taboo [ta·boo | tə-‘bü] NOUN
A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
Taboo motifs are common in both traditional faerie-tales and folklore. In traditional tales they can form the centrepiece of the plotline; the crux that everything turns on, usually marking a change in state from supernatural to natural or vice-versa. In more anecdotal folklore their function is also often central to the didactics of the testimony. Whether the action takes place in a faerie Otherworld with a human placed under the edicts of a taboo, or whether it is a faerie in consensus reality imposing unbreakable taboos on humans, the motif appears to represent a fundamental premise concerning the interaction between physical and metaphysical reality. It would seem the taboo is a coded message that may help unlock the meaning of the tales and folklore. But the code is usually deeply embedded and buried beneath metaphors and symbolism that often appear too layered and hidden to elicit any explanation as to the purpose of the taboos. They are most often surreal and even absurd parts of tales and folklore. So are these taboo motifs inserted into stories simply as useful plot devices and to invoke a sense of magical realism in folk tales, or do they have a more profound significance, locked into the transpersonal memory of folklore as hermeneutic tools to interpret aspects of reality and the human condition?
Taboos in Faerie-Tales and Folklore
Faerie-tale taboos come in many forms but in essence, they represent prohibitions invoked by faerie entities that cannot be broken. Invariably, they are broken and the consequences are as promised. These consequences are nearly always (though not exclusively) detrimental to the human protagonists of the stories. The motif is ancient and finds its way into several early-medieval Irish tales, the most well-known being Oisín in Tír na nÓg, which includes a double-taboo. Oisín is a poet of the Fianna, and falls asleep under an ash tree. He awakes to find Niamh, Queen of Tír na nÓg, the land of perpetual youth, inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann, summoning him to join her in her realm as husband. He agrees and for three years he finds himself living in a paradise of perpetual summer and where time and death hold no sway. Oisín and Niamh even have three children together. But soon he breaks the 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 mortal inhabitants. She supplies him with a magical 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 three hundred years have passed and that he is no longer recognised or known. 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 Tír na nÓg. In other variations of the story, the hero breaks the taboo and turns to dust as soon as his feet touch the ground of consensus reality.
Medieval prose and poetry from Britain and France also used the taboo motif frequently, usually within the Arthurian cycle of stories, which often involved a faerie Otherworld as an essential component of the mythos. Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, is the earliest text example (12th century), where Yvain (like Oisín) falls in love with the Otherworldly faerie, Laudine, and lives with her in a magical land. After a time, he leaves to return to his own world under her stipulation (the taboo) that he returns after a year and a day. He fails to do so and is therefore rejected by her and prohibited from re-entering the faerie Otherworld. In the 14th-century Middle-English romance Sir Launfal by Thomas Chestre (based on the 12th-century Lanval by Marie de France) Launfal is undone by uttering the name of his faerie lover Tryamour (a theme explored below), who had previously bestowed gifts on him – including a faerie horse, an invisible servant and a self-replenishing bag of gold coins – and promised to come to him whenever he wished, provided he adhered to the taboo of never naming her to another human. Once he has uttered her name (to Queen Guenevere no less) and broken the taboo, she comes to him no more and the gifts she has given him disappear.
This Arthurian mythos was plugging into earlier Celtic stories, which may have dated from at least the 8th century in written form and to the pre-Christian era in oral tradition. So the regurgitation of the taboo motif through the Middle Ages demonstrates a continuation of its Pagan metaphysical significance, even if the composers of the stories in the later medieval period were not fully aware of the coded meaning of the motif. They may have been using it as a useful magical plot device, but they were, in fact, perpetuating an ancient symbolic motif that was an intrinsic part of stories where a faerie Otherworld formed part of the narrative.
The taboo motif evidently continued to form part of evolving oral folklore in the post-medieval period until the stories began to be recorded in the 19th century. When Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm recorded their traditional European faerie-tales in the early 19th century about a third of them incorporated a taboo motif. The motifs found many forms but are all recognisable as magical prohibitions. In Cinderella, the midnight curfew is the prohibition invoked by the ‘fairy godmother’, which allows the heroine to maintain an aura of glamour to achieve her goals, but which has a defined time-period before the magic is taken away. When Cinderella breaks the curfew/taboo she has to quickly escape the constructed reality, losing her slipper as she does so, and thereby setting up the rest of the story. In Little Brother and Little Sister, a witch (a common propagator of taboos in faerie-tales) sets up the prohibition to the siblings of drinking from streams. The taboo is communicated telepathically to the sister every time her brother is about to drink from a stream: First, he will be turned into a tiger and the next time into a wolf. He resists the urge to drink but at the third stream breaks the taboo, drinks and is turned into a roebuck. This allows the story to continue along the theme of sibling love with magical realism embedded in the narrative, but only because it has been countenanced through the symbolic breaking of the taboo, which is the arbiter of the magical situation.
The Grimms’ Rumpelstiltskin was a version of a story that was paralleled in the English Tom Tit Tot. Here the put-upon and imprisoned heroine is aided in her duties of spinning flax by an ‘imp’. But his aid comes with the condition that she will need to guess his name before a year and a day otherwise she becomes his. She eventually hears him yabbering his name beneath her prison window and so on the final night she is able to repeat his name and avoid being taken from the natural to the supernatural. This story is embedded with the taboo motif of ‘not naming’ (a theme returned to below). A supernatural entity imposes the taboo in a form of competition, which is won by the heroine. She has broken the taboo, in this instance, to her benefit.
By the time most of these classic faerie-tales were collected by folklorists in the 19th century, they were being recorded alongside less structured types of folklore, which often incorporated localised events and known people (usually from the past but not always) overlain by a story narrative. Taboos are frequently found in this type of folklore, as exampled by the Cornish story Cherry of Zennor, collected by Robert Hunt in 1865. Cherry is a young girl about to enter service in the locality of her home in Zennor. But as she finds herself on a lonely hill she is taken to an alternative reality through the persuasions of the ‘master’; a faerie entity. She finds the faerie world much more to her liking than the one she left and is pleased to stay there under the spell of the master. She is obliged to look after the master’s child and to anoint his eyes each day with an ointment, which she is told to never apply to her own eyes. Once she breaks this taboo she is able to see the faerie realm in its completeness and the faeries that ‘seemed to swarm everywhere.’ But she is soon found out for contravening the prohibition and is escorted back to the windswept hillside. Her breaking the taboo had given her temporary cosmic vision, but the price had to be paid in the expulsion from a magical reality.
The magical ointment motif is common in this folklore type, where the human protagonist is most often a midwife who is persuaded to help out the faeries. She is usually given access to the ointment for washing the babies while being warned not to apply it to her eyes. When she (inevitably) self-applies the ointment the realm of the faeries becomes clearly visible. The most frequent punishment for breaking this taboo was to be blinded at a later date when the ability to see the faeries was revealed to one of their own. In some folklore, this is watered down so that the midwife only has her ability to see the faeries taken away while retaining her natural sight.
The many folktales about swan maidens and lake faeries always contain a specific taboo implemented by the supernatural being while living in physical reality. While the swan maiden stories are Europe-wide, lake faerie folktales seem concentrated in Britain and especially Wales. Once again, there is a crossover quality about these stories, where a recognisable environment and a not-too-distant past is overlain with certain classical faerie-tale archetypes and symbology. The standard scheme of the stories is that the supernatural female is lured from her watery existence by a male, either through a ruse or by charm. They are married and will usually have children together. But at some point, a taboo is broken and she deserts her husband to return to the water, which always seems to represent the portal between the physical world and a non-material reality.
The most detailed of these folktales is the Welsh tale The Lady ofLlyn y Fan Fach, which though only recorded in the 19th century contains named personages that appear to date the origin of the story to the 12th century. In this tale, a young farmer called Gwyn regularly frequents Llyn y Fan Fach, where he pastures his cattle. One day he sees a golden-haired woman, combing her locks and using the lake as a mirror. He woos her and she agrees to marry him. But there is a faerie taboo attached: “Silver and gold cannot buy me. Your love is beyond price so I will marry you and live upon Earth with you until you give to me three causeless blows. The striking of the third blow will be the breaking of our marriage contract. I will leave earth and we shall be parted forever. Do you accept?” He does.
Their marriage prospered and they had three sons, but inevitably the three blows were dealt over time, all as accidents: a playful flick on the shoulder with a glove, a tap on the arm and then a third touch when the faerie wife displays joy at the funeral of a neighbour’s infant. She explains that she still sees with the eyes of the Otherworld and that her joy was that the child had transcended the pain and suffering of mortality. But when the third blow is struck she returns to the lake, with her dowry, and disappears below the surface. Distraught, Gwyn follows her, drowning himself in his grief.
Once again, the taboo motif is central to the narrative arc of these folktales. It always represents the jointure between the physical and the metaphysical, and its breaking will sever whatever link has been made between the two. The taboo appears to be a coded message embedded in the folklore, which is perhaps purveying the idea that any interaction with a metaphysical reality has to have a subsequent consequence. The taboo is the key that locks or unlocks the door joining the natural with the supernatural.
More Folkloric Taboos
The taboo was evidently an important element of many folk tales but it is also a vital part of many folk beliefs existing outside structured tales. These beliefs often manifest in anecdotal folklore, where the lore doesn’t need a story loop. One long-standing folk belief was that mortals should not consume faerie food or drink if they ever found themselves in a faerie reality. This was a taboo – to break it meant to leave the physical world and stay in the faerie Otherworld. It is a motif that can be dated back to the 12th century at least, when the chronicler William of Newburgh recounted a story told to him by ‘a reliable person’, where a somewhat inebriated horseman comes upon a prehistoric burial mound known as Willy Howe (Humberside), at night only to be drawn into it via an opening, where he finds a band of faeries in the midst of a revel. He joins in, but when handed a silver goblet to drink from he remembers the warnings against consuming faerie food or drink (evidently a well-established tradition as early as the 12th century), and threw out the contents before making off with the goblet.
The taboo against ingesting anything from the faerie world found its way into many of the 19th- and 20th-century folklore collections. WY Evans-Wentz collected anecdotes with the motif throughout the Celtic world in the early 20th century. In Brittany, the faeries were frequently associated with the dead and if a mortal consumed offerings of food when inhabiting their world, s/he would have to stay there. And a seer in County Sligo told Evans-Wentz, “that once the faeries take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever.”
There is also a prevalent motif of the faeries not liking to be named. This has resulted in the faeries being euphemised with tags such as ‘The Good People’, ‘The Other Lot’, ‘The Fair Folk.’ The motif comes from faerie-tales such as Tom Tit Tot, but it is retained within folklore as a general taboo: the faeries do not want to receive human appellations. Evans-Wentz found the majority of people in all the regions he visited reluctant to name the faeries as such. In Wales, the term was usually the Tylwyth Teg (Fair Family) and several testimonies collected by Evans-Wentz suggested that as long as they were euphemised as such they would remain on good terms with humanity. Too much investigation into what they really were was likely to invoke their hostility.
This feeds into the folkloric idea of the faeries requiring privacy. They usually liked to choose their own time of interaction with humanity and often dealt retribution on those who pried too deeply into their affairs. They lived in a different dimension and it was private, with taboos to protect its autonomy and to ensure a limited transaction between the natural and the supernatural. These taboos are everywhere in the folklore. But where are they coming from? What is generating them as essential elements in so many faerie-tales and in much of the folklore? What do the taboos mean?
The Coded Meaning of the Faerie Taboos
19th-century proto-anthropologists such as W. Robertson Smith, Sir James Frazer, and Robert R. Marett, applied the word taboo mostly to the religious customs of pre-industrial indigenous peoples. For them the taboo acted as a socio-religious code, most often used to control access to the supernatural. Sigmund Freud adapted their ideas to compare mentally ill patients in early 20th-century Europe to indigenous people, and he retained the colonialist language in his primary thesis on the subject: Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics(1913). Freud suggested (like his predecessors) that indigenous societies were ‘degenerative’ through their inclusion of magic in everyday life. They were delusional and the delusion was kept in check partly through the elites controlling access to the source of the magic by imposing taboos – prohibiting general social inclusion into Mysteries. Freud compared the indigenous mindset to the ‘neurotic’s’ disorder. The ‘neurotic’ is unable to assimilate the social taboos against breaching ‘normal’ behaviour and will develop according behaviour patterns, usually described as mental illness.
Franz Steiner consolidated a lot of this anthropological and psychological data but argued, in his 1956 book Taboo, that the taboo was not exclusive to preliterate societies but was alive and well in the industrial West. Steiner separates religious and political taboos from those that appear to be socially sanctioned and appear organically. But he makes the important observation that there appears to be a core attribute to most taboos, in that they: “have been originally inspired by awe of the supernatural, and that they were intended to restrain men from the use of that of which the Divine power or powers were jealous.” Taboos were devices that helped keep the supernatural from being too accessible. They were warning signs.
These writers seldom touched upon the taboo motif in faerie-tales or folklore despite its ancient presence in the stories. As a folklorist, Evans-Wentz was perhaps more able to consolidate the anthropology of his time with his own insights into the folklore and the living faith in faeries at the beginning of the 20th century:
“Irish taboo, and inferentially all Celtic taboo, dates back to an unknown pagan antiquity. It is imposed at or before birth, or again during life, usually at some critical period, and when broken brings disaster and death to the breaker. Its whole background appears to rest on a supernatural relationship between divine men and the Otherworid of the Tuatha De Danann; and it is very certain that this ancient relationship survives in the living Fairy-Faith as one between ordinary men and the fairy-world. Therefore, almost all taboos surviving among Celts ought to be interpreted psychologically or even psychically, and not as ordinary social regulations.”
As the taboo survived in folklore for centuries it suggests the motif was central to understanding the relationship between the humans who were the main elements of the stories, and their relationship to the supernatural world, regularly manifested through the agency of the faeries. The taboo motif was most often included at the intersection between physical reality and the supernatural. This could work both ways, even in the same story; so whereas Oisín was a part of the supernatural world when he broke his first taboo, his second taboo was committed in consensus reality and closed off his access to the Otherworld. Launfal also closed off his access to the non-physical world by breaking his taboo, and Cherry of Zennor’s chance of staying in the faerie Otherworld away from the harsh realities of her physical life was curtailed when she broke the ointment taboo. These taboos represent the marker-points in the stories where there is a breach between the physical and the metaphysical. The actuality of such a breach is coded in the taboo, which expresses a real transcendent experience in the metaphor of language in a story.
The flat stone Oisín stood on, despite it being taboo to do so, is a symbol of the intersection between material reality and non-material reality, illustrated in plain-form in the story where Oisín is able to behold the physical reality of Ireland and the faerie Otherworld at the same time as long as he remains on the stone. The taboo stone is the link between the worlds but interaction with it also marks the central moment of transition from one reality to another. And the lesson is usually that the supernatural world is not something to be accessed indefinitely by mortal humans. There are entrenched cosmic protocols that seem to legislate against the prolonged joining of natural and supernatural. The taboo acts more as a moment than a thing in the stories – contrasting realities and forcing choices on the protagonists. And in the folklore where the use of an ‘ointment’ is the subject of taboo, there is perhaps a clue that there are compounds that can alter a state of consciousness and so facilitate interaction with an ulterior reality. But their use is sanctioned – they are taboo. The folklore seems to project a consistent message via the taboo motif: We are not supposed to access the supernatural. Under special circumstances, access will be allowed but there will always be a price to pay, and this will be arbitrated by the breaking of a prohibition – the taboo. But is there anything to glean from this folkloric message? What are the modern faerie taboos?
In the Fairy Investigation Society’s 2017 census of faerie encounters, there are over 500 testimonies. They are anecdotal and carry no story arc and so it is no surprise there are no taboos in the narratives. Their anecdotal nature does not allow for any heavy symbolic features. But perhaps the nature of the taboo is just operating at a different level in these modern testimonies. The taboo has become the fear of talking about the faeries and thus confirming a belief in supernatural entities. All of the census correspondents remain anonymous and even then many felt the need to reiterate during their testimonies that they were not intoxicated or mentally ill. This is the case in much modern testimony of people who believe they have experienced a faerie encounter. The fear of ridicule, or worse, acts as the socially sanctioned taboo, which may hinder or prevent people from making a disclosure. This applies to most parapsychological phenomena. Our culture has adopted materialism as its primary ideology and anything psi or supernatural is deemed inadmissible and the product of delusion, misapprehension, hallucination or fakery. This outlook permeates all parts of Western society and so a person claiming to have encountered anything supernatural risks placing themselves outside of accepted, conventional social-norms. This is especially the case with faeries, who have a peculiar niche in the supernatural hierarchy, mostly due to their transition from folkloric creatures to amorphous winged beings in the 19th and 20th centuries. In today’s world talking about encountering faeries has a specific taboo placed on it – the faeries have a particular quality of otherness that is different from other psi phenomena such as UFOs, ghosts, precognition, telepathy etc. There is something deeply subversive about disclosing an encounter with a supernatural life-form that, according to the folklore, appears to have been around for millennia, but which has been marginalised to children’s lore for at least a century. The disclosure has become the taboo that will have consequences for the purveyor, and just as in the tales and folklore this modern taboo is at the intersect between physical and metaphysical.
The taboo motif seems almost to operate as an archetype – a prohibition that is always in place to prevent too much contact between the natural and the supernatural. In faerie-tales and folklore, a taboo-breakage is the means to take a human out of the Otherworld or to take a faerie out of this world. The stories need the taboo key, and the key always ends up locking the door between different realities. Modern faerie-encounter anecdotes have a social taboo placed on them created by a fear of discussing such supernatural interaction, thus stifling any chance to understand them. In all cases, the taboo manifests as an apparently inherent barrier between physical and metaphysical. The breaking of a taboo is the moment where the necessary closure between natural and supernatural is maintained. The coded message seems to be that while we live we can only have limited contact with any transcendent reality. Any transgression of the taboos that hold the contact in place will sever the link – the taboo acts as a metaphysical control-mechanism. From the faeries’ perspective of needing and requiring only limited contact with humans, the taboos have been very effective.
During the past couple of years, there has been a burgeoning number of online sources discussing the faeries in all their guises. This perhaps represents a renewed interest in these supernatural entities that have been part of our culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There appears to be an extended realisation that they have something important to add to our understanding of reality; whether it be through the lens of folklore or through a modernistic, esoteric view. There are many approaches to the subject matter. These range from the purely folkloric remit of discussing faeries as a fossilised remnant of our culture through to encompassing them into a phenomenology as extreme as alien abduction scenarios. Deadbutdreaming has always attempted to provide a holistic overview of what the faeries might be, but I am always reliant on, and grateful for, the excellent research and interpretations of others – folklorists, historians, archaeologists, Forteans, esoteric writers, artists, and just thoughtful commentators – who are attempting to make sense of what is a very strange but pervasive phenomenon, which remains below the mainstream radar.
This post is an attempt to list and describe briefly some of the sites that I have found insightful and useful. They cover a wide range of research and come at the phenomenon from many different angles. I hope this will be a beneficial tool for readers looking to scope out the faeries and their place in the present cultural zeitgeist. Inevitably, I’ll miss some sites and so would very much appreciate pointers towards any not listed below, so that I can update the post.
Love it or loathe it, some of the best up to date information about research and writing into the faerie phenomenon can be found on Facebook within groups and community pages. Deadbutdreaming has a companion community page called The Faerie Code, where I link to recent articles and historic and new faerie artwork. The following groups and community pages all contain regularly updated posts and are invaluable for anyone wanting to know more about the faeries in all their forms.
Circle Stories A special mention for this excellent community page, which is administered by David Halpin where he frequently posts articles about his research into the folklore and mythology of Ireland. It is well-sourced and often exhumes folklore from the archives that has not seen the light of day for a long time. But the posts are more than a simple recounting of historic folklore – David always applies a keen interpretative (and esoteric) eye on what the folklore might mean and what we can learn from it. There is much coverage of Irish megalithic sites (hence the page name) and their relationship to folklore, and the faeries find their way into many of the posts.
The following pages are those I have found most useful, in terms of regular updates, interesting links, personal testimonies and artwork, which shed some light on the faerie Otherworld:
There are not that many websites devoted exclusively to the faeries. Articles and research tend to find their way onto the liminal and folklore sites listed in the following sections. However, there are some, which are excellent. First among equals is The Fairy Investigation Society, which also has an exemplary, regularly updated Facebook page (listed above). The website has a wealth of resources for anyone wanting to dig deep into faerie-lore, including the results of the 2017 census, which includes over 500 anecdotal faerie encounter reports from around the world. A new survey is currently being conducted and there is a form on the website for anyone wishing to give testimony to their own faerie experience. The Fairy Investigation Society has an interesting history, being first founded in 1927 before folding before the second world war, refounded in 1950 and then falling into abeyance again in 1992. The current incarnation began in 2013 and the society continues to be an important hub for understanding what the faeries might represent in our culture.
One of my favourite sites is British Fairies, the blog site of researcher John Kruse. As the name suggests, this concentrates on the faerie folklore of the British Isles, and John has, over the past three years, compiled a large archive of studies into the faeries covering a wide subject-matter. The posts are always well-referenced and researched, and will encourage the reader to delve deeper into the folklore. Likewise, Laura Coulson’s The Faery Folklorist site contains a wealth of data, ranging from folktales to personal experiences to book reviews. Laura has travelled the British Isles to gain insights into regional aspects of faerie folklore and has been posting since 2009. Coming from a more esoteric outlook is Morgan Daimler’s site Living Liminally. Morgan has published several incisive books on the faeries and while her blog site is not exclusively about the faeries, they feature heavily on the site, and Morgan’s research into faerie folklore, its modern interpretation and how our culture might incorporate the faeries is always illuminating.
Faerie of Ireland – Encounters with the Good People is a relatively new site, which has already accumulated lots of great articles and links, and there is also a series of podcasts, which are required listening for Irish faerie-lore. And from across the Atlantic comes the slightly leftfield blog site of George Harvey that has many takes on the faeries. As the constitution states: “It is our firm belief that a human society can only be healthy if the Wee Folk who live with it are comfortable and happy.” This is The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Wee Folk. There have been no recent posts but the archive from 2012-14 is recommended reading.
Coming from a distinctly spiritual perspective are two first-rate sites: Sisters of the Fey (which covers a wide subject-matter but contains much faerie-lore) and Celtic Faerie Teachings. Both approach faerie phenomenology from an esoteric perspective and attempt to place the faeries within the context of magic(k)al modern practices.
And the faeries as nature spirits are discussed in depth at RealityWalker, an incisive esoteric website, which also covers a mass of anomalous and paranormal phenomena.
Much modern thinking on faerie phenomenology appears on what can be deemed liminal websites; that is sites that consider a wide variety of Fortean, esoteric, paranormal and occult subjects. But the faeries make regular appearances on these pages, confirming their position as intrinsic supernatural icons in our underground sub-culture.
Two sites that are especially good are The Anomalist and The Daily Grail. Both have large databases of articles and also produce excellent daily digests, giving a breakdown of links to the latest thinking on subjects from UFOs to quantum physics to NDEs… and to faeries. The Anomalist (through its adjunct Anomalist Books) has also published Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and Joshua Cutchin’s Thieves in the Night – the faerie phenomenon is well-recognised here.
The faeries are also represented on the following liminal sites, which cover a broad range of subject-matter but consistently refer back to faerie phenomenology in both folkloric and esoteric forms:
Ancient Origins This is a large site, which covers a vast topic range, from pure archaeology to more esoteric thinking. It has a good search engine, where you will be able to find a large number of articles related to the faeries.
Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog Dr Beachcombing’s site contains a wealth of Fortean articles, always resonating with a sly sense of humour. There is much Leftfield perspective on the faeries in this blog.
Dan Baines A blog site with many takes on the faeries from an exceptionally talented author.
Håkan Blomqvist´s blog This site is primarily about the UFO phenomenon, but also contains much other Borderline research, which contains the faeries at regular intervals.
Haunted Ohio Books The website of Chris Woodyard is a Fortean cornucopia. There are many incisive articles discussing the faeries in all their forms.
Metaphysical Source Jonny Enoch’s site, which encompasses the faerie otherworld in many articles. It also has a forum section for discussion on any metaphysical subject.
Mysterious Universe On the woo-woo side of things, but there is still some good writing on the faeries, with many articles to make you think outside of the reality box.
Patheos A magazine site that moves from politics to esotericism in the blink of an eye. But there are a lot of articles about folkloric and modern faeries, which can be found via the search engine.
The Centre for Fortean Zoology An exemplary blog site by Ronan Coghlan (founding editor Michael Newton), where the primary focus is on cryptozoology, but where faerie-type entities make regular appearances. Ronan has produced a large archive of articles since 2013.
Weird Tales Radio Show This is a wonderful podcast series produced by Charles Christian. It covers a range of Forteana and has now accumulated a well-populated archive of hour-long shows. The faeries wriggle into much of the content and my own interview with Charles is episode #15 from April 2018.
The following sites include articles and podcasts that come at the faerie phenomenon from a folkloric perspective. This ranges from academic articles to content for general interest. In order to understand what the faeries may represent to us in the modern world, it is essential to understand their roots in folklore. This will, ideally, require reading lots of books, but I’ve found these sites contain the best online content.
Academia.edu This site requires a subscription, but once you have that you will discover over a hundred academic articles (published and unpublished) about folkloric and literary faeries from diverse frames of reference. The search engine is effective.
Ali Isaac Storyteller Ali Isaac’s site has a deservedly high reputation and encompasses a wide spectrum of Irish folklore that frequently engages with faerie folklore.
Emerald Isle This site has an extensive range of articles investigating Irish folklore and mythology, geo-located with a very useful map. There is an especially good section on Folk Tales and Faerie Tales.
Folklore Thursday has accumulated a large database of articles that investigate folklore from around the world. As per the name, every Thursday is #FolkloreThursday on Twitter, when enthusiasts can post articles, images, testimonies etc. relating to the theme of the week. The faeries are regular subject-matter.
Icy Sedgwick This is a folklore blog with many posts about faerie-lore. Icy also writes supernatural fiction – she’s a very accomplished writer.
New England Folklore Peter Muise’s blog site, which has been examining the folklore of the region for over a decade, and has accumulated much faerie folklore.
The Folklore Podcast is produced by the folklorist Mark Norman and includes regular audio shows discussing folkloric subjects. It is now in its fourth season and episodes are browsable… plenty of faeries within these podcasts.
The Folklore Society is the main hub for the academic study of the subject and produces the venerable Folklore journal. If you subscribe you’ll have access to a searchable database of the journal’s articles from over a hundred years, many of which investigate faerie traditions.
There are also a couple of free sites, which are invaluable for finding primary source material. Sacred Texts has a large collection of faerie folklore, ranging from folktales to more anecdotal stories collected by 19th- and 20th-century folklorists and contained in classic volumes; for instance, WY Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries and JF Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands. And Dúchas is University College Dublin’s digitised Irish national folklore collection, which has an excellent search engine to aid research into a mine of faerie folklore from Ireland.
I haven’t included any YouTube channels as they tend to be quite disparate, but a simple search will bring up many videos, from animated films to documentaries and video-blogs. Here’s a taster from Thomas Sheridan’s always insightful channel Beyond Room 313.
Recently I was sent an email from a woman wanting to share her experience of encountering what appeared to be faeries or nature spirits. As with many people who interact with faerie-type entities for the first time, she wanted to make clear that she was not intoxicated, had not taken any drugs and has no history of mental illness. In our rationalistic culture, this is understandable; any contact with something that may be termed supernatural is often met with suspicion, derision or concern as to the person’s mental state. Western culture is predominantly reductionist – anything that appears to contravene the accepted consensus reality based on material physical laws is usually deemed as a misrepresentation of a natural phenomenon, a hallucination, a dream, or chicanery. This is a narrow vision of reality. There are mountains of data describing supernatural, parapsychological and anomalous phenomena from around the world, but most of it is anecdotal. The data cannot usually be scrutinised by scientific protocols because most of it happens spontaneously; it is not possible to recreate the circumstances in a laboratory. Does this make the anecdotes less real? Does it disqualify them from our attention? It shouldn’t. Our entire lives are made up of a series of anecdotal incidents, stored in memory and recalled when necessary to inform the present. If an anecdotal account of an experience that seems supernatural is recounted with honesty and clarity, we should perhaps attempt to escape any reality boxes we find ourselves in and assess it on its merits, even if it contradicts an ingrained worldview. The following anecdotal testimony describes an encounter with faerie-like entities, which may be compared to the hundreds of reports made to The Fairy Investigation Society’s recent census, suggesting that whatever the faeries are, people are still experiencing contact with them in the 21st century. There is a palpable, authentic interface with a metaphysical reality, which doesn’t sit well with mainstream culture but is nonetheless continuing to happen.
The woman was 39 years old when the experience happened in June 2018. She has insisted on anonymity but given permission to publish her testimony on deadbutdreaming along with any interpretative assessment. The main body of her text is reproduced here in full, with minor spelling, grammatical and formatting corrections. She has seen the article in its first draft, corrected some points of fact and agreed for me to post it.
A 21st-Century Faerie Experience
“I live in London with my husband and two daughters aged 4 and 6. My husband and I are both professional people living what I guess you would call a middle-class life. We are happy and enjoy the culture available in London. But sometimes I find the city a bit pressured and claustrophobic. But I am lucky enough to have an aunt who lives in a cottage in Somerset, who I have visited twice a year since my eldest was born. The cottage has a very large garden (over half an acre?), which is the pride and joy of my aunt. She has help to look after it, but she does a lot herself and it is a beautiful mixture of lawn, borders, summer house, wild areas and a small orchard of a dozen apple trees and half a dozen plum trees. It is such a contrast to my London life and the girls have come to love being there.
The event I want to tell you about happened in June 2018. My husband was away at a conference and so I took the week off and took the girls to my aunt’s place. On the second night, once I’d put them to bed, I went out to sit on a lounger next to the apple trees. The sun had just set after a very warm day and I was feeling very relaxed, content to just gaze out beyond the trees to the soft light on the hill beyond the garden. I’d just been through a very stressful couple of months at work and this felt like heaven.
After about fifteen minutes I noticed what I thought were a couple of squirrels racing up the trunk of one of the trees. They were moving a bit oddly and so I pulled myself up from the recliner to focus in on them more clearly. When they moved into sight from behind the trunk I was suddenly jolted. My heart was in my mouth. The two squirrels were actually two small humans! They moved strangely, with jerky movements but I was convinced they had human form, although I could not tell the gender. They could have been no taller than two feet and seemed dressed in dull brown clothing that sometimes melded into the tree bark. I was about twenty feet away and although the dusk was coming they were very clear to me. They seemed to be ‘mucking about’ on one of the boughs, as if playing a game. But I heard no sounds. My feeling was amazement. I shut and opened my eyes several times and pinched myself. They continued to play their game for about five minutes, during which time I watched intently but did not move a muscle. I could just make out their facial features, and would be willing to testify in a court of law that they were human, albeit distorted and maybe slightly cartoon-like. After approximately five minutes they simply vanished. I mean really vanished. One second they were there, the next they just popped out of sight.
When they had disappeared I became slightly agitated. I watched for a few more minutes and then felt I needed to get back to the cottage. The next day I decided to ask my aunt outright if she had ever seen anything strange in the garden. She’s an old-school country woman and has lived there for over three decades. She told me she was always hearing laughter and tinkling bells when working in the garden but had never seen anything. I told her what had happened and she seemed quite relaxed to hear it. She suggested there might be ‘nature spirits’ in the garden and for some reason they had made an appearance to me.
The next evening at the same time I sat in the lounger again, but there was nothing. I started to doubt my memory even though I knew what I had seen. The following day the girls were playing in the garden under the apple trees while aunt and I took tea. I was convinced we were being watched. It’s hard to describe and I know it sounds like paranoia, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were all being observed by something. I said nothing to my aunt about this and obviously nothing to the girls. So once again that evening I sat in the lounger by the apple trees. I was relaxed but thinking about the feeling of earlier that afternoon. Then, again, I saw two squirrels on the same tree. This time they seemed to ‘drift’. I mean they were squirrels but they seemed to levitate from the bough, at which moment they became something else. It’s hard for me to describe. They appeared to form into misty shapes, slightly illuminated, which flew around the branches of the tree. Again, I watched for maybe five minutes and there was a deep feeling of peace as I did so. And the moment before the shapes faded away I heard a distinct voice, as if next to my ear, which said: ‘We tend the trees.’ It was like a whisper, maybe childlike, but ever so real. It made me jump from the lounger. I investigated the tree for about fifteen minutes before returning to the cottage. Again, once they were gone I became agitated.
I discussed this with my aunt the next day and she was very blasé about it, which surprised me. She didn’t seem to see the big deal, but it was definitely a big deal to me. Nothing else like this happened for the rest of the week and we returned to London. I haven’t said a word to my husband about this as he is a very practical, no-nonsense sort of person and I don’t want to rock any boats. In fact, I am a very practical person, non-religious and have never considered the supernatural anything more than delusion. But these experiences seemed very supernatural. I really don’t know what to make of it. All I can say is that I am as convinced as I can be that the incidents happened as I describe. They had a dream-like quality but I WAS NOT asleep. I haven’t drunk alcohol for eight years, have never taken illicit drugs and have no history of mental illness.
Since the experiences, I have researched into ‘nature spirits’ and found out something about fairy folklore, which is something I knew nothing about (although the girls have always loved fairy stories). I found your website and was amazed to read about modern people interacting with ‘faeries’ (why do you spell it like that?). You speak a lot about altered states of consciousness in your writing. Maybe I was in an altered state, but if so it must have been totally natural, because, as I say, I take no intoxicants. The experiences have definitely changed the way I look at the world. I feel that since they happened I have become more open-minded and questioning of the way the world works. It’s been almost a year now but the effect remains. I haven’t visited my aunt since, but the family is due there in July 2019, and so I’ll let you know if I see any more fairies!”
Assessing the Experience
There is a lot to unpack here. As with any anecdotal testimony, the first question must be to assess the honesty of the account. People make things up and not always for clearly-defined gains or reasons. Without knowing the person giving the testimony it is difficult to ascertain whether they are fabricating the whole or part of the account or if they are exaggerating for effect. This is a perennial issue in folklore collection – the hermeneutical compounds of the testimonies are difficult to unravel. However, in this particular case (augmented by some additional email correspondence) I’m as sure as I can be that the person is telling the truth as far as she remembers it. It seems to be the deposition of someone who is genuinely confused and intrigued about an incident for which they have no explanation within their ordinary and familiar worldview.
But even the most scrupulously honest recall of an event is still subject to the vagaries of memory. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: “findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.” This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems. This is (and always has been) an unavoidable component of folklore. It does not, however, discredit the experience. So with these caveats in mind, what might this incident tell us about the faeries and how they may be able to interface with human consciousness?
First, the state of consciousness of the woman had been altered by her transplantation from her usual urban environment to a rural setting. This is not an uncommon occurrence for city-dwellers holidaying in the country, but it evidently had an effect on her state of mind, perhaps heightened by a period of work pressures leading up to the stay with her aunt. Many of the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census reported their experiences as happening during various types of special circumstances, where they were somewhere away from their usual habitat. The census also contains many descriptions of people being calm, happy, relaxed or meditative just prior to their experiences. These states of mind (along with more negative states such as grief, depression and anxiety) also play a part in many historical folklore accounts of interactions with metaphysical entities, where the protagonist is removed from their normal everyday existence and find themselves in a different mindset. This was the case with my correspondent. She had moved from an intense, stressful lifestyle to one of relaxation and calmness in a short space of time. While there were evidently no intoxicants involved in constructing her experience, the swift change of environments is an important element in terms of how her consciousness may have been altered and perhaps rendered more susceptible to a numinous incident.
Relaxed and calm, enjoying the ambience of a special natural environment she found herself encountering something outside her usual cosmology. The shock of what was happening finds common cause with the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, where disbelief is a customary reaction. Such consternation is a natural response to something so out of the ordinary. And the disturbance of normality is likely to cause an adrenalin rush. This can have a variety of effects on how the reality of the moment is perceived, but one is that attention is concentrated so that events can appear so super-real that they become abnormal. However, it is this type of intense concentration that was advocated by Rudolf Steiner when, in the early 20th century, he was suggesting we are able to recognise metaphysical realities sitting alongside our usual material reality only when we are capable of relaxing our usual sense-filters. He suggested that once this filter removal was achieved we would be able to ascertain the Supersensible world, where, he proposed, reside a multifarious realm of nature spirits, sometimes known as faeries. Steiner called this clairvoyance, and this is perhaps what was pervading my correspondent’s consciousness when she experienced supernatural entities in the orchard garden.
The observed entities themselves conform to folkloric and esoteric taxonomies. Most faeries (though by no means all) are described as humanoid. This may be the human observer translating what they are actually seeing into something tangible in order to make sense out of it. Although she did not describe any details of clothing, the description of them ‘melding’ into the tree bark has resonance with many historic and modern faerie encounters, where the entities seem almost a part of the natural environment, but not quite. They also seemed playful: ‘mucking about’ on the tree. This is another common attribute of the faeries – they like games. Are they doing this for the benefit of the human observer, or is this once again a trick of consciousness to make the supernatural more palatable? Childlike behaviour is less threatening than an intense encounter. The suggestion that faeries have in recent decades been updated to a new tech-form in the shape of alien abductors may indicate that our collective consciousness has lost the ability to code metaphysical encounters and that our cultural neurosis has turned them into specific sinister confrontations. However, although my correspondent felt agitated after the experiences, the actual time of the encounter was marked by a feeling of peace and wonder. She was not frightened, only amazed.
The second experience seems to have turned the relatively traditional faerie-types into ‘nature spirits’. There is much discussion among folklorists, Fortean investigators and occultists about whether ‘nature spirits’ and faeries are two different forms of metaphysical entities. It is certainly true that most folkloric representations of faeries do not see them as environment propagators. But there is also a long tradition of allowing elementals into the faerie taxonomy. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus defined the metaphysical spirits of nature into gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), undines (water) and salamanders (fire), a typology followed by 19th- and 20th-century Theosophists, including Rudolf Steiner. And a large minority of respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census described the entities they encountered as ‘nature spirits’. The difference between folkloric faeries and nature spirits is perhaps only semantic. They all seem to be coming from the same place and interact with human consciousness in the same concerted manner. The fact that my correspondent saw her entities on the same tree might strengthen the idea that they were simply different aspects of a common phenomenon.
The Faerie Phenomenon
What that phenomenon is, however, is a difficult question to answer. Deadbutdreaming has made several attempts to get to the root of faerie phenomenology:
But they are evasive, like many supernatural or metaphysical phenomena. This particular encounter is perhaps rather typical of modern faerie experiences in that there is an oblique quality to the interaction; the person is confronted by what they deem an irrational occurrence. From a materialistic perspective, it should not have happened. But if that perspective is allowed some leeway, then it is possible to accept that a human consciousness is interacting with a physical environment and what is intrinsic within that consciousness, albeit latent, makes itself visible (and audible) in a coded way within that environment. The concept of a collective consciousness, storing all human experience, allows the explanation of a transceiving brain to plug into mythological and archetypal subject matter when certain conditions are met. Faeries and nature spirits are deeply embedded within the mythological cycle of humanity. Historically, they have manifested in folklore and occult literature, but more recently (as in this incident) they appear anecdotally, often within the lives of people who do not expect their presence. This does not mean they are not real. They are subjectively real within the consciousness of the observer, just as any experience in life, and just because they cannot be captured within experimental conditions does not exclude them from an overall reality. Consciousness itself is not material; it exists as a metaphysical construct and, despite many centuries of scientific endeavour, its true nature remains elusive – it cannot be wedded to matter. It usually operates within the bounds of material physical laws, but when the bonds are loosened and the state of consciousness is altered – through psychotropic drugs, meditation, clairvoyance, emotional disturbance, trauma, or just a peaceful mindset – we appear to sometimes view things that are operating outside of normalised reality. They are non-local, i.e. they come from somewhere else; perhaps a collective consciousness to which we do not normally have access.
So do faerie and supernatural entity encounters have a purpose? If we allow the possibility of their existence at whatever level, are they conveying a message? In this particular testimony, they may have been simply manifesting in order to draw the woman out of her stressful lifestyle; to recalibrate a potentially unhealthy mindset. Her consciousness was perhaps tapping into a deeper, archetypal reality (as it might also do in dreams) to demonstrate to her that there is more to life than she had been believing. Her comment that she had become more “open-minded and questioning of the way the world works” since the encounter suggests the experience has had a fundamental effect on her worldview. This is a common motif among people who interact with faerie entities. Folkloric examples often describe a changed person after the faerie encounter and The Fairy Investigation Society’s census is replete with people who say their experience has changed them, usually for the better. Perhaps the faeries and nature spirit-type entities appear simply to drag us out of the dogmatic materialistic/reductionist cosmology we have become entrenched within. They may be (and have always been) metaphysical messengers, reminding us of William James‘ words: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness that are entirely different.”
But there can be specific messages as well. “We tend the trees” does appear to be a definitive communication conveying the point about the nature spirits’ purpose in the metaphysical cultivation of the natural world to a person who had no idea this might be a possibility. Despite my correspondent insisting she was not asleep during the encounter, this does sound like the sort of audio-communication that takes place during a hypnogogic episode, when we are on the edge of sleep. This is, of course, another form of altered state of consciousness, when the waking state partly crosses the border into the unconscious realm. Once again, this state of consciousness is no less real than our everyday state and may constitute a special place where we are able to access information that is not usually available.
Whatever the various interpretations of this particular experience, it does seem clear that interactions with supernatural entities, which may be described as faeries, are still taking place in the 21st century. They do not seem to be consigned to folklore and appear to be a genuine phenomenon that pervades our contemporary culture. While there is a tendency in recent literature to relate faerie-type encounters to altered states of consciousness invoked by psychotropic substances, my correspondent’s testimony, as well as the hundreds of experiences recorded in the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, do suggest that anyone can interact with these metaphysical beings if certain circumstances are conducive. It would seem the faeries are with us for the long haul, unwilling to depart from human consciousness and perhaps hanging around to teach us a few more lessons about ourselves.
A common motif in European folklore is that of the faeries being made visible to a human through the application (accidentally or on purpose) of an ointment or salve to the eyes (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index 235.4). Often, the story is completed by the faeries discovering the human has used this magical technique to observe them, and blinding the protagonist, either totally or partially (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index 362.1). These motifs do not always go together, but there is a definite folkloric correlation between the two that seems to be based on the concept of magical vision, a clairvoyant ability to see metaphysical faeries, which is often resisted by them to the extent of taking away the ordinary sight of the observer as a punishment, or simply to prevent them from further perception of the faerie realm. These deeply embedded folkloric motifs suggest the roots of the stories and anecdotes are tapping into some Delphic meaning about being able to see the faeries, with an insinuation that we’re not supposed to be able to see them, and that such occult knowledge may bring retribution in physical consensus reality.
Midwives, Faeries, Ointment and Blinding
The most common folkloric rendering of these motifs involves a human midwife being summoned by the faeries to aid in a faerie birth, where she applies the magical ointment to her eyes (usually by accident) and sees the faeries in all their supernatural glory. Once returned to material reality, she meets with a faerie who was present at the birth, who, on discovering the woman can see them, blinds the woman in one or both eyes. The earliest version of this story is recorded by the 13th-century chronicler Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia Imperialis, but, as usual, the most complete motif-types were collected by 19th- and early 20th-century folklorists, evidently after the tales had been doing the rounds as an oral tradition for many centuries. There are dozens of stories containing the motifs from Lithuania to Scandinavia to Britain and Ireland. John Rhys collected a Welsh version in 1901 about a servant girl called Eilian, who was carried away by the Welsh faeries, the Tylwyth Teg, who she had been consorting with on moonlit nights. Months later the faeries turned up at a midwife’s house to beg her assistance. She travelled with them, accidentally applied ointment to her eyes and saw that the mother was Eilian, surrounded by faerie splendour. She delivered the child, returned home, and then on her next visit to market saw the faerie father in the crowd, and asked how Eilian was. He asked her with which eye she saw him, and on telling him he immediately ‘put it out with a bulrush.’
An English version of the story, from Devon, was collected by the Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs in 1890, and is perhaps the best distillation of the tale-type. He evidently tailored it to the tastes of the Folklore Society (he later became the editor of the society’s journal Folklore) by applying an appropriate name to the midwife and smoothing out the dialect, but it captures the motifs well, encapsulating all the elements of the story type:
DAME Goody was a nurse that looked after sick people, and minded babies. One night she was woke up at midnight, and when she went downstairs, she saw a strange squinny-eyed, little ugly old fellow, who asked her to come to his wife who was too ill to mind her baby. Dame Goody didn’t like the look of the old fellow, but business is business; so she popped on her things, and went down to him. And when she got down to him, he whisked her up on to a large coal-black horse with fiery eyes, that stood at the door; and soon they were going at a rare pace, Dame Goody holding on to the old fellow like grim death.
They rode, and they rode, till at last they stopped before a cottage door. So they got down and went in and found the good woman abed with the children playing about; and the babe, a fine bouncing boy, beside her.
Dame Goody took the babe, which was as fine a baby boy as you’d wish to see. The mother, when she handed the baby to Dame Goody to mind, gave her a box of ointment, and told her to stroke the baby’s eyes with it as soon as it opened them. After a while it began to open its eyes. Dame Goody saw that it had squinny eyes just like its father. So she took the box of ointment and stroked its two eyelids with it. But she couldn’t help wondering what it was for, as she had never seen such a thing done before. So she looked to see if the others were looking, and, when they were not noticing, she stroked her own right eyelid with the ointment.
No sooner had she done so, than everything seemed changed about her. The cottage became elegantly furnished. The mother in the bed was a beautiful lady, dressed up in white silk. The little baby was still more beautiful then before, and its clothes were made of a sort of silvery gauze. Its little brothers and sisters around the bed were flat-nosed imps with pointed ears, who made faces at one another, and scratched their polls. Sometimes they would pull the sick lady’s ears with their long and hairy paws. In fact, they were up to all kinds of mischief; and Dame Goody knew that she had got into a house of pixies. But she said nothing to nobody, and as soon as the lady was well enough to mind the baby, she asked the old fellow to take her back home. So he came round to the door with the coal-black horse with eyes of fire, and off they went as fast as before, or perhaps a little faster, till they came to Dame Goody’s cottage, where the squinny-eyed old fellow lifted her down and left her, thanking her civilly enough, and paying her more than she had ever been paid before for such service.
Now next day happened to be market-day, and as Dame Goody had been away from home, she wanted many things in the house, and trudged off to get them at the market. As she was buying the things she wanted, who should she see but the squinny-eyed old fellow who had taken her on the coal-black horse. And what do you think he was doing? Why he went about from stall to stall taking things from each, here some fruit, and there some eggs, and so on; and no one seemed to take any notice.
Now Dame Goody did not think it her business to interfere, but she thought she ought not to let so good a customer pass without speaking. So she ups to him and bobs a curtsey and said: ‘Gooden, sir, I hopes as how your good lady and the little one are as well as –‘
But she couldn’t finish what she was a-saying, for the funny old fellow started back in surprise, and he says to her, says he:
‘What! do you see me today?’
‘See you,’ says she, ‘why, of course I do, as plain as the sun in the skies, and what’s more,’ says she, ‘I see you are busy, too, into the bargain.’
‘Ah, you see too much,’ said he; ‘now, pray, with which eye do you see all this?’
‘With the right eye to be sure,’ said she, as proud as can be to find him out.
‘The ointment! The ointment!’ cried the old pixy thief. ‘Take that for meddling with what don’t concern you: you shall see me no more.’ And with that he struck her on the right eye, and she couldn’t see him any more; and, what was worse, she was blind on the right side from that hour till the day of her death.
A Cornish version of the tale-type is told in the complex story of Cherry of Zennor, collected by Edwin Sidney Hartland in 1890. Cherry’s journey into the realm of faerie includes travelling through a dark, tunnel-like road, persuaded to do so by a ‘handsome gentleman, or master’, who, when she is ensconced in her new home, persuades her to look after his child (a variation on the theme of midwife). Included in her duties is ensuring a green ointment is applied to the child each day. When she rubs her eyes with the substance: “Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass.” She had, quite literally, gained a new insight into the magical environment she was in. But once the master discovers she has gained the ability to see the faerie occupants of his world, her adventure ends and she is escorted back through the tunnel and left alone on a windswept hillside in consensus reality.
Cherry was spared being blinded, but seems to have suffered instead from mental illness, brought about by her removal from the faerie dimension: “They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.” So even though the blinding motif is absent from this story, the protagonist is still deprived of the ability to see what she had once seen by way of the magical ointment, and suffers from an inability to apprehend things clearly or rationally in her life once returned to the physical world. This might be seen as a modification of the motif, where the fundamental message remains the same – witnessing the metaphysical otherworld of the faeries via forbidden means can lead to physical or mental disabling.
Some Anecdotal Evidence
There are dozens more stories of this type, mostly from Britain; the motifs had evidently been deeply embedded long before the collection and publication of the tales by folklorists. The long gestation period of this folklore allowed for much overlaying of tropes and narrative devices to the stories, and the similarity of these tale-types does suggest a common core in the oral tradition that became regionally dispersed from at least the 13th century, when Gervase of Tilbury gives the first written version. But alongside the structured stories, there are also anecdotal reports of the motifs, which can be more closely tied to specific known people. While there is always a large overlap between narrative faerie folklore and faerie anecdotes, the latter do deepen the perceived reality of the experience beyond that of a structured, plot-driven folktale.
Two such anecdotes were collected by WY Evans-Wentz in the early 20th century, and published in his 1911 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Evans-Wentz was more concerned with collecting testimonies about alleged real encounters with the faeries, than with tried and tested folkloric stories, and although many of the anecdotes related to previous generations, they contain the edge of authenticity that has perhaps become rubbed smooth in some of the more elaborate stories. During his time in Co. Clare, Ireland he recorded the testimony of Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, about a midwife from her grandmother’s generation:
“This country nurse was requested by a strange man on horseback to go with him to exercise her profession; and she went with him to a castle she didn’t know. When the baby was born, every woman in the place where the event happened put her finger in a basin of water and rubbed her eyes, and so the nurse put her finger in and rubbed it on one of her eyes. She went home and thought no more about it. But one day she was at the fair in Grange and saw some of the same women who were in the castle when the baby was born; though, as she noticed, she only could see them with the one eye she had wet with the water from the basin. The nurse spoke to the women, and they wanted. to know how she recognised them; and she, in reply, said it was with the one eye, and asked, ‘How is the baby?’ ‘Well,’ said one of the fairy women; ‘and what eye do you see us with?’ ‘With the left eye,’ answered the nurse. Then the fairy woman blew her breath against the nurse’s left eye, and said, ‘You’ll never see me again.’ And the nurse was always blind in the left eye after that.”
The ointment in this case was the water in the basin, but it clearly had supernal qualities and gave her enhanced vision, and, as in the stories above, this was dealt with by blinding. In the second testimony, from John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey on the Isle of Man, the ointment motif is missing, although the protagonist displayed the ability to see the faeries, and paid a high price:
“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: ‘You’ll never see us again’; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”
Such anecdotal incidents of the theme can be traced back to the late 17th century, most notably in the Rev. Robert Kirk’s 1691 manuscript, that has come to be known as The Secret Commonwealth. Kirk recounts the story of a midwife local to his home in Aberfoyle, Scotland. She was apparently taken from her bed one night by the faeries, who left a stock of her as replacement. After two years she returned home, explaining her absence by insisting she’d been in a faerie otherworld (Kirk usually calls the faeries subterraneans). Kirk states that [modernised spelling]:
“She perceived little what they did in the spacious house she lodged in, until she anointed one of her eyes with a certain unction that was by her. When the subterraneans perceived her to have acquaintance with their actions, they fanned her blind of that eye with a puff of their breath; she found the place full of light without any fountain or lamp from whence it did spring.”
Kirk continued to explain:
“But if any Superterraneans be so subtle as to practise sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their Mysteries (such as making use of their ointments, which makes them invisible or nimble, or casts them in a trance, or alters their shape, or makes things appear at a vast distance, &c.) they smite them without pain as with a puff of wind, and bereave them of both the natural and acquired sights in the twinkling of an eye, or they strike them dumb.”
It is clear that the motifs of gaining access to the faeries’ reality via the use of an ointment, and the potential blinding, or other disabling, for having done so, were firmly fixed in folkloric tradition from an early date. As always with these extended folklore themes, they will be conveying deeper, more fundamental insights into the human condition and the nature of contact with the metaphysical, than may be at first apparent.
Magical Ointments and Altered States of Consciousness
The folkloric stories and anecdotes do not usually state the constituents of the magical ointment; it is simply faerie magic. There are several medieval and Early-Modern treatises that include potential ointment recipes for helping to see the faeries, some including the elusive four-leafed clover, but if it is accepted that transit into an otherworld inhabited by metaphysical entities requires some form of altered state of consciousness, then it may be suggested that the folklore is coded, and that the intrusion into the tales of faerie ointment is a cipher; a metaphor for what is causing the altered state.
The mind-altering salves and unctions discussed by Early-Modern commentators often related to witches and the means to which they acquired the ability to consort with supernatural beings. Typical ingredients included belladonna, henbane bell, jimson weed, black henbane, mandrake, hemlock, and wolfsbane. These plants contain psychotropic components, such as atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which can, at appropriate doses, cause altered states of consciousness, including disassociated out-of-body experiences. This may explain the ability of witches to fly to Sabbats and engage within a metaphysical reality while their physical body was left behind, much in the way a shaman will travel to spiritual realms while their body remains inert. Emma Wilby explores the relationship between Early-Modern witchcraft and shamanism in great detail in her 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, and expands on the frequent trope of witches having familiars during their spiritual journeys, sometimes spirit animals, but just as often faeries, made visible and real to them after the application or consumption of a liquid compound. This concept is (usually) embraced by modern wiccans. The influential wiccan website witcheslore articulates the historic collaboration between witches and faerie familiars:
“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/are often connected and worked well together.”
While this neglects to mention what might bring on the trance state, it seems reasonable to suggest that certain substances have been utilised, historically and in modern times, to invoke a visionary state of consciousness that incorporates metaphysical entities, of which some may be deemed faeries. Writers in the ever-burgeoning psychedelic community are less hesitant in suggesting the possible causes of transit to a state of consciousness where the faeries might be engaged.
Deadbutdreaming has investigated in some detail the modern phenomenon of psychedelic compounds giving access to a state of consciousness where perception of faerie entities can be realised:
And a recent article by Norman Shaw contains some insightful ideas about the possible entheogenic compounds that may be at the root of the folkloric motif of a magical ointment allowing admission to a non-material realm inhabited by metaphysical beings. Especially interesting is the midwife connection:
“Investigating the links between midwives and psychoactive substances leads us to some intriguing clues about what these substances might have been. It is well known that extracts from the fungus ergot, which grows on rye and other grains, had been used by midwives for centuries to speed up contractions in childbirth. Its use was largely discontinued by the end of the 19th century, as its side-effects were deemed too dangerous for medicinal use. It is also well known that ergot contains lysergic acid, from which the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesised LSD in 1938. Hoffmann had been researching ergot’s specifically non-uterotonic medicinal properties when he incidentally spawned his ‘problem child’. Recent research suggests that ancient people from various religious systems and mystery traditions worked with psychoactive preparations of ergot as a vision-inducer, from Egypt to Greece, India and the Middle East.
Ergot was often present in bread, either deliberately or by accident, leading to mass outbreaks of ergotism, the symptoms of which (including hallucinations) were known as the diseases St. Anthony’s Fire and St. Vitus’ Dance, which were relatively common in the Middle Ages. So it seems highly likely that midwives had access to some kind of ointment of ergot for use as a uterotonic, and also for incidental use as an entheogen. Hence the presence of numerous tales of midwives’ Otherworld journeys.”
The folkloric narratives of accidental ointment application may well find their genesis in the possible inadvertent dosing of midwives with ergot, which is active in very small amounts and can be absorbed through skin, or by rubbing it in eyes. The dynamic altered state of consciousness brought about by ergotamines may provide one explanation for the ability of the protagonists in the stories and anecdotes to see and interact with the faeries, while the narrative requirements of the tales simply code the substance as a magical ointment, applied at a relevant point in the story. It is a credible interpretation that might explain the core of the motif, however much it has been overlain with metaphor and allegory in the stories. But what about the blinding motif, which is so often incorporated into the folktales containing use of magical ointment? Why do the two motifs find such conjunction?
The Taboo of the Unseen
The motif of the faeries blinding the people who have been enabled to see them through the use of magical ointment is perhaps an embedded warning in the folklore against the acquisition of occult knowledge. In The Secret Commonwealth Kirk makes a distinction between those who have inherent second sight and those who stumble upon it accidentally. Inherent second sight – allowing precognition as well as perceiving supernatural entities and environs – was a genetic gift (which could also occasionally be learned), and, providing certain respectful modalities were adhered to, those in possession of the gift were regarded with courtesy by the faeries. It was an allowed vision. But acquisition of the gift through an artifice, even if it were accidentally gained, represented a type of deceit; something which invariably invoked the anger of folkloric faeries. The faeries were notoriously jealous of their otherworldly privacy, as explicated by Katherine Briggs:
“From the earliest times the faeries have been noted as secret people. They do not like to be watched, their land must not be trespassed on, their kindnesses must not be boasted of… though faeries are ready to reveal themselves to mortals whom they favour, or whose services they wish to secure, they are quick to resent and revenge any presumption upon that favour.”
Blinding those who infringed upon their hidden otherworld was drastic retribution, but it can also be seen as a symbolic act to prevent further breaches between the physical and metaphysical worlds by those deemed to have attained a shortcut by use of an enabling compound. Gnosis of ordinarily unseen realities could be achieved by certain people under certain conditions, but using an ointment was cheating, and the access it provided had to be curtailed.
This tallies with the burgeoning literature, and online discussion, regarding the means to which gnosis of the non-physical, spiritual world can be achieved. Many commentators suggest that breaking through the barriers to a supernatural realm by means of entheogenic compounds is illegitimate; experiencing different realities and contacting non-terrestrial entities during, say, a DMT trip, is taking a shortcut that will lead to difficulties when a return to consensus reality is compelled. In contrast, practising, for instance, meditation, allows a verified inner control over your state of consciousness and the ability to interact with non-physical forms. But ingesting an external agent, whatever it may be, is forcing the issue, and provides illicit acquisition of knowledge, for which some cosmic punishment may be administered.
The allegorical potency of being blinded allows the folklore to make a powerful point within the narratives. Being deprived of sight is something to be feared, and the ability of the faeries to carry out such an injunction on those deemed to have illegitimately invaded their metaphysical space carries within its motif the warning that supernatural interaction has codes and strictures. This very much fits into the context of shamanism, in all its historic and modern forms. The shaman is a special individual, able to negotiate pathways into radical altered states of consciousness, where non-corporeal entities might be encountered. The shaman achieves this through a variety of means, including the consumption of psychotropic compounds, always within a ritual setting. It can be a dangerous undertaking and may inflict damage on the unwary attempting to simulate the shamanic journey through the use of mind and vision enhancing substances. While modern psychonauts reporting difficulties after returning from a psychedelic-induced trip into metaphysical worlds rarely (if ever) suffer any type of ocular blindness, there can be mental health repercussions (as per Cherry of Zennor). This may be seen as analogous to a loss of clarity; the blindness has found other forms in which to manifest.
But the faeries of folklore did not always perpetrate full physical blinding on the protagonists. Many of the tales end with the denouement of partial blinding, most often in order to prevent further perception of the otherworld, rather than inflicting total visual loss. This dilutes the vindictiveness of the faeries somewhat, and strengthens the contention that the tales and anecdotes developed as a specific admonition about respecting the thaumaturgic essence of a metaphysical reality. The faeries inhabit their own space, and whether it is a standalone reality external to our 3D world or a territory deeply embedded in human collective consciousness, incursion into it is conditional on certain conventions and regulations. If they are not adhered to, a forfeiture will be sanctioned.
A reversal of the themes discussed can be found in partially blind people with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, who sometimes acquire the ability to perceive faerie-like entities within their visual range. This phenomenon is discussed in a previous interview-article here.
The cover image is ‘You Were Dead’ by Ylenia Viola, whose cosmic artwork can be found at FairyTalesNeverDie. Thanks to Ylenia for allowing her images to be used for this article.
The faeries mean different things to different people. There is a great range in their taxonomy; they can be the archetypal characters found in faerie tales, folkloric entities existing in a liminal reality, animistic nature spirits responsible for the propagation of flora, and a host of culturally-coded modern beings, including, but not limited to, extraterrestrials and certain creatures that can manifest during altered states of consciousness. Despite the 20th-century Disneyfication of the faeries, they have retained many of their traditional ontologies, which has allowed their incorporation into some new interpretations about their authenticity as a phenomenon – as both a fossilised folk belief system, and as a potential dynamic epistemological reality in contemporary culture.
The faeries are a global phenomenon, and while there are many and various geographic types, there is a consistency in the taxonomic nature of these otherworldly entities. The Aarne-Thompson index of folk literature lists nearly 500 motifs related to faeries from all over the world, which can be augmented by subsequent folktale indices from culture areas not covered by the Aarne-Thompson index (most specifically in the 2004 enlargement of the index by Hans-Jörg Uther to include more international tale-types), perhaps doubling the number of motifs. All of these motifs recognise the faeries as a distinct (though widely varied) class of metaphysical being – a class that appears to have been interacting (through folklore and via an apparent supernatural agency) with human societies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The following analyses concentrate on British and European faerie types, in an effort to get under the skin of why their supernal presence has been so ubiquitous in history and why they appear to be still in attendance in Western culture. This is a difficult task; the faeries are elusive and hard to pin down. They always seem to be at the periphery of cultural vision, only disclosing themselves when conditions are right and when we are willing to accept them at an intellectual, metaphysical, spiritual or empathetic level. They certainly exist as a concept, but are they allegorical devices, useful folktale plot characters, the essence of nature, or supernatural entities? Maybe they are all these and more, but we’ll begin with an examination of their place in traditional faerie tales, where usually the meanings and morals of the stories are more important than the faeries themselves.
In fact, many faerie tales don’t seem to have any faeries in them at all. The extensive collection of faerie tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century contain over 200 individual stories, but only just over half of them contain recognisable faeries as part of the plot. The term ‘faerie’, as often as not, was simply a referral to
various supernatural elements in the story. So some of the most famous of the Grimms’ faerie tales such as Rapunzel and The Golden Bird include witches and therianthropic shape-shifters, which may bring the stories into the faerie-orbit, but they do not incorporate any folkloric faerie characters. Conversely, perhaps the most famous of all faerie tales, Cinderella, was updated by the Grimms to include a ‘faerie godmother’ as a crucial part of the plotline, where their earlier sources were more ambivalent about the nature of this supernatural entity.
But faerie tales are always more than the sum of their parts. Whether or not there are recognisable faeries present in the plot, the stories invariably contain allegorical meanings, which usually include supernatural elements to give them a timeless and transcendent quality, which opens them up to a wide range of interpretations. One of the first scholars to apply an interpretative rubric to faerie tales was Edwin Sidney Hartland in his 1891 book The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. He drew on a global corpus of faerie tales, most significantly the widespread stories of ‘Swan Maidens’, in an attempt to assess what they were attempting to convey about the nature of the human condition. While some of Hartland’s 19th-century conclusions can seem eye-wateringly colonialist to a modern reader (he presumed non-European stories of this type ‘degenerate and savage, relics of degraded primitive races’) he was attempting to see beyond the story and into the meaning; something that had not been attempted before. He interpreted the Swan Maiden stories (where a female swan transforms into a human, marries a man, who then breaks a taboo thereby releasing her back to her natural – or supernatural – element where she is lost to him) as didactic tales, informing the listener/reader about the pitfalls of wishing for something beyond your station, and that codes and conventions must be adhered to, otherwise there will be negative consequences. This was new thinking in the 19th century; a realisation that the tales contained some deep-set wisdom and could be used as tools for cultural and psychological cultivation and learning. This was always an implicit aspect of faerie tales, and one of the reasons why the stories have endured over the centuries. Before their collection and dissemination in literary form from the 18th century they would have been transmitted as an oral tradition, and their longevity in this form is probably in large part due to the fact they held embodied wisdom and coded sapience.
One method that has been used to break down the code and extract the wisdom is Jungian analysis. Carl Jung (1875-1961) initiated the premise that, like the content of dreams, aspects of faerie tales are designed to reveal cosmic truths, often taking the form of archetypes, which reside in a Collective Unconscious and are made available to humans when distilled through stories that have taken form over centuries. One of the primary adherents to Jung’s psychoanalytical application to faerie tales was Marie-Louise von Franz (1915-1998) who collaborated with him and then after his death, took the processes he had developed much further by employing interpretations of the stories’ archetypes in a systematic way, covering a wide range of faerie tales in her extensive published works. Her analytical methodologies have been cultivated further by a range of psychologists, writers and folklorists in an attempt to extricate deeper meaning from the tales. The psychologist and Jungian scholar John Betts describes the approach:
“Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes. Therefore their value for the scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds that of all other material. They represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest, and most concise form. In myths or legends, or any other more elaborate mythological material, we get at the basic patterns of the human psyche through an overlay of cultural material. But in fairy tales there is much less specific conscious material, and therefore they mirror the basic patterns of the psyche more clearly.”
Archetypes are central to this interpretative approach, where the faerie tale characters are manifestations of implicate humanity. So archetypes such as the hero, the great mother, the trickster, the fair maiden are found consistently in the stories, playing out roles that mean more than what they have been reduced to in the plotlines. These archetypes are especially prevalent in the corpus of medieval Arthurian stories, where the faeries incorporated into the narratives (such as Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake) are always supernatural arbiters of wisdom, alchemy and power. They are representatives of a greater metaphysical reality, who infringe upon the chivalric plot devices to provide a cosmic quality to the stories.
Particularly interesting are the applications of the anima/animus archetypes to faerie tales. These are easily spotted in stories about faerie brides, such as the ‘Swan Maidens’ or ‘Lake Faeries’ where the otherworldly female faeries are representative of a supernal feminine ideal, made into one with their mortal husband, before their inevitable separation. These stories are most often about how a man needs to find and understand his inner feminine, with the intrinsic warning that certain actions will destroy that understanding.
The animus counter of this can be found in the intriguing story Cherry of Zennor, a Cornish faerie tale collected by the folklorist Robert Hunt in 1865. Cherry is the fair maiden who finds herself lured into faerieland by a handsome gentleman (her animus) where she encounters a series of archetypal characters, including the innocent child, and the great mother (here playing a malevolent role). She breaks a taboo (this a symbol rather than an archetype) of using ointment that enables her to see the female faeries who her gentleman has been dallying with, and thus loses him and is returned to consensus reality on a windswept hillside. This story had evidently been passed down orally through generations before Hunt committed it to the folkloric record, and for the most part it was probably just seen as an entertaining story, set at some indefinite (but recognisable) place in the past. It may even have been recounting an actual incident, transformed into a plot-driven story over time. But overlaying a Jungian analysis allows us to see that there is a reason why it survived – it was conveying, with the use of archetypes, fundamental aspects of the human condition. There is, as in all faerie tales, a cosmic quality to the inherent parts of the story.
Cherry of Zennor is also interesting in that it incorporates, as an essential part of the story, otherworldy, supernatural entities that are recognisable as folkloric faeries. As previously discussed, this is not always the case with faerie tales, and this becomes an important distinction to make when assessing the taxonomy of the faeries. Stories like Cherry of Zennor are in some ways a ‘crossover’ between traditional faerie tales and folklore – where the boundaries are often indistinct and tenebrous. This grey area is where the allegorical nature of faerie tales becomes remodelled into the magical realism of folklore.
The differences between faerie tales and faerie folklore are indeed subtle, with a big overlap. But once the archetypes and allegories are dropped we usually find that most of the faerie folklore becomes anecdotal in nature – there might be a basic plotline but the stories are brought into a sharper, more realistic focus by them being presented as real incidents, recognisable to the end user of the tale. And in so doing, the folklore is more successful in portraying the faeries as a distinct class of beings, discernible as a specific metaphysical taxonomic, who interact with humanity in a particular way. They take many folkloric forms, but the consumer of the testimonies is never in doubt that these are the supernatural entities known as the faeries.
Here’s one such testimony from 1862, recounted by Janet Bord in her 1997 book Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People. David Evans and Evan Lewis were walking in the hills of Carmarthenshire in Wales when they saw a troupe of about fifty ‘small people’ walking up a hillside. When they reached the top they formed into a circle…
“… After dancing for a short time, one of the dancers turned into the middle of the circle, followed by the others, one by one till they appeared like a gimblet screw. Then they disappeared into the ground. After a while one of them reappeared again, and looked about him in every direction as a rat, and the others followed him one by one and did the same. Then they danced for some time as before, and vanished into the ground as they had done the first time.”
This fits into the common folktale motif of faeries dancing in a circle (Aarne-Thompson F261) and is in many ways typical of testimonies recounting folkloric faeries. There is no story, no plot; it is simply an anecdote of a strange encounter, where the word of the observer is all we have to go on. In his 2005 book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, Graham Hancock uses this example among other similar scenarios from the folkloric record to discuss this particular aspect of alleged faerie behaviour: “I realise we may not even have begun to understand what is going on with the phenomenon known as the faerie dance. Still, I repeat my suggestion that it feels like some sort of technology for jumping between worlds, and in particular for entering and leaving this one.”
However, while wanting to take the testimony at face value – and apply an interpretation onto it – Hancock accepts that the hermeneutic understanding of these folkloric anecdotes is problematic. While such anecdotes have not been overlain with the tiers of allegorical storytelling found in faerie tales, they are always subjective. The encounters cannot be repeated under experimental conditions – they are spontaneous incidents, recorded from the memory of the witness (the fact that in the above example two witnesses reported the same phenomenon does strengthen the veracity of the report). And this is how most of faerie folklore is constructed. From a scientific point of view the authenticity of the testimonies is unprovable and can be safely relegated to a folk belief system that plays no part in a modern materialist/reductionist worldview. It is a scientific outlook that is applied to anecdotal evidence of all types of phenomena, where if an incident is not repeatable then it lacks any verifiable reality. This attitude (termed physicalism by the philosopher Bernardo Kastrup), however, denies the evident reality that almost every aspect of human experience is comprised of a series of anecdotes, and that a prima facie rejection of the evidence of subjective observation, from wherever it comes, is not a viable way to understand a phenomenon, especially non-ordinary phenomena such as encounters with metaphysical entities.
And there is certainly a heavy dataset of subjective evidence contained in the folklore record when it comes to faerie encounters. This stretches back in the literature to the medieval period where English chroniclers such as Ralph de Coggeshall, Walter Map and William de Newburgh, writing in the later part of the 12th century, routinely related ‘marvels’ as related to them from a range of sources. The most well-known is the story of ‘The Green Children’, recorded by both Coggeshall and Newburgh, where two mysterious children turn up in the Suffolk village of Woolpit via a cave, apparently from an otherworld: “where all the inhabitants had green skin, ate only green food, and that there was perpetual twilight. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant… and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
But this strange story is rather atypical of the usual short anecdotes about faeries recorded by the chroniclers. A more typical example is given by Newburgh, who recounts a story told to him by ‘a reliable person’, where a somewhat inebriated horseman comes upon a prehistoric burial mound known as Willy Howe (Humberside), at night only to be drawn into it via an opening, where he finds a band of faeries in the midst of a revel. He joins in, but when handed a silver goblet to drink from he remembers the warnings against consuming faerie food or drink (evidently a well-established tradition as early as the 12th century), and threw out the contents before making off with the goblet. Interestingly, the goblet was said to have eventually made its way to the household of King Henry II, where it circulated as a curiosity among his court.
Such literary records of folkloric faeries are almost certainly only a fragment of the oral tradition that would have been transmitting these tales through the medieval period and beyond. Just as the more formulaic faerie tales began to be collected and indexed from the 18th century, so too was the anecdotal folklore. The folklorists doing the collecting and recording often amalgamated the two into single volumes, without making a distinct differentiation. But by the late 19th century anecdotal faerie folklore became better recognised as a specific genre in and of itself. A prime example of the collection and publication of a broad-spectrum of this type of narrative faerie folklore can be found in WY Evans-Wentz’s 1911 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. This classic study was based on Evans-Wentz’s three-year journey around Britain, Ireland and Brittany, where he collected a vast corpus of folklore from mostly rural countryfolk, at a time when belief in the faeries was still embedded in the (Celtic) culture. The lore he assembled covered an eclectic range of accounts, sometimes first-hand and sometimes passed down from previous generations. But most of them were simple anecdotes relayed by people who believed in the reality of the faeries, whatever that might entail. Typical of many of the testimonies given to Evans-Wentz was this one from John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey on the Isle of Man:
“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: “You’ll never see us again”; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”
This particular example plugs into the common motif (Aarne-Thompson motif F362.1) of being blinded (or partially blinded) by the faeries as a means to prevent the mortal in question being able to see them. He came across the motif again in Ireland, where Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, Co, Clare, gave testimony about a midwife from her grandmother’s generation:
“This country nurse was requested by a strange man on horseback to go with him to exercise her profession; and she went with him to a castle she didn’t know. When the baby was born, every woman in the place where the event happened put her finger in a basin of water and rubbed her eyes, and so the nurse put her finger in and rubbed it on one of her eyes. She went home and thought no more about it. But one day she was at the fair in Grange and saw some of the same women who were in the castle when the baby was born; though, as she noticed, she only could see them with the one eye she had wet with the water from the basin. The nurse spoke to the women, and they wanted. to know how she recognised them; and she, in reply, said it was with the one eye, and asked, ‘How is the baby?’ ‘Well,’ said one of the fairy women; ‘and what eye do you see us with?’ ‘With the left eye,’ answered the nurse. Then the fairy woman blew her breath against the nurse’s left eye, and said, ‘You’ll never see me again.’ And the nurse was always blind in the left eye after that.”
Evans-Wentz also found evidence from all the locations he visited that the faeries were often thought of as dead ancestors. 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.”
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.”
Further study of Evans-Wentz’s collection demonstrates that many of the motifs later coded in the Aarne-Thompson index seem to have been regularly played out in the anecdotal testimonies given to him by his interviewees. This makes the hermeneutics of these narratives difficult to unravel. As with much of the faerie folklore collected in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is almost impossible to get under the skin of what is real eye-witness testimony recounting something that happened, and how much overlay has been placed on the stories by socio-cultural belief systems. There is evidently a belief in the genuine existence of supernatural entities interacting with humanity, but what is the ratio of received wisdom to actuality? This is an important qualifier for all folklore, and something that Evans-Wentz was well aware of in his assessment of the testimonies he had collected. We’ll come back to this significant point in the discussions below, on ‘modern faeries’ and ‘the faeries as nature spirits.’
One recent publication that has grappled with the question of the role and reality of folkloric faeries is Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500AD to the Present, which distills, in great detail, the wealth of evidence that goes to make up the folkloric and historical archive of human-faerie encounters. Despite the title of the book, the remit extends to the Americas, and Simon Young’s chapter on the faeries of the Atlantic coast of Canada is particularly illuminating. He points out that Newfoundland has been a particular melting pot for faerie folklore, probably attributed in part to its colonisation by populations of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century, who brought with them a deeply embedded belief in, and understanding of, the faeries. Young recounts one anecdote from 1900, where a newspaper reported a man being ‘carried away by the fairies’ in the capital city of St John’s. The report described the man as being ‘subject to extraordinary hallucinations’ but that he was also ‘a steady, sober and industrious man’, and then added that he had previously taken been taken by the faeries ‘through bogs, marshes, rivers and heavy woods’ until he was found in an exhausted state. This sounds like a person who his ancestors would have described as having second-sight or clairvoyance; another important element in faerie encounters that will be explored further below.
Young is able to apply a three-level ‘barometer’ to the large number of faerie encounters transmitted in Newfoundland folklore, a gauge that might easily be applied to European testimonies as well, from the medieval period through to the 21st century, and is a good summation of how the faeries usually fit into anecdotal narratives:
“Level one is that of sensing fairies: fairies are seen dancing, fairies are heard playing music, we even have one case where fairies are smelt. Level two is low level interaction without lasting consequences for humans. Here the witness might be misled or their horse might be rode by the fairies at night or the fairies might steal food. The third level is intense interaction with fairies, with lasting consequences for any humans involved. This interaction includes, humans marrying fairies, humans being kidnapped or ‘changed’, magical contracts in which fairies give a sorcerer’s powers to humans, or servile relations in which fairies do farm or house work.”
Another interesting theme through the book is how the evidence of place-names demonstrates how deeply ingrained into the socio-cultural consciousness were the faeries. Particularly interesting is the large number of Pūca place-names recorded throughout England and Wales. Puck became the trickster in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but his ontological history goes much further back than the 16th century, and he might be seen as a representative type of faerie, prone to leading people astray, particularly in marshy areas, where he might appear as a light, sometimes interpreted as an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. Francesca Bihet discusses the French version of the name used in the Channel Islands: pouques, and their intimate connection to prehistoric megalithic structures pouquelayes, where faerie activity was often reported. ‘Hob’ was another faerie name fossilised into the landscape. Richard Sugg describes the Yorkshire faerie place-names: “This was a world in which the numerous fairy place names (from Hobcross Hill and Hob Holes, through various Hob Lanes, to Sheffield’s Grymelands and Kexborough’s Scrat Hough Wood) were much more than pretty folklore. The fairies really were there beneath your feet.” And Simon Young identifies 32 verifiable faerie place-names in Cumbria: “These 32 are precious because they give us some sense of how Cumbrian fairies were imagined, not by the folklore professionals, but by local people. There is nothing as democratic as a place-name.”
This faerie folklore is interesting in its own right as cultural history. There is a vast archive of centuries-long testimony from people who claim to have interacted with entities that are not normally recognised as part of consensus reality. These interactions have not been wrapped up in allegorical faerie tales, but have instead formed their own corpus; the interacting faeries have their own taxonomy. The folkloric faeries have definitely been perceived as real by generations of people, but modern (physicalist) sensibilities are constrained to view the stories as either hallucinations, misrepresentations of natural phenomena, tales told by and for uneducated and gullible people, magical wishful thinking, descriptions of dreams, plain mumbo-jumbo, or a combination of the above. But fortunately the faeries are not consigned to a folkloric past – their metaphysical presence appears to be alive and well in contemporary culture, and even experiencing a resurgence of interest, as some modern philosophical and scientific hypotheses (see the final section below) have begun to question the fundamental nature of reality and our understanding of it. These new views of reality may just be allowing the types of beings found in faerie folklore to gravitate back into our cosmological perspective.
Experience reports of faerie encounters are certainly not limited to the folkloric past. The taxonomic continues to the present day, often morphing into new typologies, but still recognisable as faeries. Like the faeries who appear in folklore, most modern types find their way into public consciousness via anecdotal testimonies – they are subjective experiences, reliant on the honesty, memory and reliability of the person making the report. But there are lots of them, and such a large testimonial dataset must smooth out the statistical spikes of the hermeneutical issues somewhat; the experienced phenomenon has to have, at the very least, some kind of conceptual metaphysical reality.
One such dataset was registered in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, first published in English in 2014. Johnson (acting on behalf of The Fairy Investigation Society) collected over 500 anecdotal descriptions from people who claimed to have seen or interacted with faeries, and compiled them together with her own experiences, mostly from the 20th century. Some of her correspondents were Theosophists, with an avowed history of clairvoyance. But the majority were not, and their honest appraisals of seeing faeries are usually singular events in their otherwise non-clairvoyant lives. Their subjective anecdotes remain contentious as scientific evidence, but they are a fascinating collection of experience reports. The faeries described range from traditional folkloric types to metaphysical nature spirits, and are occasionally described as the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention (which were then codified as Tinkerbell in JM Barrie’s 1904 play and 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, before becoming a Disney icon). An example of the type of report included in Johnson’s volume (slightly abbreviated) is from a Mr Hugh Sheridan, whose encounter was in Ballyboughal, Co. Dublin, Ireland, in 1953. He was walking across fields between his workplace and home at dusk:
“… and when nearing the corner of one of the fields I heard a tittering noise. At first I thought it was some of the other men who had gone on before me and who might be intending to play some prank. However, I noticed immediately afterwards what looked like a large, greenish tarpaulin on the ground, with thousands of faeries on it. I then found there were a lot more around me. They were of two sizes, some about four feet high, and others about eighteen or twenty inches high. Except for size, both kinds were exactly alike. They wore dark, bluish-grey coats, tight at the waist and flared at the hips, with a sort of shoulder cape… the covering of their legs was tight, rather like puttees, and they appeared to be wearing shoes. I started on the path towards home, and the faeries went with me in front and all around. The largest faeries kept nearest to me. The ones in front kept skipping backwards as they went, and their feet appeared to be touching the ground. There were males and females, all seemingly in their early twenties. They had very pleasant faces, with plumper cheeks than those of humans, and the men’s faces were devoid of hair or whiskers… None of the faeries had wings. They tried to get me off the path towards a gateway leading from the field, but just before I reached it I realised they were trying to take me away, so I resisted and turned towards the path again. [After slipping into, and getting out of a dry a ditch, still surrounded by the faeries] I moved towards home with the faeries round me, and they kept the tittering noise all the time. In the end I got to a plank leading across a ditch from one field to another, and suddenly all the faeries went away. They seemed to go back with the noise gradually fading. At one time I had reached out my arms to try to catch them, but I cannot be sure whether they skipped back just out of reach, or whether my hands passed through them without feeling anything. They were smiling and pleasant all the time, and I could see their eyes watching me. When I got home, I found I was about three-quarters of an hour late, but I thought I had been delayed only a few minutes. While the faeries were with me, I had the rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid. I would very much like to meet them again.”
This testimony includes several traditional folkloric motifs, including attempted abduction and an unexplained lapse of time, and would fit in with anecdotes from the previous century. The faeries are diminutive humanoids, interacting with a person in what appears to be an altered state of consciousness. Johnson’s volume contains many similar experiences, but it has been updated recently by a new census into faerie sightings conducted by Simon Young and The Fairy Investigation Society. It includes c.500 reports from all over the world, although the majority are from Britain, Ireland and North America. While Johnson’s survey was restricted to mostly cases from the mid 20th century, the new census (published as a free downloadable document in January 2018) contains encounters from the 1960s (with a few predating this) through to the present day, with the majority post-1980. In the introduction to the census, Simon Young explains how the publication takes a different tack to Johnson’s work: “Marjorie Johnson wanted to prove that fairies exist. I do not have this ambition. I, instead, want to get a better understanding of who sees fairies and under what circumstances by looking at the stories and the sightings.” And while contributors to the census were given the opportunity to state what they thought their experiences represented, there is no editorial evaluation into the sightings. This analytical but interpretation-free approach allows the reader to reach their own conclusions about the anecdotal accounts, and provides us with a large dataset of faerie encounters that appear to be authentic appraisals of numinous experiences, which (for the most part, and depending on the honesty of the reporter) defy rational, reductionist/physicalist explanations.
The census contains a wide range of encounter types, and needs to be read in full to understand the broad phenomenology contained in the data. The people making the reports represent a wide social cross-section and, as in Johnson’s study, while some acknowledge a previous interest in parapsychological phenomenon, most of the respondents are simply reporting a one-off experience that appears to involve faerie entities. Here are two examples from the census, which give a flavour of what were evidently numinous experiences for the people involved. The first is from Hampshire, England by a male who at the time of the sighting was in his 50s (all the census entries are anonymous):
§57 “It was a late Summer’s day in 2007, and we had been walking the dog back through woodland at Chilworth. We were in a clearing, when I spotted what looked like a tree rushing across fields towards us, and as it crossed the path before us into the next field, I could see there was a friendly, smiling face in the bark. We both had the same experience and described it to each other the same way. It was about ten feet tall. The dog stopped and looked up at it too.”
The respondent also added to the report their own feelings during the experience: “joyful… relaxed, on a walk; loss of sense of time, profound silence before the experience, hair prickling or tingling before or during the experience, and a sense that the experience was a display put on specially for you; unusually vivid memories of the experience.” There are several themes here that correspond with many faerie encounters: the relaxed mindset of the experiencer, the sense of time slippage, and the surreal incident involving an apparently supernatural entity, all of which combined to produce a particularly lucid memory.
The second example is from Somerset, England, and was described by a female in her twenties. The experience happened during the 1990s:
§114 “Friends had gone ahead and I straggled behind. As I turned a corner, it was misty. The mist had a weird glow. As I walked into the low mist there was a procession. Around three feet tall. With lanterns! But in the mist, I paused and they saw me. They came forward and I waited for them to pass. They passed. I have never taken drugs and was not on any alcohol. This was the weirdest experience. It lasted three to five minutes. By [the] time I got back to cottage my friends were concerned as I was away for around forty-five minutes! Very strange. They looked medieval in dress. But their clothes were covered by the mist at times.”
As per the first report, the respondent also reported that there was a profound silence before the experience, and that her hair was prickling or tingling before and during the event. She also suggested that there was a sense that the experience marked a turning point in her life. These experiences demonstrate that, just as in historic folkloric anecdotes, the faeries can take many forms, and their appearance may have as much to do with the unique awareness of the individual human consciousness as to an objective reality. But any objective absolute must be filtered through through a subjective lens, and although there is an extensive spectrum of entities reported in the census, there is a commonality of experience; it does appear the beings described are of a generic taxonomy – they are faeries.
This generic quality gets pushed to the limit when we attempt to incorporate into the taxonomy two other possible manifestations of modern faeries; that is the entities encountered by people while under the influence of psychedelics, and (perhaps even more controversially) aliens. The faerie-types experienced by people who have altered their states of consciousness with a range of psychedelics has been explored in some detail in previous posts:
These investigations point out there is a clear correlation between the faerie-like creatures that turn up during psychedelic episodes (most especially with the compound N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)) and the faeries reported in folklore and modern encounters. Some of the best clinical evidence for these correlations remains the research study conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman, which found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent physical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she called ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not a hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy. The results of the study were published as DMT: The Spirit Molecule in 2001.
The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. 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.
There are dozens of recorded experiences from the study, and the participants are all engaging in a non-physical reality directly with their consciousness, seemingly separated from their physical selfs. Some of the experiences agree in type to certain aspects of the faerie phenomenon. But what the research demonstrates is that under the right conditions, human consciousness can operate within a distinct and separate universe inhabited by a range of apparently autonomous entities. These entities may be one and the same as the metaphysical beings recorded in folklore and modern faerie encounter anecdotes, by people who were describing the beings encountered during various types of altered states of consciousness, brought on either actively or passively.
Since c.2010 there has been a quickly-growing literature devoted to the faerie-types appearing in the DMT-world, and however uncomfortable it may be for people who have not taken the psychedelic to accept any authenticity in the accounts, the consistency of the experience reports should make us take notice and accept them as a dataset worthy of analysis. While it may seem a stretch to equate folkloric or modern faerie encounters with the entities that turn up in a chemically-induced reality, the data insinuates very strongly that there is a parallel equivalence, which needs to be taken seriously.
Perhaps even more difficult to accept is the relationship between certain types of faerie behaviour and the modern phenomenon of alien abduction. Again, this has been considered in previous posts:
The first person to suggest a definitive link between the the reports of faerie experiences and alien encounters was the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée. In his 1969 book Passport to Magonia he put forward the theory that the faeries 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. 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 motif in faerie folklore 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, and continues to be reported in anecdotal testimonies. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to an alternative faerie reality, 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. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the consistently strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s.
In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock expanded on Vallée’s data to investigate the close links between folkloric faeries and alien abduction cases. By 2005 the abduction phenomenon contained a massive amount of testimonies, perhaps as many as a million reports, and a large percentage of them bear a striking resemblance to aspects of faerie abductions from folklore. This is especially noticeable in the cases/tales of hybrids/changelings where both the faeries and the aliens seem intent on improving their species’ pedigree with humans. Hancock writes: “We can say that the focus of this evolving experience in all the forms in which it is documented – whether spirits, fairies or aliens – has been on sexual and reproductive contact between supernatural races and humans, and on the creation of hybrid offspring to ‘strengthen the stock’ of the supernaturals.”
This theme has been examined in great detail by Joshua Cutchin in his 2018 book Thieves in the Night: A Brief History of Supernatural Child Abductions. He examines the folkloric changeling stories in relation to alien abductions (concentrating on child abductions) and makes the case for some form of continuity: “… there is a strong thread of commonality running through the phenomena, which may identify the perpetrating entities as coming from the same source… The parallels between aliens and faeries are remarkable and extend deeply into the lore surrounding paranormal child abduction. The means and motivations behind both phenomena imply a shared ontological reality…”
But this source, or ontological reality, remains a problem. Is it metaphysical, psychological, cultural, a currently unknown aspect of physical reality, or an admixture of all these? We’ll come back to this question, but first, there is one more faerie taxonomy that needs to be discussed as it is one that fills up a lot of space in the literature, and has perhaps become the preeminent modern interpretation of what the faeries might really represent.
In the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, the most common interpretation among the respondents as to what their encountered entities represented was that they were some form of nature spirit. This was especially the case when the experience happened in a natural environment. The faeries in this guise appear as an embodied morphogenetic force in nature, ensuring the propagation of vegetation. Their metaphysical input is as important as physical needs in the environment. It is interesting that many of the respondents seemed to feel this intuitively, even when they had no knowledge of the historic precedences of incorporating faeries into the dynamic life-forces of nature.
There is, indeed, a long tradition of the faeries representing the non-material forces of nature, essential to its propagation. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) developed an epistemology of these beings, describing the spirits connected to all parts of the natural world, both living and inanimate. He took much of this from ancient Greek beliefs in the deification of the landscape, but developed a new, tightly-coded typology of elementals. In effect, his concept was close to what we might describe as Animism, which has been defined as the belief that a spiritual consciousness pervades everything and that there is no separation between matter and the energy of spirit. This allows incorporeal beings such as nature spirits into a worldview, manifesting as metaphysical representatives of the physical world. Animism is the preeminent belief system in indigenous cultures and may be seen as the original global proto-religion from which all other orthodoxies developed. Its residue can be traced through Christian Europe, where a belief in non-canon supernatural entities persisted under the radar throughout the medieval and Early-Modern periods, showing up most clearly in the records of witch trials and ecclesiastical tracts that attempted to root it out. Indeed, Paracelsus was on quite thin ice in his promotion of such animistic concepts, and he twice had to refute allegations (though never made formally in an ecclesiastical court) of sorcery. His elemental nature spirits would have been simply designated as demons by the Church, and he had to couch his terms carefully, always ensuring in his writing that what he was describing was the work of God.
WY Evans-Wentz touched on the possibility that the Celtic belief in faeries was a form of implicit Animism, but it was primarily through the Theosophist movement (from the late 19th century) that the concept of a metaphysical realm responsible for the wellbeing of the natural world gained a wider understanding. One of the prime-disseminators of the nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals and with no reference to Animism) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. This was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:
“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, ‘Perception of the Elemental World’ (1913).
Steiner goes on to describe the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world when perceived clairvoyantly in what he calls the Supersensible World. The elementals in the Supersensible World exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of vegetation. Steiner (basing his epistemology on that of Paracelsus) divides these into four main types corresponding to earth (Gnomic), water (Undines), air (Sylphs) and heat/light (Salamanders). This is the faerie realm recognised as a domain of nature spirits, existing as a non-material autonomous reality that crosses over with ours, and which can be accessed via a clairvoyant altered state of consciousness. Steiner thought everyone has this innate ability, but they had to be taught how to use it, as it had somehow become almost forgotten amongst humanity.
But Steiner’s vision of the faeries as nature spirits has found many adherents in modern times, and a brief perusal of recent literature and websites devoted to the faeries seems to confirm that a majority of people interacting with these entities do so using some form of clairvoyant ability, and that when they do, the faeries are nature spirits. A good example is Marko Pogačnik, a Slovenian artist and ‘earth healer’, who travels the world to connect with the nature spirits, in order to communicate with them and heal damaged landscapes. His overview of how he works with the intelligence in nature is best found in his 1996 publication Nature Spirits and Elemental Beings, where he describes tuning into the morphogenetic fields surrounding landscapes and individual components within them. One of the ways he heals these landscapes is through what he calls lithopuncture, art installations of standing stones, meant to act upon the earth in the same way as acupuncture works on the human (or animal) body. This links us clearly to prehistoric morphological designs, such as stone circles and rows. Marko suggests that our prehistoric ancestors were full-time collaborators with the nature spirits, and were using their own lithopuncture partly to induce harmony and regulation to their surrounding environments. Post-industrial ignorance of the invisible intelligence in nature has created a disconnection with natural landscapes, much to the detriment of all life and the earth’s biosphere itself:
“The rational scientific paradigm has, during the last two centuries, imposed upon humanity a pattern of ignorance towards those beings and dimensions of life that do not know physical appearance and yet are inevitable for life processes to run and to evolve. My effort as an artist and a human being is to get intimate experience of those invisible dimensions and beings, and share the experience and knowledge about the invisible worlds of Earth and Universe with my fellow human beings to change that extremely dangerous pattern that ignores the sources of life itself.”
Pogačnik’s meditative clairvoyance penetrates the materiality of nature and sees what is happening at a metaphysical level; a level where the elementals appear in a vast variety of forms, but usually adhering to the general forms outlined by Steiner. Pogačnik’s incisive, easy and honest style of description allows for a deep insight into the cosmic reality of the mechanisms of interaction with these faerie nature spirits. He describes how seemingly innocuous changes to the natural environment can cause a potentially negative impact on the elementals who constitute the metaphysical aspect of that environment. His natural clairvoyant abilities enable him to contact the faeries and to resolve issues with them – even something as simple as moving a compost heap in a garden might force the elemental inhabiters of the compost to an unfamiliar environment, where they might cause mischief as a reaction to their perceived persecution. He suggests that these beings of a different order are unable to follow our rationalised thinking: “Their consciousness works on the emotional level. They think the way we feel, and the opposite is also true: our mental level is like a foreign language to them.”
Like Steiner, Pogačnik suggests that all humans have the congenital ability to enter a state of consciousness that will allow interaction with the nature spirits, but that this requires a lowering of the mental threshold. If we want faerie interaction our ingrained reductionist belief system needs to be dissolved or suppressed, and we must enter a meditative state, free from the usual intrusions of normal rational thinking. Perhaps one reason why it is children who so often see and interact with faeries is that this rationality is as yet not fully formed and ingrained; their consciousness is simply more able and prone to slip into a daydream state, where there is less separation between the physical and the metaphysical.
Human Consciousness and the Faeries
And this brings us back to the root of faerie epistemology. How have they managed to survive for so long as a recognisable taxonomy, apparently able to evolve between allegoric archetypes, folkloric characters, and metaphysical entities ranging from aliens to nature spirits? While there may, initially, seem little similarity in their archetypal manifestations in faerie tales and the creatures encountered in an altered state of consciousness brought about by the consumption of DMT or through clairvoyance, they may in fact be coming from the same place. This place is evidently reliant on human consciousness, but consciousness that is removed from the everyday consensus reality. A Jungian analyst would describe the archetypal characters found in faerie tales as real representatives of human consciousness – they are aspects of ourselves that can be accessed at a transpersonal level through the stories. A DMT-advocate might also describe the entities encountered in an altered state as exemplars of our awareness operating at an enhanced level, where exist entities that are not able to interact with us in our usual reduced state, perhaps correlating with the testimonies of folklore, where people’s perception of reality had been altered, albeit in a less radical fashion. A Theosophist might suggest that being able to enter a meditative state and lower the mental threshold allows a connection with both archetypal concepts and metaphysical beings operating within the environment, and that in fact they may be (almost) one and the same thing. But how can this be rationalised? How can we incorporate these concepts into theoretical frameworks that may explain the longevity of the faeries?
A materialist/reductionist would suggest that this cannot be done, because any perception of faeries is not viable as it operates outside of the known reality based on well-established laws of physics. But there is currently much subversiveness to this traditional viewpoint in science and philosophy, and we can perhaps apply two new (although they are both based on older concepts) theoretical approaches, which may help explain why the faeries (along with a range of other parapsychological phenomena) may be allowed back into our worldview.
Idealism. Idealism is a philosophical theory first posited by George Berkeley (1685-1753) and expanded upon by Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) and other German philosophers of the 19th century such as GWF Hegel (1770-1831) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). They were all codifying ideas initially expressed by Plato, and (unbeknown to them) were channeling concepts deeply embedded in Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophical/spiritual traditions. While attacked and relegated to the philosophical fringes in the West during the late 19th and 20th centuries, the theory of idealism has recently been revived and reinvented as a legitimate conceptual framework by a number of philosophers and theoretical physicists, among them Bernardo Kastrup and Amit Goswami. Kastrup has applied an interdisciplinary methodology and worked with a number of quantum physicists to theorise that the tenets of idealism are the best explanation for how reality works, as opposed to any materialist explanation, which supposes that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The basic tenets are that Mind (not the material brain) is the ontological primitive, making material reality a product of consciousness, not the other way round. There is a single universal consciousness and we are sub-sets of it. Without it or us, there is no physical reality. The theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) expressed this as: “The total number of minds in the universe is one. In fact, consciousness is a singularity phasing within all beings.” In his book Why Materialism is Baloney, Kastrup uses the insightful analogy of whirlpools in a river to make this cosmic idea accessible. The river is the universal consciousness while individual whirlpools exist within it, representing separate, localised consciousness. The whirlpools are made up from the river and are dependent upon it for their existence, but their interface with it is limited, and they seem to exist as autonomous formations. The whirlpools are symbolic of individual consciousness; apparently existing in their own right and absorbed by inward-looking self-awareness, while in actuality they are part of a bigger, connected whole – the oneness of the river.
While differing in certain respects, idealism has much in common with Jung’s Collective Unconscious where are found the archetypes that make their way into faerie tales. Using the whirlpool analogy, each whirlpool is able, when conditions are met, to incorporate parts of the larger river, thus informing itself of a greater reality outside of its self-localisation. The river (universal consciousness or the Collective Unconscious) is the over-mind containing all knowledge, which can be imparted to the individual whirlpools under certain circumstances (such as the telling of faerie tales or supernatural entity encounters). And if consciousness is a singularity then our localised minds can only have a limited perception of the greater reality, which allows in a multiplicity of parapsychological possibilities such as telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance – available to us when we are able (by whatever means) to transcend the locality. While Animism sees all things as conscious to some degree, idealism places this within an overall metaphysical context, with a potential limitless store of ideas. Anything that has been imagined in the history of human consciousness (including what would usually be thought of as supernatural entities) finds form here and at particular moments can manifest into what we normally experience as our physical reality, a reality that is utterly dependent on irreducible consciousness. The faeries thus become representatives of aspects of a collective human mind, made recognisable as a specific taxonomy by being culturally coded for centuries through folklore, storytelling and numinous encounters.
The theory of idealism finds support in experimental data from quantum physics. The well-known double-slit experiment appears to demonstrate that in the quantum world quanta exist as nothing but waves of potential – a superposition – until collapsed into particles by human observation; and that particles that have been introduced to each other become intrinsically entangled, and can then ‘communicate’ at any distance at faster than light speed. Einstein called this ‘spooky action at a distance’, but a number of recent experiments have clearly demonstrated that entanglement is a true, measurable phenomenon, although the mechanism for the communication between particles remains unknown. Scientists such as Dean Radin have suggested (with much experimental data) that entanglement may be at the root of parapsychological events, most especially telepathy and clairvoyance, but also anomalous interactions with non-human (or supernatural) entities. While there is ongoing debate about the true nature of these quantum effects, and their application in the super-atomic world, they do provide the possible explanation that consciousness (not matter) is primary and that (as per idealism) our local minds are connected to a vaster network of non-local reality, not dependent on the standard laws of physics. This is a transcendent reality that is perhaps being manifested in manageable forms by faerie tales, folklore and modern anecdotal encounters with faerie entities. It is almost as if we were living in a simulation, where some greater consciousness is allowing us to see beyond our own solipsistic horizons by implanting supernatural creatures into our physical reality in an attempt to expand our understanding of how things really work. This leads to a second theory that may help elucidate how human consciousness is interacting with the faeries.
Simulated Reality Hypothesis. The notion that we are existing in a simulated virtual reality has been a trope of science fiction, popularised most effectively in the work of Philip K Dick and the influential film The Matrix. However, the idea that experienced reality is an illusion is not new. The first millennium mystic teachings of the Gnostic Christians suggest that humanity has been trapped in a deception – a copy of reality – perpetrated by the Demiurge and his minions the Archons, and Indian Vedic texts articulate the concept of māyā, whereby the gods are able (for a variety of reasons) to create a physical reality that conceals the true metaphysical reality. But these modern and ancient doctrines of a simulated reality have received new input in recent years, updating the concepts to create a technologically coherent hypothesis that suggests our physical reality has been modelled, much like we have modelled digital realities with computers. If there is any viability in the hypothesis, then supernatural entities such as faeries are suddenly mainstreamed; made almost unavoidable in a physical world that has been constructed as a program, and where there are probably ‘glitches in the matrix.’
Using the simulated reality hypothesis outlined by the philosopher Nicholas Bostrom in 2003 as a baseline, scientific luminaries such as Elon Musk (interestingly, the Gnostic name for the fabricated reality was Elon) and Neil deGrasse Tyson have both recently suggested that the reality we think of as ‘base reality’ could be nothing more than an inconceivably (to us) advanced computer program, and that we are simply coded players in that program believing ourselves to be conscious. The cosmologist Max Tegmark and the theoretical physicist James Gates have discussed how our universe is based on a rigid set of mathematical laws, and that the coding of those laws seem to appear in quantum measurements in the real world, and also in information technology. Gates remarked: “In my research I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they also in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry?” This feeds into the NASA scientist Rich Terrile‘s idea that quantum particles/waves are the equivalent of digital bits in a computer – the basic units of information upon which everything else is built: “It is feasible that the universe we think of as material reality is simply a holographic construction based on a quantum program that has been simulated much as we have simulated (in a vastly more low-level way) computer games with interacting characters.”
The ex-NASA scientist Tom Campbell is also an adherent of the simulated reality theory, but his expanded hypothesis contends that our universe is a sub-set of a ‘Nonphysical-Matter Reality’ (NPMR). The NPMR is a greater reality with its own constituent metaphysical laws and can be accessed in dreams, out-of-body experiences and altered states of consciousness, when consciousness is able to detach itself from the constraints of the usual laws of physics. Campbell describes it as a ‘different data stream’ but one that contains (and controls) our own mathematical material universe. What would usually be considered as paranormal events in our physical reality are normal in NPMR, and when it leaks into our 3D world via non-ordinary states of consciousness, the results appear mystical or magical. This includes entities that appear to have their own autonomous state, but are actually the results of our own limited consciousness attempting to decipher them within the bounds of our own experience. Within this theorem certain supernatural entities are metaphysical constructs from a greater reality (the NPMR), appearing into our world under certain conditions, and culturally coded to show up as specific taxonomies – one of which can be recognisable as faeries.
Idealism and the simulated reality hypothesis both suggest that there is something unknown to us controlling our reality. And while they are both theoretical constructs they have a very evident analogy, which is available to us all: dreams. A dream is an absolutely convincing simulated reality, where our avatar engages with a universe that it believes to be the base reality. Only when we awake and transcend from the dream do we realise that the dream was a sub-set of an over-mind, which has managed to create a virtual reality and populate it with images and characters from our subconscious. It is only a short conceptual jump from this analogy to the dream hypothesis, whereby what we recognise as waking reality becomes a consciousness sub-set, much in line with Campbell’s NPMR theory.
This is a fundamentally important point when attempting to understand why the faeries might exist, at whatever ontological level. Experiencing the faerie taxonomy does seem to derive from people plugging into a bigger metaphysical reality, theoretically articulated by Jung’s collective unconscious, the philosophy of idealism and the simulated reality hypothesis. Whether this is drawing archetypes from a collective unconscious into faerie tales or experiencing the entities in some form of altered state of consciousness, the interface appears to rely on us transcending our individual minds in a variety of ways. The faerie taxonomy itself seems to have been millennia in the making and is apparently evolving as our human condition evolves. The faeries (in all their forms) have become a persistent phenomenon, and seem to be an intrinsic aspect of human consciousness, purveyors of the message (explicitly or implicitly) that our material physical reality is dependent on a non-physical reality that pervades our universe and perhaps even contains it.
The Fairy Investigation Society is currently extending its survey of faerie encounters with a new census, details of which can be found here.
The role of faeries in modern fiction pop culture, from Tolkien to gaming lore, has been omitted here, even though these fictional creations are often formulated using traditional and modern concepts of what the faeries are. Deadbutdreaming may broach this topic in a future post, but for anyone interested in this aspect of folkloric evolution here is a recent concise and insightful article by Morgan Daimler: ‘Irish-American Witchcraft: Fairies, Tradition & Popculture’, with her full downloadable presentation on the subject from a recent conference (‘Popular Culture and the Deep Past: Fairies and the Fantastic’) at The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the Ohio State University here.
For changing taxonomic concepts of faeries in the visual arts over the centuries see: The Art of Faerie.
*In an effort to retain clarity, I specifically did not include any discussion of Panpsychism here, even though it is closely related to both Animism and Idealism as a theory. Here is a good effort to unravel the semantic differentiations by Fizan.
I was recently interviewed by Simon Young for the Fairy Investigation Society. He wanted to explore my experiences brought on by the condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and how this might relate to an understanding of what the faeries are, and the interfaces between metaphysical entity encounters and consciousness. I usually keep my own persona and experiences out of deadbutdreaming posts, and I have not talked about my acquaintance with the syndrome in any public format before this. But I thought readers might be interested in what this unusual condition entails, and the possible relationship between its symptoms and the faeries. Thanks to Simon for the interview and agreeing for it to be re-posted here.
Neil, thanks so much for agreeing to talk. Many of our readers will know you from one of the most extraordinary blogs on faerie-lore: deadbutdreaming. Can you tell us something about yourself and how you became so interested in faerie-lore?
I have a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Cambridge, and have been practising archaeology since 1992. About two decades ago I became interested in the confluence between various prehistoric archaeological sites and folklore, after reading Leslie Grinsell’s Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain (1976).
A common experience, I think.
Indeed, and since then I’ve written more and more about folklore. My special interest is in the faerie-lore of Britain, as I quickly realised that these entities were deeply embedded in so much of the folklore of these isles, and that the great wealth of lore about them must mean something. I originally approached the subject from a purely traditional folkloric perspective – that is, understanding the faeries as remnants of previous historic belief systems, and perhaps as characters to explain the human condition through Jungian psychology. This changed somewhat during a meditation session at West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire. This is a Neolithic burial chamber (it would have also been used for a variety of other ritual purposes), and while meditating within its confines in 1999 I had a vivid and super-real experience of various faerie creatures – very Froud-like, and evidently as aware of me as I was of them.
Was this your first experience of meditating?
No, I’d been meditating for a few years by this time, but it was my first experience meditating at a prehistoric site. It took me a long time to incorporate this encounter in to my world-view, but since this time I have had many more experiences, and my research into others’ encounters has drawn me to the conclusion that the faeries are some type of real entity. My current tentative interpretation is that they represent some aspect of human consciousness, not usually apparent in consensus reality, but which can interact with us when certain conditions are met. This is slightly simplistic, as the faeries certainly represent many more things than this, but I am convinced that at some level they are agents of a metaphysical reality that can overlap our own. I have been writing about this on my blog site since 2016.
Neil I know that you suffer from Charles Bonnet Syndrome. As many readers will not have heard of Charles Bonnet Syndrome, can you tell us a bit about it and why it is so often associated with faeries and other supernatural experiences?
The syndrome is named after the Swiss naturalist, who first described the condition in 1760. The standard NHS description of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is that it is: ‘a condition experienced by people who are losing, or have lost, their sight. It involves seeing things which are not really there (having visual hallucinations). The hallucinations are most marked in low light or when relaxing and are often complicated scenes involving faces, children and wild animals.’ However, this is simply a description from a materialist, reductionist perspective, that assesses anything without material substance as ‘not real’. My own experiences [ed. see below] do not feel like hallucinations, and this is a common thread of many people who have CBS visual encounters. They will frequently describe humanoid entities (sometimes cartoon-like) that appear, usually fleetingly, in what remains of their peripheral vision. But there is usually interaction with these entities, and a feeling of something real being present, much in the same way as if another person were in the space. The correspondence between these descriptions and folkloric descriptions of the faeries and modern anecdotal testimonies of a variety of supernatural beings (including, but not limited to faeries) is distinct and noticeable.
If you don’t mind me asking how did you realise that you had CBS? How long did diagnosis take?
I lost most of my sight in my left eye through a retinal occlusion in 2014. In late 2015, after knocking myself unconscious through a fall, my visual cortex was damaged and limited the vision in my right eye as well. Shortly after this the symptoms of CBS began to manifest. I had never heard of CBS, and it was only after a discussion with my then psychiatrist that I was made aware this syndrome might be causing the unusual visuals I was experiencing. I then discussed the issue with my ophthalmologist, who termed the condition Visual Release Hallucinations. An ophthalmologist will not diagnose a person with CBS/VRH as such, but mine did take the time to discuss the condition with me, explaining that it is an uncommon, but well-known symptom of people with my type of optical problems. I have regular six-month ophthalmological assessments for my eyesight, and each report now contains a short section describing the continuing symptoms.
You talked about your own experiences? Can you give us some examples?
The visual entities I experience with CBS usually (though not exclusively) appear in low light, but never in total darkness, and I am always alone when they eventuate. This has happened several times a week since damaging my visual cortex in 2015. Sometimes the visuals are simple lights or smoke-like wisps, which are usually just glimpsed in my peripheral vision, last only a few seconds, and there is only a limited sense that there is something ‘present’. But often the visuals are more substantial, and will manifest as slightly cartoonish humanoid entities, frequently dressed in either archaic clothing or in garb that seems to emit a dull glow. The most fascinating aspect of these visuals is their apparent concrete reality, and even more compelling is the awareness that something is most definitely present. This always includes a form of telepathic communication, usually in the form of a series of phrases, which I never seem to be able to reply to. I can’t stress how real these communications are – as real as if someone were sitting next to me and talking.
Extraordinary! How long do they last?
Usually between a few seconds and several minutes. Any attempt to look directly at the entities will halt the experience; they do seem to exist only in the periphery of vision. I’ve learnt to not attempt to look straight at the visuals if I want the encounter to continue. A recent example involved a small, mechanical gnome-like entity who materialised on the arm of my sofa and proceeded to communicate the repeated words ‘Everything will be ok, let go of all anxiety… everything will be ok.’ I do realise that this sounds quite insane, and when these manifestations first began (although I was never frightened by them – they never seem to emit any hostility or malevolence, only empathy), I thought that the trauma of losing so much eyesight was taking me towards a mental breakdown. This is a common feeling of people with CBS. But after a while I just accepted the experiences as part of everyday life. I have to admit that I have come to enjoy the unusual nature of the experiences.
You talked of the sense that the vision is next to you: do you have the sense that the voice is real too?
Very much so. The voices are never present without the visuals, and it is always quite clear they are coming from the same source. Again, when this first started to happen I did a lot of research into the symptoms of schizophrenia, one of which can be hearing disembodied voices, but I quickly satisfied myself that I was not suffering from this disorder. Having spoken with several people with schizophrenia since, I have realised their experiences are very different than mine.
And how often do you have these visions? Once a week? Once a day?
It does vary – probably twice a week on average, but sometimes they’ll be absent for as long as a fortnight, while other times I’ll experience them more than once a day. There is some type of link to how anxious I am feeling; they are more likely to appear during periods of anxiety. But this is not always the case – they seem to have their own timetable!
Would you interpret these as hallucinations then; or are you, somehow, getting privileged sights of a deeper reality?
I think that CBS may be one among many ways of allowing access to non-material phenomenon. If we are willing to accept that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the brain (thereby allowing CBS visions to be relegated to brain-generated hallucinations), but rather that consciousness is primary, and the instigator of reality, then these visuals may be allowed to take on an autonomous reality of their own. One way of looking at it is by seeing the brain as a reducing valve of a greater consciousness (à la Aldous Huxley), and that if it becomes damaged or altered in any way, it may allow in aspects of consciousness that are usually filtered out, thereby altering the genuine perception of an ulterior or supernal reality experienced by the person with the damaged/altered brain.
But, in as simple a language as possible, how does this work: how is it that a medical condition can lead to this extended vision?
I think CBS is a type of altered state of consciousness. I have taken a variety of psychedelics through my life, and there are definitely similarities in the perception of a non-ordinary presence. For me, these entities more often than not take a form that many people would describe as faeries. There are many thousands of recent reports from people taking the potent psychedelic substance N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which correlate closely with both folkloric descriptions of faeries and also CBS visions. As per the last answer, it seems to me as if a change to the brain can, under certain conditions, allow us to perceive what is usually suppressed in waking reality. Perhaps my long interest in faerie folklore has predisposed me to interpret the appearing entities as faeries (rather than, say, aliens or ghosts) but I cannot emphasise enough the vividness of the experiences and the apparent substantiality of the visions and the communications they impart.
Neil, fascinating. Thanks so much.
You’re welcome Simon.
The cover image is by the Amsterdam-based digital artist Peter Woko, and is called ‘Monkey King and Psychonaut’. Peter’s artwork can be found here, and his Twitter handle is @wokopsyart . Thanks to Peter for his permission to reproduce this piece on deadbutdreaming.
I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague David Halpin as a guest author at deadbutdreaming for an investigation into Irish faerie-lore. David writes extensively about Irish folklore and mythology, always producing insightful and thought-provoking articles based on meticulous research. These three pieces have been taken from his excellent Circle Stories Facebook page, which has become a go-to source for a perceptive understanding of Irish folkloric and mythological traditions. Each article is illustrated with David’s own distinctive photography of Irish sacred sites, some of which are included in this piece. Thanks to David for permission to republish these articles and photos here.
Ancestors, Fairies And The Soul In The Stars
One of the most puzzling omissions when it comes to Irish archaeology is the naming and observation of the ancient Irish shaman. Although there are some different views about who exactly the ancient Irish people were, what we can say for certain is they all came from cultures which allocated a position of the ultimate importance to this tribal role.
And yet… the evidence is there, it’s just that the interpretation is half-seen due to the world view of those who made the early pronouncements about ancient Irish beliefs and veneration. For example, many of the 5,000 year old ‘tombs’ contain ashes and body parts but they also contain art, offerings and reusable passageways and entrances. Looking at the shaman’s role in antiquity we can notice that the preservation of ancestral shrines were not places of mourning. They were places of continual communication and ritual. This task was performed by the shaman.
As the world view of ancient people began to change from the Palaeolithic into the Mesolithic and onto the first farming groups the type of veneration also began to include ancestors. The sun, moon and star cycles were continually observed but now people saw the shaman as someone who might bring back information and healing from the members of the tribe who had passed on. There is no definitive time-frame here; cultures ‘progressed’ in different stages and as the assimilation of various peoples and traditions occurred so too did their practices and beliefs.
One thing is consistent, though, and that is the shamanistic function which took place at ancient sites. This is what is missing from the Irish record. While archaeologists talk about graves and shrines they ignore the living traditions and rituals which these places were used for. Obviously our own view of death has filtered our perception of how ancient people might have behaved. Add in the fact that most early Irish archaeologists grew up with an Abrahamic view of religion and you can see why they might have been both reluctant to and unable to take into account the nuances and complexities of a spirituality that challenged their own.
Perhaps one factor which exemplifies this, and also might shed light on the multifaceted Irish concept of fairies, is the concept of the multiple-soul. This belief recurs in indigenous societies from Austronesia to Europe and is probably one you have heard of at some point before as well. Most likely it was the view shared by ancient Irish people as well. Simply put, this belief understands that the soul is divided into various parts. One part might stay within the body and remain on earth after death, whereas another part might travel in dreams or be the summation of the deeds of a person’s life.
Another part of the soul might remain outside of the body and follow it around, sometimes offering advice. It can get quite complex as the Egyptian example demonstrates with the various souls representing the personality, the cumulative deeds, the shadow, the breath and, indeed, the spiritual essence of a person.
The practice of soul-retrieval is another indigenous ritual common to cultures all around the world from Siberia to Africa and from Australia to North America. Often there is a reincarnation or soul transmigration aspect to this as well which we know was part of the Celtic cosmology. Why the multiple-soul is interesting in relation to fairies is because there has always been a contradiction between the fairies being of the Otherworld as well as being the dead themselves. However, when we view fairies from the perspective of those who believed the soul was multifaceted then these contradictions make sense.
The fairies, ancestors, goddesses and gods might dwell in the constellations but they would also be here, on earth, as the ancestral dead.
Fairy Paths, Ley-Lines and Mass Paths
Fairy roads or fairy paths are often confused with Ley-Lines and Mass Paths. It is true that over time many have fused with one another through customs and folklore. However, it is also worth separating the more ancient ‘spirit and fairy roads’ from the later walkways from the 17th century and beyond. Also connected with church paths here in Ireland are natural rock formations called ‘mass rocks’ where funerals and masses were held during times of Catholic persecution.
But, back to fairy roads and Ley-Lines. What are the differences between these two often confused concepts? To put it simply, Ley-Lines, as envisioned by Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track, were tracks connecting ancient landmarks such as standing stones, raths and other prominent natural topographic features. Watkins himself did not see any association with spirit paths or supernatural energies but over time, as his ideas were taken up by other researchers, these attributes were incorporated.
Fairy roads or fairy paths are a different matter. These are said to be routes or invisible paths upon which fairies, the souls of the dead and other less-observed energetic forces travel. It is considered extremely bad luck to build a house on these pathways as well as removing any feature which is considered a marker for the good people on these routes. We have all heard of how farmers will not remove a hawthorn tree from their field without suffering the wrath of these enigmatic spirits, for example.
You can also read many accounts of roads being rerouted in order to avoid certain places or sites considered to be home to elves or fairies. It is worth noting that this is by no means a solely Irish consideration. Across the entire world, from Iceland to Australia, from Costa Rica to Siberia these sacred pathways are acknowledged and in many cases preserved. In the instances where a site has been destroyed or a fairy tree removed there are often reports of extreme bad luck then becoming associated with a particular spot on the road where the landmark once stood.
Because there is such an overlap between fairies and the dead it can be difficult to separate more recent folklore from the remnants of probable oral traditions and beliefs spanning much longer time periods. However, comparative mythology shows that many of the same types of spirits and supernatural forms were associated with ancient sites all around the world. Often their behaviour can be observed to have some similar traits although the motivation for this can only be guessed at.
Certainly, fairies are known to move from stone circles and raths when we reach particular points in the year such as Samhain, Bealtaine or during the zenith of certain constellation or star rises. It would be a nice project to try to determine just how encounters and sightings rise and fall before and during these yearly points. Another factor to consider is that individual hawthorn trees, stone circles and sacred sites often also have their own guardian gods, goddesses and spirits as well being markers and byways for nightly and seasonal parades.
Raths in particular are considered both sacred places in themselves as well as being portals and entrances to the Otherworld. There are many recorded sightings of fairy activity at raths in the various Irish folklore archives including this one from Merginstown, Co. Wicklow. This example from Duchas.ie contains all of the typical motifs of the fairy road: the rath from which they emerge, the fact that other raths are visually linked to the site, and the conclusion that building on a fairy path is a very bad idea! There are also legends that raths can be connected through tunnels in many cases. Some stories describe a treasure buried beneath a mound but there is usually a guardian spirit to appease before it can be reached. Often times the treasure turns out to be an appreciation of being allowed to leave alive!
“There are a number of raths or lisses to be found in Merginstown. These Raths go by the name of Moates. Some of them are formed by a deep round pit oftentimes surrounded by the remains of an old ditch or hedge. It is said that these raths are inhabited by the fairies and no one ever molests them. It is also said that one can see a lot of other raths from the one by which they would be standing. There is said to be a great many large flat stones buried in these raths but what was put under them is not rightly known. I have heard it said that at one time the fairies had a path from one rath to another, and that if anything was put on this path it would be pitched aside by the fairies when they would be passing that night. There is generally a couple of bushes to be found growing near these raths. These bushes are called Lone Bushes. If anyone cuts down one of these bushes a curse will fall on them I have heard of a man who cut down a Lone Bush and within a month’s time three or four cattle had died on him. The following is a story which I have heard in connection with the fairies.
There was once a man who lived near a fairies path. The man wished to build a cowhouse and as there was no room in the farmyard he had to build it in a field nearby. Now this was the field through which the fairies had their path. One morning he was coming in with an armful of hay and found to his amazement that the back wall had been knocked down. It was the fairies who had knocked it down because it was built on their path He built it up again that day but it was knocked down again next morning. He then decided on putting a door in the back wall. This he did and ever since the wall was never knocked down. It is believed that the fairies pass through this house at night on their way from rath to rath.” Original Link
In this example from Co. Kildare a man finds that taking stones from a rath is just as bad as trying to destroy it. And from Carlow we have a description of ongoing encounters with the ‘little red men’ and a local rath. As an aside, those readers who follow this page will again notice the prevalence of red fairies in this area. In this case they are renowned for stealing cows which might interest UFO researchers but in many other incidents they will take a human for a day or two.
A good example of this type of incident is this account from nearby Kiltegan where a man describes the rath lighting up before he is taken away by small men playing music. And, finally, this encounter is listed as a ghost story which demonstrates the ongoing link between fairies and the dead. In this case the man has built his house on a fairy path and now has to put up with his doors being opened and the sound of people moving through his home every night.
There are further associations between fairy paths and the original form and philosophy of Feng Shui, which may surprise people, but I will keep that for another post. I would recommend the book Spirit Roads: An Exploration of Otherworldly Routes by Paul Devereux for those who would like to delve more deeply into this subject.
Who are the Fairies?
Yes, I know. This is a question for which you will receive many answers but let’s take a quick look at some of the popular explanations which have been given down through the years and also some of the less well known theories about the good people.
The first thing many are surprised by is that Irish fairies being the banished Tuatha Dé Danann is not as clear-cut as some accounts would have us believe. In fact, in Irish mythology it is implied that the Sí were already here before the Tuatha were said to have retreated into the mounds and fairy forts. This would mean that the fairies were separate from the later Gods of Irish lore. The potential twist here is interesting, though. The Tuatha Dé were said to have arrived in supernatural circumstances themselves, emerging from clouds of mist, so perhaps this could be explained as them arriving from a fairy realm in the first place.
As mentioned in a previous post, there is also a story from the west of Ireland that fairies arrived from a western spiritual realm by travelling on the ragwort plant, also known as ‘fairy-horse’. The fairies, then, might be a memory, or an imagining, of the first Irish by the later settlers. When these people arrived and found complex monuments, stone circles and dolmens how could they not be impressed? And to find them no longer used and seemingly abandoned may have led to the belief that they were the homes and entrance-way’s to an ‘otherworld’.
Fairies are continually linked to nature spirits and supernatural beings connected to particular aspects of landscapes. This is not specific to Ireland, of course. All around the world areas considered sacred or magical are said to be the homes of spirits. From New Zealand to North Africa, from Tibet to Peru, natural features and elaborately constructed and aligned monuments are considered the abode of elementals and supernatural deities. However, this does not mean that they are tied to one place, outside of our own understanding. As Claude Lecouteux writes in his book, Demons and Spirits of the Land, “…the syncretic nature of these creatures has conferred upon them specificity so strong it conceals their origin.” (p.133).
After Christianity came to Ireland, the fairies developed a more sinful origin in newer folklore and a spiritual context influenced by a monotheistic point of view. The ambiguity of their actions meant that the good people always occupied a type of neutral space between something that could benefit and something that could harm, but now those outcomes were more simply defined as good and evil. The sidhe, depending on who you asked, might be agents of either side. This notion stemmed from a variety of beliefs which even today makes for interesting conversation.
I suppose the most simple way to put it is that fairies were seen as existing in a type of ‘not quite evil enough for hell, not quite good enough for heaven’ state. Some Christian stories even explained them as fallen angels who had rebelled against god but then regretted their actions.
These stories seem to contain the subtext of an attempt to subjugate pagan gods and spirits into a Christian interpretation of the universe. In his landmark compilation, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. Y. Evans Wentz, tried to examine fairies from new anthropological perspectives as well as collecting first-hand accounts of encounters with the good people. One of the most complex areas Wentz questioned was whether or not fairies, ancestors and the dead were the same. Did a person who died become a fairy? Were there specific actions or circumstances that made it so? Or, was it a trick by the good folk and they took the form of dead loved ones in order to influence?
Alas, this area is both thorny and controversial. There are indeed arguments for a crossover at times but in my view, at least, this is linked strongly to the perspective of the person or culture at the time. This trickster capacity will raise its head again in the post but for now this quote from the writer, Morgan Daimler, sums it up quite well, “If one could imagine it as a Venn diagram we would see fairies as one circle, the human dead as another, and the area where the two circles overlapped would represent those who fall into both groups-how small or large that is no one can say for certain.” (p. 41).
Another argument Wentz makes in his book might seem odd to us today, namely that fairies are not to be confused with pygmies. Many people are unaware of the popularity of this explanation but it was an argument prominent enough for Wentz to feel the need to refute it. The 19th-century historian, David MacRitchie, believed the Tuatha De referred to an early Inuit pygmy race who first inhabited Ireland and Northern Europe. His thesis was that this was the basis of the cultural memory of small people.
Today, this idea has become popular again among certain researchers who have drawn parallels to the Twa tribes of Africa and the similarity to the word Tuatha, as well as accounts of dark-skinned Picts in Scotland and Orkney. However, MacRitchie did not believe the pygmy race came from Africa, but from Northern Eurasia. These ideas are not accepted by most scholars, it has to be said.
Although some entrance-ways into mounds and cairns are indeed small, there are also many other sites where the opposite is the case. MacRitchie’s explanation also fails to account for the huge amount of encounters with taller fairies, sometimes known as the gentry. Again, this is a much more complex issue than this short post will be able to cover.
Finally, the explanation for fairies which many contemporary scholars and writers seem to favour is one that fits perfectly with the contradictory nature of these beings. In this view, fairies take on the cultural forms most prevalent to those they appear to. So, the angelic and demonic forms fit the myths and lore of ancient times, for example. Are they aspects of our collective unconscious or even psychological manifestations leading us further into timelessness and non-material aspects of ourselves?
In this view, as we move through the centuries, art, religion and writing begin to influence how these beings are perceived. As we became more and more embedded in technology and urbanization, fairies became aliens and inter-dimensional travellers. Now, if you are unfamiliar with this topic the comparison might seem odd but, in fact, there are many places where striking similarities emerge. Fairies and aliens both kidnapping for midwife purposes is one, changelings replacing human children and spinning bright lights resulting in missing time are others. The writers Jacques Vallée and Terence McKenna have written extensively about this subject, and it’s a topic that receives ongoing attention at deadbutdreaming.
So, as you can see, the concept of who the good people are seems to become more complex as time moves on. But is this really the case? Perhaps fairies have always stayed the same and it is us who change and grow, allowing us to comprehend a little bit more of the whole picture with each new generation. Then again, maybe we will never discover what fairies really are and this is the way it is supposed to be; to hold mystery close to our hearts and to continue to imagine and believe in something other than ourselves.