Frightening and Enlightening: The Phenomenology of Modern Faeries

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

Graham Hancock, Supernatural (2005)

As Graham Hancock suggests, the faeries seem to have acculturated themselves alongside humans for a long period of time, adapting their phenomenology to our cultural creeds, but all the while maintaining their own specific metaphysical identity. They appear in folklore through cultural lenses that are distinguished by the worldview of the particular time. This might manifest through prehistoric cave paintings of hallucinogenic supernatural entities, Classical reliefs of human-like nymphs, Christianised medieval tales of marvels, the shapeshifting familiars of Early-Modern witches, or the array of liminal characters only slightly removed from consensus reality into a magical world recorded by 19th- and early 20th-century folklorists. But their presence is persistent. Despite concerted efforts to downgrade the folklore into tales for children during the late 19th and 20th centuries, belief in the ontological reality of faerie entities continues into the 21st century, albeit coded to modern sensibilities. And just as in the faerie folklore of the past, the modern phenomenology of these otherworldly beings is both diverse and elusive – frightening and enlightening.

Modern Faeries

Modern faerie sightings and experiences tend to pass under the mainstream cultural radar. The idea that there may be a parallel species of discarnate beings inhabiting our world and occasionally interacting with us is anathema to the dominant materialistic worldview. And as with anything outside the conventional reality-box, such phenomena are usually dealt with through disparagement – think of the final item on a TV news bulletin with the presenters smiling knowingly at the absurdity of a story. Faeries are particularly susceptible to such treatment due to their debasement into entities that simply do not exist except in the minds of children. However, in recent years – partly due to the internet enabling an exponential growth of alternative information – a new understanding of what the faeries are has begun to emerge, suggesting that their presence through history is not just the product of over-imaginative storytelling, but that rather they are deeply embedded within our collective consciousness, and are able to surface into consensus reality when certain conditions are met.

Part of the problem in tracing modern faeries is that the conditions of their appearances are not usually controllable, and so accounts of interactions with them tend to be anecdotal and unverifiable. Such is the case in what is probably the largest collection of Seeing-Fairies-A-687x1024-2faerie encounters in the 20th century: Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, first published in English in 2014. Johnson (acting on behalf of the Fairy Investigation Society) collected over 500 anecdotal descriptions from people who claimed to have seen or interacted with faeries, and compiled them together with her own experiences. Some of her correspondents were Theosophists, with an avowed history of clairvoyance. But the majority were not, and their honest appraisals of seeing faeries are usually singular events in their otherwise non-clairvoyant lives. Their subjective anecdotes remain contentious as scientific evidence, but they are a fascinating collection of experience reports. The faeries described range from traditional folkloric types to metaphysical nature spirits, occasionally morphing into the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention. Two examples give a flavour of the reports, both from the 1950s; the first (transposed into the third-person by Johnson) from Kent, England by Felicity Royds recounting an experience from when she was nine years old:

“Felicity found she had left some object – her coat or a toy – in the rose garden, and was sent back alone to fetch it. The rose garden was surrounded by thick yew hedges, and at the end of it was a cast-iron gate leading into a thicket of rhododendrons. The object, which she had gone to fetch, was on the grass near this gate, and she had just retrieved it and was turning away, fearful of what may come out of the bushes, when she saw coming through the gate a small man leading a light brown horse. The man was shorter than Felicity and appeared to be wearing a blue tunic with something white at the neck. His skin was very brown, browner than his hair. The pony was about the size of a Shetland but very slender. Although she did not feel frightened, Felicity did not look at the man directly, only out of the corner of her eye. He put his hand on her wrist, and his touch was cool, not cool like a fish or a lizard, but much cooler than a human touch. He led her out of the rose garden and onwards until they were within sight of the house, and then stood still while she went in. She said that she was not musical, but while he held her hand she seemed to be aware of a strain of music that was sweet and high but sounded rather unfinished.”

The second example (slightly abbreviated) is from a Mr Hugh Sheridan, whose encounter was in Ballyboughal, Co. Dublin, Ireland, in 1953. He was walking across fields between his workplace and home at dusk:

“… and when nearing the corner of one of the fields I heard a tittering noise. At first I thought it was some of the other men who had gone on before me and who might be intending to play some prank. However, I noticed immediately afterwards what looked like a large, greenish tarpaulin on the ground, with thousands of faeries on it. I then found there were a lot more around me. They were of two sizes, some about four feet high, and others about eighteen or twenty inches high. Except for size, both kinds were exactly alike. They wore dark, bluish-grey coats, tight at the waist and flared at the hips, with a sort of shoulder cape… the covering of their legs was tight, rather like puttees, and they appeared to be wearing shoes. I started on the path towards home, and the faeries went with me in front and all around. The largest faeries kept nearest to me. The ones in front kept skipping backwards as they went, and their feet appeared to be touching the ground. There were males and females, all seemingly in their early twenties. They had very pleasant faces, with plumper cheeks than those of humans, and the men’s faces were devoid of hair or whiskers… None of the faeries had wings. They tried to get me off the path towards a gateway leading from the field, but just before I reached it I realised they were trying to take me away, so I resisted and turned towards the path again. [After slipping into, and getting out of a dry a ditch, still surrounded by the faeries] I moved towards home with the faeries round me, and they kept the tittering noise all the time. In the end I got to a plank leading across a ditch from one field to another, and suddenly all the faeries went away. They seemed to go back with the noise gradually fading. At one time I had reached out my arms to try to catch them, but I cannot be sure whether they skipped back just out of reach, or whether my hands passed through them without feeling anything. They were smiling and pleasant all the time, and I could see their eyes watching me. When I got home, I found I was about three-quarters of an hour late, but I thought I had been delayed only a few minutes [my emphasis]. While the faeries were with me, I had the rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid. I would very much like to meet them again.”

Most of Johnson’s accounts are from the mid 20th century, but the new incarnation of the Fairy Investigation Society (from 2013) has recently carried out a new survey into faerie sightings, using a standardised recording form. Whilst still reliant on anecdotal reports, and the honesty of participants, this census has currently compiled nearly 500 accounts of faerie encounters and the results will elucidate contemporary patterns of sightings in a searchable online format.

The Wollaton Park Gnomes

One of the more bizarre modern faerie encounters happened at Wollaton Park in Nottingham on 23 September 1979. It includes various traditional folkloric faerie motifs, but is overlain with some strange and anomalous features, which give it an edge of authenticity, especially as it was reported by a group of seven children between 8-10 years, who stuck rigorously to their story even when separated and questioned by their headmaster. The consistency of their testimonies is particularly impressive, despite some of the aberrant qualities of the account. Their testimonies were recorded on tape by the headmaster a few days after the event, and the transcriptions can be found here, recorded for posterity by Simon Young.

The incident happened during the early evening, just as it was getting dark. The children were playing close to a fenced-off marshy area of the park with ponds (how many children of this age would be allowed to wander around on their own in such a location at dusk today? But this was the 1970s). Without warning, there appeared about thirty small cars, each containing two gnome-like creatures, that is, with ‘bobbled nightcaps’, beards, wrinkly skin, and dressed in coloured jerkins. One of the older children described them as: ‘about half the size of me and they had long white beards with red at the bottom and they had little white and red cars and they were chasing us.’ The cars were silent and seemed able to defy the laws of physics by floating over logs on the ground. Although the gnomic cars chased the children they were consistently described as being friendly and the whole encounter seemed like a game with the gnomes laughing, although when the two youngest children fell over in the marsh they became frightened. One of the only discrepancies in the testimonies is that five of the children said the gnomes were, apart from laughing, consistently silent throughout, whereas two children described them as talking in some type of foreign language. The cars were described as having triangular lights and some sort of button instead of a steering wheel. After about fifteen minutes, soon after the two youngsters fell in the marsh, the children ran off and the gnomes disappeared back into the trees.

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One of the children’s renditions of the Wollaton Park gnomes

The gnomes in this encounter seem to adhere to a fairly traditional folkloric appearance, but, of course, their levitating cars give them some modern cultural coding. If the incident is taken at face-value it could be seen as an updated version of many folklore anecdotes and stories that involve wizened gnomic faeries, behaving in a slightly irrational manner. Their manifestation in woodland and at dusk also locks in with the usual habitat and aphotic preferences of folkloric gnomes. Their materialisation to children is also important. The transcripts clearly demonstrate that the children, whilst startled by the encounter, were able to accept it without the rationalisation that might be expected of an adult. They viewed it as weird, but not unnatural. Perhaps this was simply a case of the children tuning into to the gloaming, woodland atmosphere and experiencing a non-material reality, acculturated for them by their watching (the very hallucinogenic) Big Ears and Noddy on the television.

Interestingly, Marjorie Johnson includes two more anecdotes of gnomic faeries (sans cars) in Wollaton Park in Seeing Fairies. The first detailed account is by Jean Dixon from the 1950s, where she explains how a group of gnomes led her around the park, showing her the natural features that they helped to maintain. This episode relates like an altered state of consciousness (see below) with the protagonist described as being ‘in a pensive mood’ prior to the experience, and perhaps liable to drift into a daydream state conducive to metaphysical visualisation. The second encounter happened in 1900 when a Mrs George “was passing Wollaton Park gates when she saw some little men dressed like policemen… They were smiling and looking very happy. They hadn’t any wings, and as far as I can remember they were between two and three feet in height.” It would seem that this particular park may be a significant place, where human consciousness interacts with something incorporeal if freed from the learned cultural constraints of reductionism.

Psychedelic Faeries

Such constraints can also be purposefully lifted by direct intervention into human states of consciousness – usually with the aid of a chemical agent. Most especially the psychedelic compounds tryptamines, phenethylamines and ergotamines reliably alter human consciousness and can enable it to interact with discarnate beings. There is a growing literature on this phenomenon, and it is clear that many of the psychedelically encountered entities can be classed ontologically as faeries. Terence McKenna was an enthusiastic advocate of these substances and wrote extensively about the landscapes and inhabitants of the otherworld invoked by mind-altering substances. He coined the term ‘self-transforming machine-elves’, to describe the entities that seemed to reside consistently in this chemically-induced world:

“Yes, first come the dancing mice, the little candies, the colored grids, and so-forth and so-on. But what eventually happens, quickly, like ten minutes later, is there is an entity in the trance, in the vision. There is a mind there, waiting, that speaks good English, and invites you up into its room… I come into a place. It’s hard to describe. It’s a feeling. And the content of the feeling is, ‘now the elves are near.’ But they won’t appear unless I invoke them… Trying to describe them isn’t easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jeweled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there’s a cheer! Pink Floyd has a song, The Gnomes Have Learned a New Way to Say Hooray. Then they come forward and tell you, ‘Do not give way to amazement. Do not abandon yourself.’ You’re amazingly astonished. The most conservative explanation for these elves, since these things are speaking English and are intelligent, is that they’re some kind of human beings. They’re obviously not like you and me, so they’re either the prenatal or postmortal phase of human existence, or maybe both.”

This quote is included in Jon Hanna‘s extensive 2012 survey of people who have contacted metaphysical entities while under the influence of a variety of psychedelics, most especially Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

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‘Invaders’ by Naoto Hattori

Hanna’s survey, using experience reports from the website Erowid, found that 1,159 of 22,640 reports included mention of contact with entities or beings. A large proportion of these entities are what might be termed, ontologically, as faeries. Some of the reports chime with McKenna’s description of machine-elves, creatures that, while matching some of the qualities of folkloric faeries, often appeared mechanical and artificial. This might be another example of the faeries updating themselves to our cultural expectations; transforming themselves into a new technologically revised version of their former selves.

This certainly seems to have been the case in what remains the most rigorous study of entity contact by research participants injected with the potent psychoactive compound DMT. The research study was conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Dmt-The-Spirit-Molecule-Strassman-Rick-9781452601458Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman. It found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent physical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she described as ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not an hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy. Strassman published the results as DMT: The Spirit Molecule, and there is a 2010 documentary of the study, presented by Joe Rogan.

The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. It’s worth reading the book or watching the documentary to get the full range of what are incredible records of accessing very different realities. There is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants. Here is an abbreviated version of one of the volunteer’s description of his experience; 50 year old Jeremiah. After hurtling through a void he found himself:

“… in a nursery. A high-tech nursery with a single Gumby, three feet tall, attending me. I felt like an infant. Not a human infant, but an infant relative to the intelligence represented by the Gumby. It was aware of me but not particularly concerned… Then I heard two or three male voices talking. I heard one of them say “he’s arrived.” … I was in a big room… there was one big machine in the center, with round conduits, almost writhing – not like a snake, more in a technical manner. The machine felt as if it were rewiring me, reprogramming me… This is real. It’s totally unexpected, quite constant and objective… an independent, constant reality… I’m lucid and sober.”

In his 2011 review of the phenomenology and ontology of entities experienced on DMT, David Luke uses Strassman’s findings, but also expands the remit to include a wealth of other literature on the subject. Luke makes it clear that there seems to be an ubiquity of faerie-type creatures in the DMT-world: “Encounters with elves, gnomes, pixies, dwarfs, imps, goblins and other ‘little people’ (though clearly not human people), are extremely prevalent. Indeed on my first experience with DMT, unaware of virtually all lore associated with it, I found myself, eyes closed, being stuffed full of light by what I can only describe as little elves.”

But is it real? Building on a study carried out by Peter Meyer in 1994, Luke gets to the crux of the issue of psychedelically-induced faeries (and by extension all faerie encounters) and suggests there are three interpretations for what is happening:

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

Of course, all three interpretations may be true at different times, but whatever conclusions are drawn, there does appear to be a pantheon of faerie-types accessible to people who retune their consciousness with psychedelic compounds.

The Faeries as Aliens

These three explanations may apply equally to the most extreme examples of potential faerie acculturation – the consistently bizarre phenomenon of alien abductions. Whilst abductees are seldom reported as having taken any psychoactive substance, one hypothesis is that their experiences are generated by an endogenous increase of DMT in their brains. David Luke explains that the production of DMT in the body is speculated to occur through the conversion of the simpler molecule tryptophan into tryptamine and then into DMT, the tryptophan being available from the diet as an essential amino acid. Such bio-synthesis has been observed in plants and is speculated to occur in humans, but it remains unknown where, for certain, this bio-synthesis occurs. One hypothesis holds that DMT manufacture occurs at the pineal gland, but this remains unproven. Wherever it comes from, if released in larger amounts than usual, it may be the natural psychedelic that allows the abduction scenarios, which often show marked similarities to folkloric faerie encounters (usually labelled under the Aarne-Thompson motifs F.324 and F.329). The alien greys may be simply high-tech faeries, updated for our modern sic-fi tastes, and accessed via an altered state of consciousness.

1magonijaIndeed, in his 1969 book Passport to Magonia, the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée – whilst holding back on any definitive conclusions about the objective/subjective nature of alien abductions – put forward the theory that the alien beings who had been purportedly abducting people around the world for a couple of decades by that date were one and the same as the faeries of European folklore. 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. Vallée points out that Kirk’s descriptions of the faeries and their modus operandi bear more than a passing resemblance to the alien visitors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Amongst Kirk’s faerie attributes were an ability to float through the air with insubstantial and fluid bodies, that they could make appear and disappear at will. This allowed them to ‘swim’ through the air and carry off mortals, usually to large circular abodes, that Kirk presumed were underground, and which were lit by a dim, unknown illumination. They even had ‘ætheriall vehicles’ to carry them around the sky. Kirk also asserted that the faeries had a nature intermediate between humans and angels.

Their habit of abducting humans was usually for the purpose of wet-nursing faerie children or as midwives; a theme that fits in with the deluge of recent alien abduction reports (mostly unknown to Vallée in 1969) that would suggest one of the main reasons for abduction is to obtain wet-nurses for hybrid human-alien offspring. In 2005, Graham Hancock followed Vallée’s lead and took the comparison of faerie and alien abduction much further in his book Supernatural. He compiled a range of faerie folklore from various time periods and geographical locations and set them against modern-day alien abduction events. He pays special attention to the faerie abduction of young women, such as Mrs Sheridan, an Irish woman, who seems to have spent much of the last decade of the 19th century being whisked off by the fairies for wet-nursing duties:

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

These ‘long-faced’ faeries had a definite purpose for kidnapping her and weren’t too concerned with her tearful appeals to release her – she had a job to do, and that was feeding their faerie babies. The correlation between these types of folkloric encounters and the modern alien abductions of women is striking. Hancock surveys the work of the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack and the cultural historian David Jacobs, who have made extensive studies of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, often using ALIEN-3hypnotic techniques to extract memories from amnesic events. It’s a minefield subject, but John Mack in particular is a convincing advocate of the notion that whatever the experiences represent, they are genuinely real to the participant. One common motif involves the abductee, after being floated or beamed aboard the UFO, being taken to a part of the ship where there seem to be drawers or tanks of hybrid alien-human babies, which they are expected to nurse. There is a consistency to these experiences (there are thousands of them) that provides a dataset of testimony that Mack and Jacobs insist must be taken seriously as a phenomenon. For the abductees, the experience is often highly traumatic (Mack states that the best psychiatric diagnosis for many abductees is post-traumatic stress disorder), and no wonder, when they are confronted with alien hybrids often described as more like foetuses than babies. One abductee described to Mack their appearance, which is fairly typical: “Their bodies were short for their heads. Their heads seemed oversized. They had very blue eyes. They had very thin, wispy hair… I would say they were probably three and a half feet tall, but they all looked the same age. ‘You’re our mother and we need you,’ they said.”

The evidence presented by Vallée and Hancock makes a convincing argument for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Once again, the encounters are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and suggest the possibility of a common source for the phenomena, however the participants arrive at their experience.

The Faeries as Nature Spirits

Alien abductions are most often terrifying experiences for the participants, and do correlate with some of the more malicious episodes in faerie folklore. But modern faerie contact can take an altogether more benign and constructive form when the faeries are engaged as nature spirits. There is a long tradition of the faeries representing non-material forces of nature, essential to the propagation of nature. The 15th-century alchemist Paracelsus developed an epistemology of these beings, but it was not until the incorporation of these ideas through the Theosophist movement in the late 19th century that the concept of a metaphysical realm responsible for the wellbeing of the natural world gained a wider understanding. One of the prime-disseminators of the nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. Once again, this was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:

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

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

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Ylenia Viola – ‘Spring Awakening’ Fairytalesneverdie.com

But Steiner’s vision of the faeries as nature spirits has found many adherents in modern times, and a brief perusal of recent literature and websites devoted to the faeries seems to confirm that a majority of people interacting with these entities do so using some form of clairvoyant ability, and that when they do, the faeries are nature spirits. A good example is Marko Pogačnik, a Slovenian artist and ‘earth healer’, who travels the world to connect with the nature spirits, in order to communicate with them and heal damaged landscapes. His overview of how he works with the intelligence in nature is best found in his 1996 publication Nature Spirits and Elemental Beings, where he describes tuning into the morphogenetic fields surrounding landscapes and individual components within them. One of the ways he heals these landscapes is through what he calls lithopuncture, art installations of standing stones, meant to act upon the earth in the same way as acupuncture works on the human (or animal) body. This links us clearly to prehistoric morphological designs, such as stone circles and rows. Marko suggests that our prehistoric ancestors were full-time collaborators with the nature spirits, and were using their own lithopuncture partly to induce harmony and regulation to their surrounding environments. Post-industrial ignorance of the invisible intelligence in nature has created a disconnection with natural landscapes, much to the detriment of all life and the earth’s biosphere itself:

“The rational scientific paradigm has, during the last two centuries, imposed upon humanity a pattern of ignorance towards those beings and dimensions of life that do not know physical appearance and yet are inevitable for life processes to run and to evolve. My effort as an artist and a human being is to get intimate experience of those invisible dimensions and beings, and share the experience and knowledge about the invisible worlds of Earth and Universe with my fellow human beings to change that extremely dangerous pattern that ignores the sources of life itself.”

Pogačnik’s meditative clairvoyance penetrates the materiality of nature and sees what is happening at a metaphysical level; a level where the elementals appear in a vast variety of forms, but usually adhering to the general forms outlined by Steiner. Pogačnik’s incisive, easy and honest style of description allows for a deep insight into the cosmic reality of the mechanisms of interaction with these faerie nature spirits. He describes how seemingly innocuous changes to the natural environment can cause a potentially negative impact on the elementals who constitute the metaphysical aspect of that environment. His natural clairvoyant abilities enable him to contact the faeries and to resolve issues with them – even something as simple as moving a compost heap in a garden might force the elemental inhabiters of the compost to an unfamiliar environment, where they might cause mischief as a reaction to their perceived persecution. He suggests that these beings of a different order are unable to follow our rationalised thinking: “Their consciousness works on the emotional level. They think the way we feel, and the opposite is also true: our mental level is like a foreign language to them.”

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Marko Pogačnik’s rendering of some unhappy fire spirit faeries (salamanders) displaced to the top of an apple tree from their compost heap

Like Steiner, Pogačnik suggests that all humans have the congenital ability to enter a state of consciousness that will allow interaction with the nature spirits, but that this requires a lowering of the mental threshold. If we want faerie interaction our ingrained reductionist belief system needs to be dissolved or suppressed, and we must enter a meditative state, free from the usual intrusions of normal rational thinking. Perhaps one reason why it is children who so often see and interact with faeries is that this rationality is as yet not fully formed and ingrained; their consciousness is simply more able and prone to slip into a daydream state, where there is less separation between the physical and the metaphysical.

Locating Modern Faeries

It would seem that modern faeries are potentially as diverse as their historic folkloric counterparts. They have survived the downgrading into harmless children’s fables and re-emerged in a variety of forms that continue to defy straightforward explanations or interpretations. Indeed, there is the possibility that there is a straight evolutionary line from the supernatural entities decorating prehistoric caves to the abstruse creatures that make up the modern folklore of alien abductions. This apparent acculturation of the faeries over time might be put down to the development of our own psychogenetic outlook, or it may be predicated on them adapting to us, if they constitute part of a stand-alone metaphysical reality.

This brings us back to Meyer and Luke’s three-part interpretation of what these discarnate entities might represent: subjective hallucinations, transpersonal psychological manifestations, or otherworldly beings interacting with our own material reality on their own terms. It would seem we are unlikely to come to a definitive conclusion about what they really are any time soon; the faeries continue to elude us, remaining, as they have always done, on the liminal bounds of human consciousness, sometimes frightening, sometimes enlightening, but never leaving us alone.

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For discussion and dialogue on the phenomenology of modern faeries, readers might be interested in visiting the Facebook page Modern Fairy Sightings.

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Terence McKenna’s ‘Self-Transforming Machine Elf’

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.

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

Author Profile

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Going Round in Circles: The Faerie Dance

“I realise we may not even have begun to understand what is going on with the phenomenon known as the fairy dance. Still, I repeat my suggestion that it feels like some sort of technology for jumping between worlds, and in particular for entering and leaving this one.” Graham Hancock, Supernatural (2005)

william-sullivan-fairy-danceAt the end of the excellent documentary The Fairy Faith, the narrator, John Walker, goes with Marie-Rose and her daughter April, to a forest river in Cape Breton Island, Canada, to hear about their faerie encounter several years previously. It’s quite clear that they are authentic, and genuinely recalling the experience as best they can. The encounter consisted mostly of hearing music and singing — Marie-Rose was evidently afraid of the phenomenon and dragged her children away from the river and into the car to get away. As they drove away, April watched out the back window as a group of small faeries were: “jumping around in a circle, holding hands. They were singing… and dancing in a circle. They sort of mixed right in with the background, and I don’t know whether they were see-through or what.”

This is an interesting modern testimony of a very common faerie practice, recorded by folklorists as motifs 261.1.1 – faeries dance in faerie ring, and 262.10.2 – faerie music issues from faerie ring. There are hundreds of stories that include this circular dancing favoured by the faeries, usually with the embedded idea that it’s dangerous to go near them, or even watch them, whilst they are doing it. The proliferance of this motif in faerie-tales suggests it has an important meaning, both to the faeries and to the deeper understanding of the story. It is like a hidden code, installed into the story for those who might look for it and learn from it.

One of the most common folktales of this type involves someone being trapped within the circle of dancing faeries, either by their own volition or by mistake. The Welsh tale Rhys at the Fairy Dance has many variants, and is a typical example of the tale. It tells the story of Rhys and Llywelyn, who, whilst walking home through a wood, were separated after Rhys rushed away when he heard some ‘enchanted music.’ Llywelyn goes home and leaves him, but when check is made next morning Rhys is still missing. Llywelyn is thrown into jail for suspected murder…

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… Things remained thus for nearly a year, when a newcomer into the neighbourhood, who had some experience of fairy ways and customs, suggested that he and a company of neighbours should go with Llywelyn to the place where he had parted from Rhys. This was agreed to and they came to a faerie ring.

“This is the very spot,” said Llywelyn, “and hush, I hear music; melodious harps I hear.”

The whole company listened, but could hear nothing, and told Llywelyn so.

“Put your foot on mine, David,” said Llywelyn, whose foot was now upon the outward edge of the faerie circle, to one of the company. David put his foot on Llywelyn’s, and so did they all, one after another: and then they heard the sound of many harps in full concert, and saw within the circle a number. of little figures enjoying themselves vastly. They were dancing round and round the ring with hands joined, and among them was Rhys, footing it with the best of them. As he came whirling by, Llywelyn seized hold of his smock frock and switched him out of the circle, taking great care not to overstep the edge of the ring.

Full text of Rhys at the Faerie Dance – Thomas Keightley, 1870

Once out of the ring Rhys insisted he’d only been dancing for about five minutes, and that he was keen to continue. But the company took him home, and as happens in many of these stories, he became depressed, sickened and died soon after.

William_Holmes_Sullivan_-_The_Fairy_Ring;_the_Enchanted_PiperAnother Welsh story tells of a shepherd playing his flute on a hillside:

“… when he was surrounded at a distance by little beings like men, who closed nearer and nearer to him until they became a very small circle. They sang and danced, and so affected him that he quite lost himself.”

Again, his perception of the singing and dancing lasting only minutes is dispelled when he returns home to find three weeks have passed.

These folktales were recorded in the 19th century, but they hold up a mirror to earlier beliefs and perceptions of what the faeries were and what they got up to. The stories of faeries dancing in circles also find common ground in eyewitness descriptions of the same time period, such as that of David Evans and a friend who, in 1862, were walking in the hills of Carmarthenshire in Wales when they saw a troupe of about fifty ‘small people’ walking up a hillside. When they reached the top they formed into a circle…

… After dancing for a short time, one of the dancers turned into the middle of the circle, followed by the others, one by one till they appeared like a gimblet screw. Then they disappeared into the ground. After a while one of them reappeared again, and looked about him in every direction as a rat, and the others followed him one by one and did the same. Then they danced for some time as before, and vanished into the ground as they had done the first time.

From  Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (2007).

Of course, it would be easy to dismiss both folktales and eyewitness sightings of dancing faeries as works of pure imagination and/or misperceptions of natural phenomena. But the universality of the circular dancing theme trumps such a reductionist view — there’s got to be more going on to the faeries dance to imprint the idea so vividly in the collective memory.

One theory is that the faerie dance was an otherworldy mimicking of circle dances attested to since the medieval period and earlier, such as in this Italian version from the 14th century.

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The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Siena, 1340

The circle dance was certainly of ancient origin and common throughout the world. It would have been only a small leap of storytelling imagination to transfer the popular forms of dancing in a circle into the culture of the faeries. Modern circle dances such as the kalamatianos from Greece, the mayim mayim of Israel and the Catalonian  sardana dance probably had their genesis in earlier forms, and give an idea of the energy, togetherness and social cohesion that can be achieved by linking hands, forming a circle and moving in a choreographed way to music and singing. A particularly interesting modern manifestation is the Sacred Circle Dance, brought from Eastern Europe in the 1970s by Bernard Wosien, first to the alternative community of Findhorn in Scotland, from where it has spread worldwide. Here is a video of the Findhorn Sacred Circle Dance in 2012. It’s not quite clear what the ‘sacred’ represents, but I think it might be bringing us a little closer to the meaning behind the faerie circle dance.

Many circle dances incorporate various ritualised elements, such as placing flowers in the centre, the passing of handkerchiefs between participants and adherence to numbered steps whilst dancing. These elements look like fossilized versions of earlier practices… practices that may have been about taking the participants of the dance into an otherworld through altering their states of consciousness.

The Saan people of Southern Africa continue to use the ritual circle dance of their ancestors for this very specific purpose. The archaeologist David Lewis-Williams describes the dance:

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Saan rock art depicting a healing circle dance, c.1000 BCE

The most important Saan ritual was the healing or trance dance. These dances continue to be practised amongst San groups living in the Kalahari today. Dancers stomp in a circle around the campfire for many hours. The women clap the rhythm of the dance and sing powerful songs. After hours of stomping, some dancers start to slip into trance or half-trance. In this altered state of consciousness many have out-of-body experiences. They describe travelling to the spirit realm. The shamans push themselves towards an altered state of consciousness; they enter ‘half-death’. They attain ecstasy simply by means of their dancing, concentration and hyperventilation, with the help of the women’s insistent, complexly rhythmic singing and clapping.

This continuity of the circle dance in Southern Africa, unchanged in its basic format for millennia, may suggest how other circular dances developed elsewhere in the world. The dances of medieval and modern Europe may be remnants of an earlier form of prehistoric shamanic dance, designed to alter the state of consciousness of its participants, just as it still does for the Saan people. We cannot find a direct archaeological route into prehistoric ritual dance, but the Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles of Western Europe are highly suggestive of monuments built for a ritual that involved circular movement.

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The Avebury Circle Dance from the TV series Children of the Stones (1977)

In the mind-bending 1977 TV series Children of the Stones (the sort of crazy 1970s children’s television that will leave you dropping your jaw if you’ve never seen it… you can give it a try here Children of the Stones full series), a secret sect uses the energy of the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury to create power for their own nefarious purposes. The painting shown here hangs on the wall of the sect’s leader, and is constantly referred to visually in the series. It shows the stone circle in its prehistoric heyday, a beam of light being generated from the centre by the whirling circular dancing of people. This might be a case of fiction getting close to the truth, with the idea that frenetic circular dancing was a technique to unlock an energy, whatever that energy might be. Folklore certainly embeds the notion that dancing is intimately associated with stone circles. Many stone circles come complete with a legend that the stones are petrified dancers, a pagan theme christianised by stating that the dancers were punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan in Cornwall is a good example, where the story tells us that the nineteen stones are young girls turned to stone for non-observance of the Sabbath. In this case there are even two outlier stones, that take the part of pipers in the story (see A modern antiquarian’s view of the Merry Maidens).

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The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan, Cornwall, c.2000 BCE

These petrification stories can be multiplied many times at other stone circles, especially in Britain. It’s not too much of an interpretative stretch to suggest that these folktales represent a mythic memory of one of their original purposes – circular sacred spaces for circle dancing. For whilst the stone circles would have been used for various purposes, their shape suggests rituals that saw the circle as sacred – a representation of wholeness and infinity that would have found manifestation in physical activity in and around them. A place to dance to music and singing may have been the main reason for their construction. And in shamanic cultures such dancing was just another method (either alongside or instead of ingesting psychoactive plants) to alter states of consciousness so as to be able to interact with the otherworld of spirit.
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So what are the faerie circle dances? One neat theory is that the faeries are one and the same as our psychedelic prehistoric ancestors. Their intense circular dances have embedded them into certain parts of the landscape through the latent emotional energy they generated, to be tapped into by sensitive or stoned individuals in touch with the Collective Unconscious of humanity. The common folkloric motif of people finding themselves trapped within the circles is nothing less than a shamanic experience of travelling to a dimension of reality separated from our own only by a malleable membrane. The sense of unreality and time distortions that usually occur to the protagonists in these stories are very suggestive of an altered state of consciousness. They interact with otherworldly beings, they hear supernal music, and they become caught up in this world completely, to the extent that their perception of the passage of time is altered radically.

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Psilocybin faerie ring

It is interesting that the grass circles known colloquially as faerie rings are caused by sub-surface fungal growth, and that many of these rings come complete with above-surface psychoactive mushrooms such as the amanita muscaria and psilocybin. These rings are intimately connected to the folklore of the faerie dance, acting as observable physical markers in the environment for the stories. And whatever the objective reality of the faeries dancing within the rings, the fungal association is highly suggestive that the human protagonists were able to collude with them after partaking of psychotropic mushrooms and entering a non-usual state of consciousness.

This takes us back to the point – what are these faerie-tales about circle dances trying to tell us? The circularity of the dance is evidently important and represents wholeness, oneness, eternity and a complete closed system. The circle may also represent what Graham Hancock calls ring portals, circles of energy providing access to and from this 4D world and whatever dimension the faeries hang out in. But the deep message seems to lie in the circle. These otherworldy faeries may be attempting to convey a message about the importance of understanding the never-ending circularity of life, wisdom better understood by our stone-age ancestors. The message might come in a folktale, or through a reported sighting… or you might find yourself in the circle after nibbling some mushrooms, and unable to resist the music and dancing of the little people who seem to have magically appeared within your reality.

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17th-century woodcut of faeries in a circle dance outside their hollow hill, with an amanita muscaria mushroom in the foreground

Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT

Who are the faeries? In 1969, the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee, in his book Passport to Magonia, put forward the theory that they were one and the same as the alien beings who had been purportedly abducting people around the world for a couple of decades by that date.

passport-to-magonia_0His 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. Vallee 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. Rumour is that Kirk himself was taken by the faeries for revealing too many of their secrets, but not before leaving us with a detailed description of their appearance, habits and exploits. It’s a remarkable and deeply strange (in a good way) book that was evidently produced by a man either psychologically disturbed or psychically enhanced… or both. A full version of the book with an introduction is here: The Secret Commonwealth, and there is a fuller investigation of Kirk and his writings in another blog post here. But, as Vallee points out, Kirk’s descriptions of the faeries and their modus operandi bear more than a passing resemblance to the alien visitors of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Amongst their attributes were an ability to float through the air with insubstantial and fluid bodies, that they could make appear and disappear at will. This allowed them to ‘swim’ through the air and carry off mortals, usually to large circular abodes, that Kirk presumed were underground, and which were lit by a dim, unknown illumination. They even had ‘ætheriall vehicles’ to carry them around the sky. Kirk also asserted that the faeries had a nature intermediate between humans and angels.

Their habit of abducting humans was usually for the purpose of wet-nursing faerie children or as midwives; a theme that fits in with the deluge of recent alien abduction reports (mostly unknown to Vallee in 1969) that would suggest one of the main reasons for abduction is to obtain wet-nurses for hybrid human-alien offspring. Vallee quotes the 19th-century folklorist Edwin Hartland’s suggestion that such a programme of hybridisation was right up the faerie’s street:

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence presented by Jacques Vallee and Graham Hancock makes a convincing argument for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 21st century. The experiences are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and suggest a common source for the phenomena. But what is that source? Are there really faeries and aliens who are able to abduct humans at will? And if there are, where do they hang out when they’re not on abduction duty? This is where things need to get deeper… much deeper.

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Cave paintings from Hunan Province, China, c.10,000 BCE

Not content with suggesting that alien abductions are modern folkloric faerie-tales for our technological age, Graham Hancock puts forward the hypothesis that the shamanistic cultures of the Stone Age were also interacting with these beings. Around 50,000 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. There are also many beings that seem to be distorted humans, sometimes even suggesting the ‘Greys’ of alien abduction reports. And this gets to the core of the subject. 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. Lewis-Williams’ exhaustive study of this phenomenon is nicely summarised here: Art, Shamanism and Entoptic Images. 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.

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Cave painting showing entoptic imagery from Pech Merle cave, France, c.25,000 BCE
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Rock shelter art from Nawarla Gabarnmung, Australia, c.30,000 BCE

These works of art are manifest throughout the world over a vast prehistoric time period and demonstrate a universality of experience, from the entoptic images (dots, spirals and geometric patterns) frequently seen by trippers, through to the imagery of time-lapse perception, often called tracers. It is convincing evidence that our prehistoric ancestors were dabbling with psychotropic plants and mushrooms in order to gain a state of consciousness that was fundamentally important to them. The cave paintings could be seen as the earliest folklore, told in pictures. Further investigation into the cultures of modern indigenous tribes confirms the importance of induced changes in conscious perception, to what are still shamanistic peoples. The best example is the extensive use of the substance Ayahausca by Amazonian tribes. Here is a brew that might make you projectile vomit and clean out your bowels, but which also reveals a reality that includes many non-human intelligences (usually called simply ‘spirits’ by the shamans), that can be interacted with directly. There is usually a highly-charged feminine element to the Ayahausca experience, but reports will also consistently describe therianthropic beings, reptiles, the ability to fly and yes, even grey humanoids with big black almond eyes.

This brings us back to the source of all these experiences. If shaman spirits, faeries and aliens are all part of the same phenomenon, what is that phenomenon? The evidence from modern and archaic shamanistic cultures confirms that an altered state of consciousness was/is required to access the places where the ‘spirits’ lived. It’s more difficult to prove that faerie-tales were generated from information gathered in an altered state, but there is a predominance of mushroom imagery historically associated with the faeries, most especially the highly psychedelic red and white Amanita Muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom, and the psilocybin mushroom, both prevalent in Europe and Asia. These may have been responsible for purposeful or accidental psychedelic trips, but there are a range of other triggers for altering states of consciousness (such as sleep deprivation, trauma, illness etc.) that may also have contributed to people travelling to faerieland and bringing back the experiences as faerie-tales.

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17th-century woodcut showing faeries dancing outside their dwelling to the tune of the fly agaric mushroom

As discussed in a previous post The Deeper Meaning of Faerie-tales, most faerie-tales contain dream-like situations, where the laws of physics are suspended and the experienced reality is different than the usual five-sense reality. It’s no accident that the tales are often described as trippy. They can be seen as  basically describing events from a participatory altered state of consciousness, that have then gestated and formed into oral faerie-tales until fossilized into literature by folklorists at various times in the 19th and 20th centuries. So what about alien abductions? They represent an outrageous transformation of reality, but what is causing them?

The answer may lie with a substance called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine – DMT. This molecule is one of the main active ingredients in the Amazonian Ayahausca brew, but it is also produced endogenously in everyone’s brain, probably (but not definitely) in the pineal gland. It’s usually safely dispersed around the brain and body for functional duties, but it seems that under certain circumstances, it can be released in higher quantities, causing an altered state of consciousness. There is some evidence that this can happen during a frontal lobe epileptic seizure. So are abductees thrown into their experiences through a flood of DMT in their brain, which takes them into an altered state of consciousness, where reside alien beings, not altogether unlike the faeries and shaman ‘spirits’? The late and great Terence McKenna was an enthusiastic user of the synthesized form of DMT to access different realities, and coined the term self-transforming machine elves for the creatures he regularly found there. He can be heard talking about them here: Terence McKenna and the self-transforming machine elves.

As if to confirm Terence’s assertions, a research study conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she described as ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not an hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy. Strassman published the results as DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which has been made into a brilliant documentary here: DMT – The Spirit Molecule.

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The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal… much like alien abductions and (sometimes) faerie-tales. It’s worth reading the book or watching the documentary to get the full range of what are incredible records of accessing very different realities. Unlike the alien abductions, there is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants. Here is an abbreviated version of one of the volunteer’s description of his experience; 50 year old Jeremiah. After hurtling through a void he found himself:

… in a nursery. A high-tech nursery with a single Gumby, three feet tall, attending me. I felt like an infant. Not a human infant, but an infant relative to the intelligence represented by the Gumby. It was aware of me but not particularly concerned… Then I heard two or three male voices talking. I heard one of them say “he’s arrived.” … I was in a big room… there was one big machine in the center, with round conduits, almost writhing – not like a snake, more in a technical manner. The machine felt as if it were rewiring me, reprogramming me… This is real. It’s totally unexpected, quite constant and objective… an independent, constant reality… I’m lucid and sober.

This brings us finally to the crux of the matter. If there is a common source for these experiences of shaman ‘spirits’, faeries, aliens and the creatures in DMT-world, that can be accessed via an altered state of consciousness, are the experiences real? The crux is; what is consciousness? A reductionist materialist would tell us that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, and so whilst they might accept that all these experiences happened subjectively, due to an altered state of consciousness, they can all simply be reduced to the brain making it up. Brain chemistry changes, experience is imagined in the brain, stories are told about that imagined experience. Simples. But to dismiss the subjective experience is to dismiss consciousness itself. There is a reason reductionist materialists call consciousness the hard problem – it’s because consciousness is all we have and nobody has ever captured it. It exists purely as a subjective experience in a closed system. As the old metaphor goes; looking for consciousness inside the brain is like looking for the radio announcer inside the radio. S/he isn’t there, s/he is an electro-magnetic projection being tuned into by the receiver.

Aldous Huxley called the brain a ‘reducing valve for Mind at large’. We are transceiving consciousness not producing it. This corresponds with the philosophy of Idealism, beautifully articulated in recent times by Bernardo Kastrup, and just about every Oriental spiritual movement for the last several thousand years. Put shamanism and Gnosticism into the mix and we find a cohesive hypothesis for consciousness creating reality, not the other way round. But what trumps everything is direct, personal experience. This is the only true route to understanding existence – what Zen masters call direct pointing at reality. And that’s exactly what is happening in shaman journeys to the spiritworld, faerie-tales, alien abductions and DMT trips. They are experiences, accessed through altered states of consciousness, that are direct participations in Huxley’s Mind at large, a reality that exists to the consciousness of the observer but which is at the same time greater than the observer. But only by experiencing these realities through direct encounter can they be understood to be real. Nobody can tell you about them, you have to know them. Perhaps, for our benefit as a species, we need to take more notice of the stories that are brought back.

Graham Hancock summarises many of the ideas expressed here at: Graham Hancock – ancients and altered states of consciousness. Well worth a watch.

Ongoing consciousness research by Rick Strassman can be found at Cottonwood Research Foundation.

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Aboriginal cave painting from Kimberley, Australia, c.5000 BCE

The cover image is Pablo Amaringo, ‘Ayahuasca Vision’