The Faeries and Death

“Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form, but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go amongst them, and play with them, and combat with them. They are, perhaps, human souls in the crucible — these creatures of whim.” WB Yeats, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1918)

11172645_800In the 1997 film Photographing Fairies, the faeries were portrayed as small, amorphous humanoids, only rendered visible after the consumption of a white-petalled flower, which brings about the altered state of consciousness necessary to interact with them. The whole film is concerned with death, at many levels, and the faeries role is clearly as arbiters between the material world and transcendence. In the words of Arthur Conan Doyle (who makes an appearance in the film) they are the handmaidens of the eternal. The relationship between faeries and death in folklore and history is rather more nebulous, but the film was drawing on an authentic tradition that connects the faeries with death and/or the land of the dead in a variety of ways. In fact, many of the folktales and anecdotes involving faeries invoke some kind of transcendence from consensual reality (such as the dilation or expansion of the concept of time in faerieland), even if death is not an explicit part of the story. It would seem as if the faeries are with us but not with us at the same time; much like the dead.

The Folkore Roots of the Faeries and Death

One rooted tradition is that the faeries are the Pagan dead (or perhaps post-Purgatory Christians not good enough for heaven but too good for hell), living in a world of limbo, which occasionally coincides with ours. A story that captures this idea well, was collected by the folklorist William Bottrell in Cornwall in the early 1870s. In The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, we find Mr Noy, a farmer in the district of Buryan, becoming lost and bewildered on the moors at night, a common motif in faerie folklore, and which may be an embedded code in the story for the protagonist entering the altered state of consciousness necessary for interacting with a supernatural reality. Noy is missing for three days, before being found by a search-party, sleeping in a ruined ‘bowjie’ (a Cornish term for cow-shed) on Selena Moor with his horse and dogs tied up nearby. Incredulous at the passage of time — he was convinced he had spent no more than a few hours sleeping — he tells the story of what happened to him after becoming disorientated on the moor. After finding himself in an unknown stretch of woodland he heard music and saw lights some way ahead in a clearing…

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a tambourine, played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him. The revelers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

The ‘damsel’ turns out to be Grace Hutchens, an old-flame, who had died three years before, after getting lost herself on the moor. Removing Noy from the faerie revels, Grace warns him: “Embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing… People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.”

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John Anster FitzGerald – ‘A Faerie Banquet’ (1859)

She continues to tell Noy about her existence with the faeries (sometimes termed sprites in the story), who had trapped her in their reality after she’d eaten a plum (another common motif for capturing mortals in faerieland). Grace’s intriguing descriptions certainly confirm them to be inhabiting a land of the dead: “Their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals — maybe thousands of years ago… ‘For you must remember they are not of our religion, but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them.'”

As the faeries call Grace back to supply them with more cider, she informs Noy that when he dies he will be able to join her again. But he decides to try the old trick of turning his coat inside out and throwing it towards the assembled faeries, which indeed, disperses them into the ether, along with Grace, before the farmer feels a blow to his head and falls asleep. The story adds further testimony from Noy that many of the faeries he saw, “bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

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Ylenia Viola – ‘The Ruin’

The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor is one of those folktales with lots of oddly specific delineated features, which suggests that the story Bottrell collected was an amalgamation of a real incident (with Mr Noy operating in a non-usual state of consciousness), and current folk beliefs into the ontology of the faeries in the later 19th century. This ontology was that the faeries were dead people, perhaps sometimes dating back to a pre-Christian epoch, and that faerieland was a transcendent land of the dead, which, under special circumstances, could be penetrated by the living.

The Celtic Legend of the Dead and the Faeries

This idea was encountered many times by WY Evans-Wentz as he travelled through the Celtic countries of Britain, Ireland and Brittany between 1907-11, collecting the faerie traditions that he would publish as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. The belief that the faeries were intimately connected to the dead seemed to be especially prevalent in Ireland and Brittany, where time and again Evans-Wentz was given the view that they were one and the same, summed up by an unnamed Dublin engineer talking about the folk traditions in his home county: “The old people in County Armagh seriously believe that the faeries are the spirits of the dead; and they say that if you have many friends deceased you have many friendly faeries, or if you have many enemies deceased you have many faeries looking out to do you harm.”

Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, Co. Clare, used the old tactic of placing her testimony in the past in the face of the folklorist outsider, but again associates the faeries with the dead:

“Old Peggy Gillin, dead these thirty years, who lived a mile beyond Grange, used to cure people with a secret herb shown to her by her brother, dead of a faerie-stroke. He was drowned and taken by the faeries, in the big drowning here during the herring season. She would pull the herb herself and prepare it by mixing spring water with it. Peggy could always talk with her dead relatives and friends, and continually with her brother, and she would tell everybody that they were with the faeries.”

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Ylenia Viola – ‘A.I.R. I’

In Brittany the faeries were known as fées or corrigans, and usually seem to have been understood as ancestral spirits, often appearing to warn of, or to predict, death. Evans-Wentz found many folktales about the fées and the dead in and around the village of Carnac, where there are extensive remains of prehistoric megalithic stone rows and burial chambers. M. Goulven Le Scour was a source of many traditions, although once again, her testimonies were usually drawn from the past:

“My grandmother, Marie Le Bras, had related to me that one evening an old fée arrived in my village, Kerouledic (Finistère), and asked for hospitality. It was about the year 1830. The fée was received; and before going to bed she predicted that the little daughter whom the mother was dressing in night-clothes would be found dead in the cradle the next day. This prediction was only laughed at; but in the morning the little one was dead in her cradle, her eyes raised toward Heaven, The fée, who had slept in the stable, was gone.”

There are many more testimonies along these lines in all the regions visited by Evans-Wentz. They are often confused and ambiguous, and some of his interviewees deny any connection between the faeries and the dead. But there is an underlying consistency in the belief, allowing Evans-Wentz to sum up: “The animistic character of the Celtic Legend of the Dead is apparent; and the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and faerieland.”

Burial Mounds and Faerie Hills

The contiguous relationship between the faeries and death also find form in the physical environment. Burial mounds, most often dating from the Bronze Age, exist in great numbers throughout Western Europe, and in Britain and Ireland they can be prominent features in the landscape. They have also become bounded up with faerie folklore, often being seen as the underground dwelling abodes of the faeries. In Ireland the association is made explicit; the faeries (aes sídhe) are ‘the people of the mounds’. Jeremy Harte makes the valid point that faerie hills are not always burial mounds, and that perhaps the folkloric prerogative was to house the faeries under any prominent hill or mound for the purposes of narrative rather than any close correlation between prehistoric burial locations and the faeries. Indeed, two of the most famous faerie hills are natural and not burial mounds. These are Doon Hill at Aberfoyle, where the Rev. Robert Kirk consorted with the faeries and met his death in the late 17th century, and the Faerie Hill of Sithean Moor on Iona, which has a long association with the faeries, and was also the location of the mysterious death of a young occultist by the name of Marie Fornario in 1929.

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A 16th-century faerie mound – Olaus Magnus

But throughout Britain, and especially in Ireland there is a direct correlation between prehistoric burial mounds and faerie folklore, usually with the mounds having an appropriate name appended. Leslie Grinsell even produced a distribution map of these sites in his 1976 book Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, with the largest concentration in Scotland. There is no such map yet produced for Ireland, but the number is likely to be in the hundreds. The folklore frequently consists of the burial mounds becoming open to mortals at certain times, whereupon the faeries can be seen and interacted with, usually feasting and making music. A common motif includes people who steal faerie objects from within the mound, the earliest example being recorded by William of Newburgh in the late 12th century, where the mortal finding himself in the midst of a banquet in a faerie mound known as Willy Howe (Humberside), steals a silver cup, then makes off with it after throwing the contents out to disperse the faeries. According to Newburgh the cup ended up being presented to Henry II. Other stories present the mound-dwelling faeries as helpful to humanity. Grinsell recounts several examples of this motif, including one from The Pixies’ Mound at Stogursey, Somerset, where a ploughman on his way to the fields noticed a small broken peel (wooden shovel for baking cakes) on the the mound. He mended it, put it back on the mound, and then when he returned home in the evening found a freshly baked cake in its place.

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17th-century English woodcut with dancing faeries outside burial mound with door

This apparent close connection between faerie folklore and burial mounds may represent further evidence that the faeries are indeed the dead, and that the stories told about them are to all intents a filtered down form of ancestor worship, with offerings and rituals denuded of their original meaning and rendered into a symbolic folkloric language. This is almost certainly only part of the story when it comes to faerie beliefs, but the folklore does present a consistent theme of the faeries and the dead being intimates, tied together in the collective memory as inseparable concepts, however far distilled, for the purposes of narrative storytelling.

Faerie Funerals

But faeries die too. Those living in the faerieland on Selena Moor were not immortal according to Grace Hutchens’ testimony, and there is a relatively common folklore motif of faerie funerals/burials (Aarne Thompson Index F268.1), which might muddy the waters of the theory that the faeries are the dead. William Blake, a firm believer in the world of faerie, famously claimed to have observed a faerie funeral where he saw “a procession of creatures the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf, which they buried with songs and then disappeared.”

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John Anster Fitzgerald – ‘A Faerie Funeral’ (1864)

A particularly interesting example was collected in Cornwall by Robert Hunt in 1865, and published in Popular Romances of the West of England. It tells the story of Richard, a fisherman returning home with his catch past Lelant Church, when he heard the bells tolling with a ‘muffled sound’. He peered into a window and saw the dimly illuminated scene of a faerie funeral:

“Richard beheld the bier borne between six — whether men or women he could not tell — but he saw that the face of the corpse was that of a beautiful female, smaller than the smallest child’s doll. It was, Richard said, ‘as if it were a dead seraph,’ — so very lovely did it appear to him. The body was covered with white flowers, and its hair, like gold threads, was tangled amongst the blossoms. The body was placed within the altar; and then a large team of faeries, with picks and spades, began to dig a little hole close by the sacramental table.”

Often the faerie funerals turn out to be predictors of the death of those observing them. A typical example was collected by the folklorist James Bowker and published in Goblin Tales of Lancashire in 1883. In the story Adam and Robin are walking past Langton church on a moonlit night, when they hear the bells peal twenty-six times; the age of Robin. As they approach the avenue of trees leading to the church they see a small, dark figure step out of the churchyard “chanting some mysterious words in a low musical voice as he walked.” They ducked back into the trees…

” … and standing together against the trunk of a large tree, they gazed at the miniature being stepping so lightly over the road, mottled by the stray moonbeams. i097It was a dainty little object; but although neither Adam nor Robin could comprehend the burden of the song it sang, the unmistakable croon of grief with which each stave ended told the listeners that the faerie was singing a requiem. The men kept perfectly silent, and in a little while the figure paused and turned round, as though in expectation, continuing, however, its mournful notes. By-and-by the voices of other singers were distinguished, and as they grew louder the faerie standing in the roadway ceased to render the verse, and sang only the refrain, and a few minutes afterwards Adam and Robin saw a marvellous cavalcade pass through the gateway. A number of figures, closely resembling the one to which their attention had first been drawn, walked two by two, and behind them others with their caps in their hands, bore a little black coffin, the lid of which was drawn down so as to leave a portion of the contents uncovered. Behind these again others, walking in pairs, completed the procession. All were singing in inexpressibly mournful tones, pausing at regular intervals to allow the voice of the one in advance to be heard, as it chanted the refrain of the song, and when the last couple had passed into the avenue, the gates closed as noiselessly as they had opened. As the bearers of the burden marched past the two watchers, Adam bent down, and, by the help of a stray gleam of moonlight, saw that there was a little corpse in the coffin. ‘Robin, mi lad,’ said he, in a trembling voice and with a scared look, ‘it’s the picture o’ thee as they have in the coffin!'”

Robin is, quite reasonably, freaked out by this turn of events and reaches out to touch the lead faerie. The procession immediately vanishes, and the two men run back home ashen faced. Sure enough, one month later, Robin falls from a hay-rick and is fatally wounded.

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Ylenia Viola – ‘A.I.R. II’

This strange projection of a mortal human into the faerie world as a portent of death once again links the folklore to the psychogenesis that created it. These are not simply fireside stories; they are embedded with meaning. In all of the cases discussed, this meaning is our culture’s attempt to understand what death is and who might be around to help us, be with us, or warn us, when death is close or upon us. The folklore is sending us messages that seem to infer that there are metaphysical entities who are more familiar with the land of the dead than we are, and that death is simply an alternative form of consciousness, available to everyone given the right circumstances, and perhaps not something to be afraid of.

Breaching the Consciousness Gap — The Faeries as Arbiters of Death

The folklore that portrays the faeries as inhabiting the land of the dead shows them as representatives of the past and what is gone. In the same way as a memory of someone dead can be conjured up in consciousness before disappearing into the subconscious, so the faeries are able to make appearances in our collective stories that attempt to understand death and its connection with life. Their somewhat wacky behaviour perhaps exemplifies our fear of the unknown — they live in an undiscovered country, and have their own customs and rules. But it’s a place that can be accessed and brought into our comprehension of reality — physically and metaphysically — so as to come to terms with death, both our own and of others.

Accessing the transcendent world of the dead, without dying, and making contact with the faeries, seems dependent on an altered state of consciousness. Many of the previous posts on this site have investigated this in some detail as an essential key to comprehending the faerie phenomenon (here‘s an example). And the folklore we’ve been investigating in this article is usually dependent on the protagonist(s) going through an endogenous transformation of their conscious state through a variety of means, which are coded and embedded in the stories to signpost the listener/reader that something supra-natural is about to happen, such as Mr Noy’s exhausted confusion, or Adam and Robin’s fear. Modern renditions of the faeries as arbiters of death, such as Photographing Fairies, are more at liberty to constitute precise causes of the altered state, in this case the ingestion of a psychoactive flower. But the consistent feature is that the faeries exist in some liminal zone that bridges the gap between material reality and consciousness, and that ultimately once the gap has been fully breached we find ourselves in a transcendent form of consciousness beyond time and space; usually known as Death.

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Ylenia Viola – ‘Between Dream and Reality’

Thanks to Ylenia Viola for permission to use her transcendent artwork in this article. The cover image is A.I.R. from her ‘Enchanted Metamorphosis’ gallery. Ylenia’s artwork can be found at her website: Fairytalesneverdie

The Suicide of a Faerie

Here’s another short excerpt from the tale I’m writing about a folklorist’s visit to a psychiatric hospital in England during the summer of 1970. It is the next scene with my Chilean exile Fernanda, following on from Fernanda, Faeries and Ravens

I was alone again. Albe, Moore and Scrope had disappeared up-country somewhere leaving me in my quarters with nothing but the sound of the ticking clock, marking out the minutes and hours; creating time to reflect on the deficiencies of my life to date. What was I doing here? I’d swapped the intolerable isolation of my university research for the unendurable confinement of this lunatic asylum. As the days had dripped by, I recognised the old symptoms re-emerging: dulled vision, stomach cramps, endemic procrastination, and a growing fear of going outside and interacting with people. I was even beginning to suspect that the hospital orderlies had all been infected with the insanity that they dealt with on a daily basis. It was usually the timbre of their voices; the merest hint of derangement that spoke of exposure to madness over a prolonged period. It was worse in the male staff. They all seemed to exhibit a disquieting emptiness in their tone, as if they were reading from a script, like bad actors. Maybe it was because they were suspicious of me. Maybe they wondered what I was doing here as well, and were acting accordingly. I went over each conversation with them since I’d been here, further instilling the the shaky paranoia that had made itself at home with me. This was not good. I had to break out from this cycle of thought before I went to meet Fernanda, otherwise I might have one of my flip-outs. Christ, they might even put me on a ward if that happened.

I pulled myself up to the desk and poised my fingers over the Olympia typewriter that Moore had loaned me, to put my notes in order. I knew I wasn’t going to manage to do anything, but the act of intention distracted me from incessantly thinking the worst of everything. I rolled the sheet of paper up and locked it in position. I stared at it for a few moments, then typed: My sister… I’m so sorry. Please come back… . My breathing shallowed and the usual tears welled up. I yanked out the paper, screwed it up and flung it over the room. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t coming back.

***

I made my way out to the vegetable gardens in the late afternoon. The sun was shining for once, but the wind took the heat out of it. In my head I went over some of the faerie motifs from the Aarne-Thompson index, agitated, and wondering if Fernanda would come up with anything beyond her neurotic imaginings about nature spirits. I stopped for a moment behind the laundry building, closed my eyes and pictured her. My hands shook a little. I steadied my breathing and walked on.

She was sitting on the tree stump where she fed the ravens, eyes closed, head bowed, her hands clasped together as if in prayer. I coughed before I reached her, so as to not startle her. She waited until I was a few feet away and slowly raised her head. She kept her eyes closed for a moment, then opened them; black and watery.

‘Hola,’ she said, continuing to stare ahead.

‘Hey Fernanda. Nice day… bit windy.’

God, what did I sound like. Why did I always make personal contact so uncomfortable. She didn’t seem to notice, but when she turned to look at me the curve of her lips suggested that she was reading my awkwardness perfectly.

‘It’s not a good day my friend. There is some bad news.’

I tensed up, shoulders and stomach. She observed me for a few seconds, and her words began to echo inside my head somehow. At that moment I was quite sure she was putting them there herself, negating the need to say anything else by reinforcing what she had already said by direct, wordless communication.

‘Telepatía,’ she whispered, standing up, close to me, her black eyes still pooled with tears. ‘I know you don’t believe, but it’s true anyway.’

‘I’m not quite sure what to believe Fernanda. Why is there bad news?’

‘There has been a suicide.’

‘Really? In the hospital?’

‘No, here. In the cobertizo.’

She motioned to the tool shed on the edge of the gardens. My pulse quickened. 

‘A faerie has ended her life there… she did it for you.’

I stared at her, looking for something that would abbreviate her words in her face. There was nothing there.

‘Fernanda, please don’t play games with me. I can’t deal with this sort of thing right now.’

She moved closer to me and stroked back some hair that had fallen over my eyes. 

‘We know you’ve been thinking about ending your life my friend. We know how sad you’ve been. She did it so you do not have to. It was a selfless act. Las Hadas have no ego. This one soaked up your sorrow and and ended her existence so that you can continue. She knew your life must carry on, but that there had to be a sacrifice. The sacrifice was her life.’

A head-rush dulled my vision for a moment. My hands were shaking so much I put them behind my back instinctively. 

‘Fernanda, I… I… .’

‘You must come and see. It is tragic but it is beautiful. You must come and see… come.’

She reached round, took my hand from behind me and led me, unresisting to the shed.

***

We walked back slowly to the main building of the hospital hand in hand. We didn’t speak, but I could hear her soft voice in my head, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish: it’s ok… you’ll be ok. It was meant to be… mantener la calma. In between her words I tried desperately to rationalise what I’d just seen. But every attempt failed. What I’d seen was not rational, it was absurdly irrational, but as real as the neo-gothic walls of the hospital in front of us. I was going to have to overhaul my understanding of the nuts and bolts of this world. It had just been forced upon me. There was no choice. The only choice was acceptance.

She left me at the door with a kiss on the cheek but no words. I wondered why it was she who was going back to the ward instead of me. If I told Dr Dawkins what I’d just experienced, he’d probably commit me on the spot.

In my head I heard Fernanda’s voice again: she is dead but dreaming. Soñando

‘My sister or the faerie?’ I said out loud. There was no response. I walked, unseeing, back to my quarters.

Image © Mirjam Appelhof

The Dutch artist Mirjam Appelhof’s wonderful artwork can be found on her website: The Photo-Art of Mirjam Appelhof.

The Space-Time Continuum in Faerieland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fractal Time

My Sister and her Faeries

My little sister, I lost her when she was just a child. One day we were together the next she was gone, suddenly and definitively. Her physical memory has become blurred into an arbitrary, flickering collection of blue-eyed glances, soft tones, touches and laughter. But underneath the dulled remembrance rests the sense and perception of an overwhelming loss; at least a loss that has overwhelmed me. She usually comes to me in dreams, but not always.

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There is a place at the end of an overgrown garden, down a bank and through some alders to a small, dirty brook. I presume it’s still there. We used to spend endless summer days in that gloomy refuge; reading, talking, ruminating, napping. Our secret chatter should have made its mark there. But everything else rests only with me, in my memory. Her memory is gone; it has become something other than memory.

She was always seeing faeries there. When she was a little girl she’d play games with them but when she was a bigger girl she just talked with them. I was only allowed peripheral glimpses of them amidst the leaves and their voices were never more than the drone of the brook made fleetingly real during drifts into and out of sleep. But I believed in her belief. She’d always start with the invocation: We must not look at faerie men; we must not eat their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots. And then she would laugh and skip down to her special places within the overhanging trees where she would begin her communions.

She was twelve the last time we went there. It was damp and the brook smelled. She came back from one of her spots amidst the trees, pale and tearful. The faeries had sung her a Requiem and promised her that she would be able to come back to me as a blackbird for a short while. But only for a short while, then she would have to disappear completely from the world. She cried as we made our way through the garden. There were no words, just tears. I cannot think further on what happened after this. It is not something I have learned to contemplate without despair.

It was a month or so after her death that I finally allowed myself to visit her grave in the churchyard. The thought of her lifeless, decomposing corpse only a few feet away from me became too much and I retreated to a bench by the church porch. I sobbed, clutching the bench beneath me. Through the tear-mist I saw a female blackbird skip from the branch of a yew tree above me to within a pace of my foot, chirping vigorously. She cocked her head and looked at me with one dark eye.

“I love you,” I whispered.

She briefly preened her wing, cocked her head again and then darted away to a high branch.

“I love you,” I said again. I rested my head and closed my wet eyes, knowing that she was dead but dreaming, and would always be so.

Fairy-Flight