Faerie Familiars & Zoomorphic Witches

This is a companion piece to an article for the Ancient Origins Premium website.

In her 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, and the 2010 follow-up The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, Emma Wilby consolidates, and expands upon, a couple of decades of work by, mostly, continental scholars who had been investigating the possibility that records of medieval and Early Modern witch trials were documenting the survival of a pre-Christian shamanic visionary tradition. Until that point, study of the relatively large numbers of recorded witch trials in Britain had concentrated on the mechanisms of persecution, rather than any examination of the actual beliefs of the persecuted. Indeed, heavy-weight historians such as Hugh Trevor-Roper insisted that the only legitimate interpretation of the evidence from witch trials was as a function of social and cultural attitudes towards an aberrant cult. The voices of the persecuted were conveyed to us exclusively through the lens of the secular and clerical judiciary, and, according to 9780226296937_p0_v1_s1200x630Trevor-Roper and other historians, it was only the attitudes of these cultural elites that could be discerned from the documentation. The actual recorded beliefs of the accused witches were simply ‘disturbances of a psychotic nature’, ‘fantasies of mountain peasants’, and ‘mental rubbish of peasant credulity and feminine hysteria.’ In other words, any suggestion that the phenomenon the accused witches were recorded as describing might have elements of truth to it was baloney. But Wilby, following the lead of Carlo Ginzburg, suggests that if we attempt to excavate the actual words and beliefs of the persecuted witches, we discover that they were describing a remnant of pre-Christian shamanism, alive and well and, until the Inquisition caught up with them, operating under the radar of the Church.

The Witches’ Sabbath

Two of the most important elements of the records from the witch trials were the descriptions of witches’ faerie familiars and the supposed zoomorphic ability of witches to shape-shift into animals for various purposes. The records are replete with descriptions of faerie familiars, which could appear to, and interact with witches as humanoid faeries or as animals of various sorts, and depictions of witches transforming themselves into a diverse range of creatures for disparate objectives.

On the continent, faerie familiars and zoomorphism were usually described as agents of travel, most often to the witches’ sabbath. Ginzburg summarises the basic features of the sabbath that recur in many of the witch trial documents:

‘Male and female witches met at night, generally in solitary places, in fields or on mountains. Sometimes, having anointed their bodies, they flew, arriving astride poles or broomsticks; sometimes they arrived on the back of animals, or transformed into animals themselves. Those who are for the first time had to renounce the Christian faith, desecrate the sacrament and offer homage to the devil, who was present in human or (most often) animal or semi-animal form. There would follow banquets, dancing, sexual orgies. Before returning home the female and male witches received evil ointments made from children’s fat and other ingredients.’

These components, as recorded by the persecutors of the witches, persist as central themes in witch trials through the later Middle Ages in Europe and, in some places, until the 18th century. Tens of thousands of people (men and women) were burnt at the stake for witchcraft during this period.

image 02
A 17th-century witches’ Sabbath

As early as the 12th century (pre-Inquisition)  a document known as the Canon Episcopi warned its readers that: ‘… some wicked women believe and profess themselves, in the hours of night, to ride upon certain beasts, which they keep for the purpose. They ride with [the pagan goddess] Diana and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night, they traverse great spaces of earth.’ There were variousimage 9 animals that could fit the bill as familiars, they could be mice, cats, dogs, birds, insects, horses, bears, foxes, frogs, even hedgehogs, though the most popular were goats – witches riding astride goats were commonly portrayed in medieval and Early Modern illustrations, and even in architectural reliefs, such as at Lyons Cathedral, where a witch is shown riding a goat and holding a hare (shown above).

Amongst the best recorded of European witch cults were the Benandanti in north-east Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. They seem to have utilised animal familiars as well as being able to shape-shift into a variety of creatures themselves, to attend sabbaths, visit faerieland and to do night battles with what they perceived as ‘evil witches’ who were using their own shape-shifting abilities to blight crops and cause illness on targeted individuals. Carlo Ginzburg’s 1966 study The Night Battles, details the complex belief systems of the Benandanti, who were rooted out by the Inquisition over a long period of time. Their trials provide some of the most comprehensive evidence for the ontology of the witches’ sabbath and travels to a faerieland in Early Modern Europe, which their inquisitors insisted to be the work of the Devil.

Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons by Jan Ziarnko, c. 1600

Members of the Benandanti could also travel to the Otherworld with humanoid faerie familiars. At a witch trial in 1591, one of the accused, Menichino della Nota, confessed that he would travel to Josaphat’s Field (one of the Benandanti’s names for the Otherworld) through the auspices of a faerie lady known as ‘the abbess’. Three decades later (and as usual, under torture), another Benandanti, Maria Canzona, also talked of ‘the abbess’, who she seemed to equate with the Queen of the Faeries. ‘The abbess’ would meet with Maria outside of her village and then they would fly to their destinations together. Other European witches of the period also usually equated humanoid faerie familiars as female. In 16th-century Sicily, in a series of witch trials, all of the female witches confessed to meeting with ‘Night Women’ or ‘The Ladies from Outside’, with who they would fly to far distant meadows to dance and feast at ceremonies presided over by the ‘Wise Sibilla’, another name for the faerie queen. Interestingly, the ‘Night Women’ were described as beautiful, but as having cats’ paws or horses’ hooves.


The zoomorphic quality of witches, to change themselves into metaphysical animal forms, is well attested in European witch trials. The concept has a very long history. In the 2nd century the Platonist philosopher Apuleius, in his extended poem Metamorphoses, described the shape-shifting abilities of female witches in the region of Thessaly, Greece: ‘These atrocious chameleons transform themselves into any kind of animal whatsoever. They disguise themselves as birds, dogs, weasels, mice and even flies.’ Apuleius does not go into detail as to what these women were doing during their zoomorphic state. But by the time of the witch persecutions from the 15th century onwards, the records have much more to say about this. In his 1998 book Witches and the Shamanic Journey, Kenneth Johnson extracts material from the late medieval witch trials from central and northern Europe, where the accused frequently described their transformations into a wide variety of animals:

“… shape-shifting appears as an integral part of the witch trials almost from the very beginning. In the Valais trials, part of the first wave of persecutions, which date from the early 1400s and were centred in the Western Alps, the male witches said that they took the shape of wolves, and that ‘the Devil’ appeared to his devotees in the
shape of a bear or a ram. A half century later, a German demonological text by Ulrich Molitor includes an illustration (below) showing witches on the way to the Sabbath, midway through their transformations into animals.”


Johnson also quotes a 1540 text by Hermann Witekind from Livonia (now Lithuania, and the last part of Europe to be officially converted to Christianity in 1386), who interviewed a male peasant who was awaiting his trial after being imprisoned for witchcraft. Witekind (incredulously) reports that the peasant was dancing around his cell, joyously informing him that the previous night he had been able to escape his captivity by transforming himself into a wolf and bounding across the landscape to ‘an immense river.’ He only returned to the cell ‘because his master wished it.’

British Witches and the Faeries

In Britain, the full-blown witch hunts seen in Europe were resisted until a later date. But daemonologie_1356163726by the late 16th century this was being rectified, and even King James VI of Scotland (later James I of a united kingdom with England) himself felt compelled to write Daemonologie (first published in 1597), which acted as a condemnation of the heresies of necromancy and witchcraft, evidently penned with much personal knowledge of the phenomena. Through the 17th century, both the Church and secular authorities made up for lost time, and thousands of witches were prosecuted in England, Wales and Scotland, many of them being burnt, drowned or hung if found guilty. Emma Wilby’s penetrative analyses of the witch trial records from this time finds (as with the records from the continent) much evidence for the hypothesis that the accused witches were practicing an adapted form of pre-Christian shamanism, where faerie familiars and zoomorphism played an essential and consistent role in the tradition they were following.

During a compendious outpouring of confessions during her trial for witchcraft in Scotland in 1662, Isobel Gowdie (for once, without torture, and fully backed-up by her co-accused) told her interrogators that after anointing herself with certain ‘unctions’ she shape-shifted into a hare before flying to the Sabbath. She also chanted an incantation to ensure the transformation:

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow, sigh, and mickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Aye while I come back again.

412-the_visions_of_isobel_gowdie_magic_witchcraft_and_dark_shamanism_in_seventeenth-century_scotlandIsobel and her fellow accused witches also confessed to combining the use of faerie familiars with zoomorphism to attain their goals, which were sometimes beneficent, and sometimes maleficent. Whatever the objectives of these Scottish witches, their testimonies confirm their belief that in order to interact with a faerie otherworld they were reliant on the aid of familiars, or on their ability to turn themselves into animals. Isobel Gowdie again:

‘I had a little horse, and would say: ‘Horse and hattock, in the Devil’s name!’ And then we would fly away, wherever we would, even as straws would fly upon a highway. And when we would be in the shape of crows, we would be larger than ordinary crows, and would sit upon the branches of trees. We went in the shape of rooks to Mr Donaldson’s house… and went in at the kitchen chimney…’

robin-goodfellow-his-mad-c_57_b_55_a2rA decade later, and under more intimidatory cross-examination, the Northumberland witch Anne Armstrong claimed that she was commanded to sing whilst her companion witches: ‘danced in several shapes, first of a hare, then of their own, then in a cat, sometimes a mouse, and several other shapes.’

British faerie familiars took a wide variety of forms. In the trial of Bessie Dunlop in Edinburgh in 1576, she describes what might be seen as a traditional folkloric humanoid faerie, who went by the name of Tom Reid. She described him as a diminutive being who would appear to her only when she was alone. He was:

‘… an elderly man, grey bearded, and had a grey coat with Lombard sleeves of the old fashion, a pair of grey breeches and white stockings gartered above the knee, a black bonnet on his head… with silken laces drawn through the edges thereof, and a white wand in his hand.’

British witch trials, like their European counterparts, were conducted and recorded by the persecuting cultural elite, and much caution is required in taking confessions extorted under duress as evidence of the actual words of the accused. But the consistency, over long periods of time, in descriptions of faerie familiars and the perceived abilities of witches to transform themselves into animals, confirms that we are being handed down testimonies of a genuine visionary tradition. But it is a tradition with an overt metaphysical component. As the narrative from a Taunton witch trial in 1664 states: ‘The witches are carried sometimes in their bodies and clothes, at other times without, and the examiner thinks their bodies are sometimes left behind. Even when their spirits only are present, yet they know one another.’ The Christian prosecutors evidently did not know what to make of this apparent ability of witches to act metaphysically. It would invariably be recognised as the work of the Devil, but the examiners’ understanding of the confessions never involved the recognition of a deep-set visionary tradition being tapped into by the rural peasantry, that was outside of the Christian orthodox belief system.

Physical vs Metaphysical and the Shamanic Experience

Whilst medieval and Early Modern people who considered themselves (and were considered as) witches, did convene at ritual gatherings in physical reality, for a variety of purposes, the surviving documentation strongly suggests that they were also engaging in a metaphysical reality. Many of their inquisitors and contemporary commentators were incredulous at these testimonies of out of the body travel and animal shape-shifting, and would usually attempt to explain the experiences as the delusional work of the Devil. The Swiss preacher Johann Geiler von Kaiserberg summed up the general view in 1508:

‘What will you tell us about those who travel by night and assemble thus? When they travel to Venus Mountain, or when the witches travel here and there, do they travel, or do they stay, or is it an illusion? As to the first, I say that they do travel here and there but that their bodies remain in one place. They think that they travel, for the Devil can create that delusion in their head.’

shamaneliadeWhat is described as happening to the people involved in witchcraft in these periods, bears many of the hallmarks of shamanistic practice. Shamanism is not an organised religion, it is rather a technique for direct contact with a metaphysical, spiritual reality through the arbitration of individuals able to reach that reality by altering their states of consciousness. This contact with a spiritual, non-physical realm was/is usually conducted to bring back information from that realm, that is deemed useful, such as healing,
premonitions of the future, and advice from ancestral spirits. In his groundbreaking 1951 book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade details the development of shamanism all over the world, coming to the conclusion that the ontological similarities in all forms of shamanism (which is, or was, widespread in every continent) must mean that it has a common prehistoric source datable to the Upper Palaeolithic. Recent work on Palaeolithic cave paintings convincingly demonstrates that many of the images represent shamanic altered states of consciousness, supporting Eliade’s ideas that the stratum of shamanism began at this period and diffused everywhere through time until replaced (or overlain) by formal religions. It was the original human spiritual belief.

Bird Headed Shaman Lascaux
Bird-headed shaman in trance state from Lascaux Cave, France, c. 15,000 BCE

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

Unfortunately, inquisitors were rarely interested in the means employed by witches to alter their states of consciousness, and so we are left with ambiguous references to ‘salves’, ‘unctions’ and ‘potions’, used to attain ecstasies. Whilst there is a wealth of direct evidence for the techniques used by shamans around the world, and through time, to reach visionary states, the historic documents used to penetrate the witches’ sabbaths fall short of disclosure. But the documents, despite being so heavily overlain by the value judgements of Christianity, do consistently point to journeys to Sabbaths and faerieland  being metaphysical events. Just as this was difficult to stomach for the Christian inquisitors of the witches, it also challenges our own materialistic worldview. But if we want to infiltrate the reality of the witches’ world, we are compelled to consider the shamanic cosmological viewpoint that consciousness is an autonomous non-physical reality, which can be manipulated to act independently and metaphysically for ritual and spiritual purposes. It was an adherence to this principle that cost the lives of so many medieval and Early Modern witches at the hands of their persecutors. They were shamans in all but name, and as such, were unacceptable within the strictures of orthodox Christianity.

Witches and demons dancing in a circle, from Nathaniel Crouch’s The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688

Modern Wicca and the Shamanic Component

Modern Wicca seems to be divided on the shamanic component of witchcraft. But there is a growing recognition that the ritualised metaphysical component of witchcraft is fundamental to understanding the spirituality that is at the root of modern Wicca, whichever path is taken. Modern witches owe a lot to their medieval and Early Modern predecessors, who practiced their visionary traditions at risk to their own lives – something that modern witches do not have to worry about. Most especially, the concept of a faerie or animal familiar, and the need to engage in an altered state of consciousness to seek wisdom and healing, has found its way into the structures of modern witchcraft, and it’s usually based on the shamanistic visionary traditions of our ancestors. The excellent website at Witcheslore.com has a powerful piece on Familiars, which articulates the role of the faerie familiar and zoomorphism, and recognises the essential relationship with shamanism and its metaphysical underpinning. The final word is theirs, with an appreciation that the modern witch recognises what their spiritual ancestors would have known instinctively…

‘An altered state of consciousness or trance state, allows the witch to astral project, when this happens the witch’s consciousness leaves the physical body and is able to travel where and as they choose. As faeries live in a spirit realm, a witch often used a faerie as a familiar, this allowed the witch a doorway into the otherworld, witches and faeries were often connected and worked well together. Familiars are powerful healers and are messengers between one world and the other, they are wonderful and loyal companions for a witch. The three types of familiars are, the physical, the spirit and the artificial. The physical familiar is a pet, animal or creature; the spirit is a conscious entity that exists within the otherworld, beyond the land of the living. Magic also is used for the creation of an artificial familiar.’


The cover image is the frontispiece to Richard Bovet’s Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster (1664).

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).

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.

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


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


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.

Cu Martel Satyr

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.

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.

Cave painting showing entoptic imagery from Pech Merle cave, France, c.25,000 BCE
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.

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 the main active ingredient 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.


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.

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