dilation moves the other way. 2. This can be quite a drastic shift, so that a character spending days or weeks in faerieland comes back to consensus reality to find decades or even centuries have passed, or, 3. that a few minutes caroling with the faeries turns out to be any length of time up to a year and a day, once they return to the world they came from. Here are examples of each type of time warp, taken from Hartland’s investigations.

1. Shepherds in Wales were commonly transported into faerieland, usually after joining the faeries in a circle dance (see Going Round in Circles for the faerie dance). One 19th-century tale has the lonely shepherd doing just that on a hillside, after which he finds himself in a glittering palace with pleasure gardens, inhabited by the faeries. He lives there for years, even taking the chance to get involved in some romantic attachments with the beguiling black-eyed female faeries. But despite being warned off the fountain, which is filled with gold and silver fish, in the middle of the main garden, he can’t resist overturning the prohibition, and one day, inevitably, he plunges his hands into the water for a drink. Pronto he finds himself back on the cold Welsh hillside with his sheep, during which no time at all seems to have passed.

As mentioned, this sort of time relativity in folklore is the exception to the rule; it usually works the other way round as in 2 and 3 below. Such a story type might represent an adventure experienced whilst in an altered state of consciousness, turned into a folktale that attempts to convey this unusual state of consciousness through conventional ideas about faerieland. The altered state might represent a waking hallucinogenic state or a dream, both of which can allow seemingly long passages of subjective time to take place in seconds or minutes in the real world. This faerie-tale

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Captain Picard as Kamin, in a mind-bending altered state of consciousness

concept was skilfully updated in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Inner Light’, when Captain Picard is rendered unconscious by an alien probe, and then – in his mind – experiences an entire lifetime on the planet Kataan, before finally being brought round on the bridge of the USS Enterprise 25 minutes after being knocked out (end clip from The Inner Light). The insinuation is that what happened in Picard’s mind was as real as his life as captain of the Enterprise, and that his consciousness had had a direct effect on material reality. But this is not the usual way time works in faerie-tales…

2. Hartland records the 18th-century Irish story of Oisín as typical of the second type of time-lapse folktales, recorded throughout Europe and Asia. Oisín is a poet of the Feinn, and falls asleep under an ash tree. He awakes to find Niamh, Queen of Tir na n’Og, the land of perpetual youth, summoning him to join her in her realm as her husband. Loved up, off he goes with her, and finds himself living in a paradise of perpetual summer, where all good things abound, and where time and death hold no sway. But soon he breaks a taboo of standing on a broad flat stone, from where he is able to view the Ireland he left behind. It has changed for the worse, and he begs Niamh to give him leave to return. She reluctantly agrees, but asks that he return after only one day with the mortals. She supplies him with a black horse, which he is not to dismount, and ‘gifted him with wisdom and knowledge far surpassing that of men.’ Once back in Ireland he realises that decades have passed and that he is no longer recognised or known of. Inevitably, he dismounts his horse and immediately his youth is gone and he becomes an enfeebled old man with nothing but his immortal wisdom. There is no returning to the faerieland of the Tir na n’Og. In other variations of the story, the hero turns to dust as soon as his feet touch the ground of consensus reality.

th (1)These folktales seem to suggest that faerieland is the world of the dead, immune from the passage of time, and that return to the world of the living is not possible as the mortal body has aged and decayed in line with the physical laws of this world. In the Japanese tale of Urashima Taro, the hero, when returning home, is even given a casket by his faerie bride, in which his years are locked. When he opens it, his time is up.

These stories articulate a belief in an otherworld that is never heaven, but is apparently ruled over by a race of immortals who can exert control over the consciousness of an individual, who may believe themselves to still be in human form, but are actually already dead and existing in non-material form. It is ultimately the place where the faeries come from; a place untouched by the passage of time and physical death. It could even represent the collective consciousness of humanity made into an understandable form in the stories, immortal in nature and containing all wisdom and knowledge, as suggested in the Oisín tale.

0a79d232f774dc8714724b2de0cba5efThis might be explained by seeing folktales of this type as representing a surviving pagan belief system of the afterlife. This afterlife did not follow the strictures of Christianity or other world religions, and provided an alternative view of what happens to consciousness after death. It is a view that was (in the West) superseded by Christian theology, but that may be surfacing in these folktales as remnants of the previous system of belief (a belief system that remained partially intact but operated underground for fear of religious persecution). The presence of faeries in this otherworld, and their ability to materialise in standard reality, suggests that they were an essential element in pagan ideas about consciousness and that they had a role to play when it came to death. In this theory the characters in the story play the part of messengers, telling us about the true nature of a timeless reality that is distinct and separate from consensus reality, and showing us that human consciousness disassociates from the physical body to exist in a parallel reality such as Tir na n’Og, where the faeries are in charge. This message is encoded in the stories.

The third type of time lapse usually has a less dramatic effect on the protagonist, as they return from an apparently short time in faerieland to a world advanced by either months, or more often by the magical time-span of a year and a day.

3. Hartland records a number of these types of tales from Britain. One was collected in the Scottish Highlands by the folklorist JF Campbell in the 1860s, and includes many of the typical elements. The story involves two men returning home from the town of Lairg, where one of them has just registered the birth of his child in the session books. They sit down to rest at the foot of the hill of Durcha, when music and merriment is heard from within a cavern in the hill. The new father can’t resist investigating and disappears into the hill. On returning home alone, his friend is accused of murder. But a ‘wise man’ suggests he should be able to clear his name by returning to the cavern a year and a day later. He does so, and when he sees a shadow in the cave entrance he grabs it, momentarily revealing his friend dancing in a circle with the music-making faeries. He pulls him out of the circle and the faeries are gone. ‘Could you not have let me finish my reel’ the former captive says, thinking he had only just started dancing with the faeries. He won’t believe that a year and a day have passed until he returns home to find his wife with their year-old child in her arms.

For a similar Welsh story see my previous post: Going Round in Circles: The Faerie Dance

IMG_0001-31Stories of this type rarely say much about the faeries doing the abducting, only that they seemed capable of drawing the participant out of their own world and into an alternative reality with a different space-time continuum. The year and a day motif is important and is a common time-frame appearing in medieval romances as the amount of time protagonists were given to succeed in quests. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer highlights the ancient global concept of the Divine King, who was to be ritually murdered after a period of time in charge, which was often a year and a day. The time period was also used in common law to substantiate the legal situation of unwed couples, and it was (in theory) the amount of time a person living under feudal serfdom needed to be absent from his lord’s manor to gain his freedom. Interestingly, a year and a day is also used in Wiccan and other neo-pagan traditions for the time of learning required before being initiated into the first degree. This may all suggest that the folktales of this type have the year and a day motif embedded within them as a message, conveying the idea that it is a magical time-frame. It was a symbolic time-marker for life quests, ruling over others, decisions being made, learning a tradition, securing a marriage, or gaining freedom as one year tips over into another. It was evidently deeply ingrained in both esoteric tradition and everyday life from an early date, rooted in the cycles of the natural world.

As is the case with this tale from the Highlands, these stories usually include a ‘wise man’ who knows that a year and a day is the time needed to free the abductee from the clasps of the faeries. This sounds like the cunning man recorded in Early Modern witch trials, amongst other sources, a type of magical practitioner steeped in esoteric  Cunning_Folk_and_Familiar_Spiritsknowledge, who operated within the constraints of Christianity, but who was evidently practising pagan sorcery. Emma Wilby in her 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits convincingly puts these people (men and women) within an ancient shamanic visionary tradition, which had as its main remit an understanding of otherworldly spirits, including the faeries. Once again, we can see the folktale embedding these motifs into the stories, below the radar of religious censorship, so as to tell people the truth gleaned from gnostic shamanic beliefs that were evidently alive and well in pre-industrial societies. The repackaged 19th-century folktales were recording these traditions in coded language, perhaps not understood properly by their listeners, but hiding knowledge of metaphysical realities in plain sight, in the form of a good yarn.

The metaphysical realities these stories attempt to convey have formed a specific mythology that attempts to tell us about otherworlds beyond our own. These otherworlds may differ depending on the story but they are all, essentially, talking about transcendence beyond the physical world. And with transcendence the space-time continuum works in a different way, without the constraints of a world of matter, or with a linear time-flow. The inhabitants of this transcendent otherworld are the faeries, who seem to be able to make occasional appearances in our world, but whose own world is one of consciousness, whether a dream, an altered state, the collective human consciousness… or death. The message is that consciousness has no real need of a dimension of time, and that once freed from the physical world, consciousness is able to transfer to an alternative non-physical universe; a universe that used to be called faerieland. It is a pre-religious mythology pointing at a deeper reality, surviving in encoded form in these types of faerie-tales.

Fractal Time