The Faeries and Death

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

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

The Folkore Roots of the Faeries and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ylenia Viola – ‘The Ruin’

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

The Celtic Legend of the Dead and the Faeries

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

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

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

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Ylenia Viola – ‘A.I.R. I’

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

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

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

Burial Mounds and Faerie Hills

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

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A 16th-century faerie mound – Olaus Magnus

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

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

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

Faerie Funerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ylenia Viola – ‘A.I.R. II’

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

Breaching the Consciousness Gap — The Faeries as Arbiters of Death

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

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

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Ylenia Viola – ‘Between Dream and Reality’

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

The Metaphysics of Faerie Trees

‘Faerie Folks
Are in old oaks.’  Traditional proverb

In 1452, thirty-four French villagers were questioned by an ecclesiastical commission about a ‘faerie tree’ (arbor fatalism, gallide des fees) in Domrémy, as part of the process of overturning Joan of Arc’s conviction at the hands of the English/Burgundian Gestapo twenty years earlier. In the face of her inquisitors, Joan herself had offset her own belief in the faeries by apportioning it to her godmother, who had apparently seen the faeries gathering at the tree. And, even though the villagers were under no threat from the commission (quite the opposite in fact), none of the thirty-four interviewees would admit to a belief of the faeries, or that they had ever seen them at the tree. Instead, they informed the commissioners that “they had heard that in the old days faeries were said to have been seen there.” As the villagers would have been well aware of the Inquisition’s requirement for questioning of anyone who confessed to a belief in faeries, this was probably understandable. But the fact that there was a ‘faerie tree’ to begin with, suggests that there was an ingrained belief in the faeries and their penchant for gathering at a certain tree, amongst the rural 15th-century French peasantry in Domrémy.

Thomas the Rhymer and his Eildon Tree

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Thomas the Rhymer meets the faerie queen under the Eildon Tree by Katherine Cameron

An intimate association between faeries and trees is found even further back in the literary tradition, in the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.’ Thomas appears to have been a 13th-century visionary and poet from the Scottish Borders, and his adventures with the faeries, and most especially the faerie queen, can be found in several medieval sources as well as being updated through the 18th and 19th centuries, notably by Sir Walter Scott. In the ballad, the interface between consensus reality and the faerie realm is ‘the Eildon Tree’, a hawthorn where Thomas meets the faeries and is transported into their world. There is much arboreal imagery in the ballad, which makes it clear that the faeries are woodland entities: “At the beginning of each summer, when the milk-white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour, and miles and miles of golden whin adorn the glens and hill-slopes, the faeries come forth in grand procession, headed by the Faerie Queen.”

Scott’s setting of the ballad creates a woodland world, itself a place of magic where the otherworldly faeries are able to slip into reality to coax Thomas to join them from beneath the Eildon Tree:

‘Come with us, mortal, come! a welcome to
Through the moonlit shades of the forest glades,
Where the Faeries meet in their dim retreat,
Come with us, mortal, come!
There the shy dreams creep from the darkness deep
To flutter with noiseless wing,
And the bright-eyed stars ‘mid the branching bars
Of the oak and the elm-tree swing.
Where the merry Fays through the wildwood ways
Dance by the firefly’s light,
Thou shalt read the runes of the silver tunes
That ring through the dewy night.’

Dryads

Further back still, in Ancient Greece, Dryads (Δρυάδες) and Hamadryads (Ἁμαδρυάδες), often given the general term of Nymphs (νύμφη), were female tree spirits, that were 4e224c0b6fc57b77b974abc5b66d9826usually recognised as being one with the tree, protecting it with their vitality and receiving symbiotic protection and life in return. Pausanias, in his 2nd-century Description of Greece, although distancing himself from the b5fbd39326ac4c8d44ae3e130c5a3d43belief, says: “Those Dryads who in days of old, according to the story of the poets, grew out of trees and especially out of oaks.” Some Hamadryads life spans were directly related to the trees, and although usually temperate and kind in nature, they would deal retribution on any person destroying or damaging their trees and habitats, often with the help of the gods. They frequently also had to appeal to the gods (and sometimes humans) to protect them from satyrs, who would rampage around woodlands, drunk and on the lookout for the alluring arboreal dryads. Many of the Dryads are named in the legends, and it is clear that the Greeks apportioned different characters to different trees. The poet Pherenikos described the Dryads as Nymphs and apportioned their roles to individual trees:

Aigeiros was the nymph of the black poplar (Populus nigra);
Ampelos the nymph of the vine–including the wild grape (Vitis silvestris), bryony (Bryonia creticus), black bryony (Tamus communis) and the wrack (Fucus volubilis);
Balanis the nymph of oak-trees–such as the holm oak (Quercus ilex) and prickly-cupped oak (Quercus aegilops);
Karya the nymph of the nut tree–both the hazel (Corylus avellana) and the walnut (Juglans regia), and perhaps also the sweet chestnut (Castanea vesca);
Kraneia the nymph of the cornelian cherry-tree (Cornus mas);
Morea the nymph of the mulberry tree (Morus nigra) or else the wild olive;
Ptelea the nymph of the European elm tree (Ulmus glabra);
and Syke the nymph of the fig tree (Ficus cardiac).

It is clear the ancient Greeks regarded these named and categorised tree-entities as metaphysical representatives of an otherworld, who would only interact with humanity during certain conditions. In this they are faeries in all but name – seen through the cultural lens of classical Greek civilisation.

The Hawthorn as a Faerie Tree

These historic associations between trees and the faeries are suggestive of a deep folk tradition and belief that tied the two together. It is a connection that remains intact to the present day, where folklore informs a modern belief in the importance of certain trees – most especially solitary trees – as arbiters between this world and an ultra-dimensional

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Eddie Lenihan and the faerie hawthorn at Latoon

faerieland. This is nicely illustrated by the exploits of the Irish folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan, as captured in the 2000 documentary by John Walker, The Fairy Faith. Eddie was instrumental in persuading Co. Clare council to re-route part of the Newmarket-on-Fergus bypass road at Latoon, in order to avoid the destruction of a faerie hawthorn tree, or sceach, which was initially due for uprooting as part of the road construction. A media campaign garnered the support of local people, and even The New York Times was motivated to write a piece about the plight of the tree. Eddie appealed to the intrinsic folkloric beliefs attached to the hawthorn, suggesting that the centuries-old idea that this particular tree was a focal point for the gathering of supernatural beings should be respected, and not simply ignored for the sake of materialistic expediency. He won – the tree remains to this day, albeit marooned between the highway and the slip road.

There is a very deeply ingrained belief and understanding in Irish culture as to the importance of these solitary hawthorns, which have gathered folk traditions about them, often in relation to the faeries. They go by various names – Wishing Trees, May Bushes, Rag Trees or Faerie Trees – and are frequently found in association with holy wells or

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Clottie-covered hawthorns at Cnoc na Teamhrach

prehistoric forts (raths). They are also regularly festooned with ribbons, rags and trinkets, sometimes known as clotties, which are demonstrative of a continued folk belief in the spiritual ambience eminating from the trees. The clotties were traditionally tied to the trees as an offering to the nature spirits that inhabited it (sometimes Christianised to the spiritual presence of a saint or saints), in the hope that with their decomposition, ailments or bad luck would disappear with them. This tradition continues, and now incorporates a range of beliefs as to what the clotties are supposed to do. They may be tied to the trees as simple offerings with prayers, as wish-fulfillers, or as a recognition that the tree contains a metaphysical consciousness. These be-ribboned hawthorns can be found all over Ireland, perhaps most famously on the western banks of the Iron-Age hillfort that tops the Hill of Tara (Cnoc na Teamhrach) in Co. Meath, where there are two trees, permanently covered with offerings ranging from tiny ribbons to pink surfboards.

This tradition can be found throughout Ireland but also in Britain, where many solitary trees attached to a prehistoric site or next to a holy well, will have its branches decorated with offerings. At the approach to the Neolithic long barrow burial chamber at West

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The Guardian Oak at West Kennet with Silbury Hill in the background

Kennet in Wiltshire there is a tree known as The Guardian Oak. One tradition states that if a ribbon or piece of cloth with personal value is tied to its branches, the faeries will inform you whether it is advisable to continue along the path to the long barrow. If the answer is no, then all is not lost, as you can take a slight diversion to the nearby Swallowhead Spring nestling between field banks, where a hawthorn and oak hang over the spring that feeds the River Kennet, and is covered in clotties left by people who recognise the charged atmosphere of the place.

A Filmic Faerie Oak

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Photographing Fairies (1997)

The association of faeries with trees is vividly brought to life in the 1997 film Photographing Fairies, where we are presented with a mighty oak acting as a tree where the faeries are to be found. In this case the faeries are small luminescent beings who seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the oak. They can only be seen in and around the tree (always with the aid of a psychoactive flower), which acts as the interface between consensus reality and the world of the faeries. Interestingly, it also acts as a hub for death in the film, with the faeries operating as arbiters between life and death. This plugs into the folkloric concept that faeries are intimately connected to the world of the dead, able to cross over between material reality and a metaphysical reality, where there is nothing but consciousness. It also acts as a shrine for the two little girls, Clara and Anna, after the death of their mother (who falls from the tree in an altered state of consciousness whilst communing with the faeries), linking into the idea discussed above, that faerie trees can be receptors of offerings, mediated by the supernatural entities that reside there.

Nature Spirits and Elementals

Whilst the faeries in the film are not necessarily portrayed as nature spirits, their reliance on the oak tree is implicit throughout, bringing them into line with the concept that what underlies the folktale perception of the faeries is a deeper metaphysical authenticity. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924, the Austrian spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner outlined his concept of these nature spirits (sometimes calling them elementals) and their fundamental role in ensuring the propagation of the f8d16e459d4768e8f183e46bcf2a76e4natural world, most especially in relation to trees. Steiner took clairvoyance as a given reality, and his descriptions of the inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world is compelling, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognise how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine.

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A Brian Froud Gnome

Steiner saw the supersensible as indispensable to the material world in the same way as consciousness is the necessary animating force to the physical bodies of humans. And he saw consciousness as the key to crossing the boundary between our world of the five senses and that of the nature spirits. He insists that ‘thought forms’ are the only way we are able to perceive the elementals and to understand what they are doing in nature, which he likens to unseen electricity bringing life to dormant machinery. To do this, a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic:

‘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.’ Perception of the Elemental World (1913).

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 trees and vegetation. Steiner divides these into four main types corresponding to earth (gnomic), water (undines), air (sylphs) and heat/light (salamanders). Steiner describes the chthonic nature spirits responsible for the health of trees, which:

‘… send down their roots into the ground. Anyone who can observe what they really send down and can perceive the roots with spiritual vision (for this he must have) sees how the root is everywhere surrounded by the activities of elemental nature spirits. And these elemental spirits, which an old clairvoyant perception designated as gnomes and which we may call the root spirits, can be studied with Imagination and Inspiration, just as human life and animal life can be studied in the physical world. We can look into the soul nature of these elemental spirits, into this world of the spirits of the roots.’ Elemental Spirits and the Plant World (1923).

Morphogenetic Fields

Steiner’s language and ideas are informed by his involvement with the Theosophist movement, and may grate with a 21st-century reader. But his metaphysics finds common ground with the compelling recent theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:

‘Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.’ Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Fields.

the_presence_of_the_past_morphic_resonance_and_the_memory_of_nature-sheldrake_rupert-15105071-frntSheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are essential in ordering life on earth, something that conventional science accepts in the case of gravitational waves or magnetism, but has a hard time with when it comes to life itself. Steiner’s thesis is that the nature spirits are anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly. Call them what you will, but they exist, and are essential in maintaining reproductive life; they are a form of consciousness responsible for the creation and sustenance of matter. They are the memory of nature.

The Wood Wide Web

With great serendipity, Rupert’s son, Merlin Sheldrake, a scientist specialising in mycorrhizal fungi, has recently put forward the theory that trees and plants are able to communicate through their root systems, mirroring the concept that a form of consciousness is operating to ensure the natural vitality of plant life. This has been nattily titled the Wood Wide Web:

‘For centuries, fungi were widely held to be harmful to plants, parasites that cause disease and dysfunction. More recently, it has become understood that certain kinds of common fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants and trees, bringing about not infection but connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant and tree roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form what is called a mycorrhiza… In this way, individual plants and trees are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.’

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The Wood Wide Web by Enzo Pérès-Labourdette

Whilst the ‘messaging system’ is physically conveyed through the fungal hyphal network,  the actual messages must be generated by a form of consciousness. Could this consciousness be one and the same as Steiner’s nature spirits and Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields? As discussed in a previous blog post, Altered States of Consciousness and the Faeries, certain fungi such as Psilocybin and Amanita Muscaria can allow a direct route into what Steiner would call clairvoyance, potentially opening up a psychedelic state of consciousness that is able to see and interact with the faeries, in whatever form they might take. These mushrooms are part of Sheldrake’s fungal wood wide web, and may be acting as routers; allowing us to collaborate with the fundamental natural consciousness that is being manifested. This manifestation could be partly responsible for what we have come to think of as faeries, nature spirits or elementals, allowing for the cultural coding that will generate what we see and experience.

This faerie experience seems to be especially and intrinsically linked to trees and vegetation in the natural world, whether we are looking at Steiner’s elementals, Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, classical dryads or the faeries of folklore. They have an intimate relationship with trees, and we recognise this even if we don’t properly understand it. But at a metaphysical level maybe we do recognise the relationship, and the clustering of faerie traditions and beliefs around trees is an expression of this. Trees are one of the primary life-forces on the planet – for sound ecological reasons, perhaps we need to respect them, live with them and love them as much as the faeries seem to.

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A pareidolic tree manifesting its consciousness

For a breakdown of faerie tree folklore by species, there is a good overview here.

For an Irish perspective, here is Ali Isaac’s excellent article: The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

 

Faerie Familiars & Zoomorphic Witches

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

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

The Witches’ Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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A 17th-century witches’ Sabbath

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

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

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

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

Zoomorphism

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

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

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

British Witches and the Faeries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physical vs Metaphysical and the Shamanic Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern Wicca and the Shamanic Component

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

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

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

Interpreting the Faeries

This is a trip through some of the interpretations that have been cast over the faeries during the last hundred years or so. I get the impression that many folklorists are reluctant, even scared, to pin their true feelings to the mast when it comes to saying what the faeries really are. It’s pretty easy to recount folktales and faerie-stories… but what do they mean, and where do they come from? Some people are more willing than others to stick their necks out… here’s a personal choice of some of the best published interpretations of the faeries. It’s not comprehensive, but I think these works are essential if you’d like to come to some sort of understanding about what the faeries are and why they have persisted in our culture.

A brilliant place to start is with Katherine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies from 1976. Katherine Briggs (d.1980) was president of the Folklore Society between 1969 and 1972 and 561850wrote extensively about the folklore of the faeries, including An Anatomy of Puck, which was an adaptation of her Oxford D.Litt. thesis on 17th-century faerie literature. An Encyclopedia of Fairies correlates a wealth of (mainly British and Irish) traditions of the faeries, covering both the stories and anecdotes. It’s a skilful overview of the phenomenon, that doesn’t shirk from ontological discussion of subjects such as ‘the origin of the fairies’ and ‘time in fairyland’… not subjects that were much discussed when she was writing in the 1970s, mainly because to do so was to give some credence to the reality of the faeries beyond their folkloric representation. But the main emphasis of the book is to summarise the hundreds of different faerie types and stories. It is authoritative, beautifully written, well referenced, and is a route into a deeper understanding of why the faeries are such an important element of British and Irish folklore. Unfortunately, it’s been out of print for a while and is difficult to find for less than £100. But if you can procure a copy, you’ll soon realise that it is a prime reference book for beginning to understand the faeries and where they come from. The New York Times Book Review said: “If myths are both the food and fruit of the imagination, then Katherine Briggs has prepared a banquet. There seems to be no end to the information in this enchanted almanac.”

More international in scope, and wonderfully illustrated (by Claudine and Roland Sabatier), is The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins and other Little Creatures by Pierre o-9780789208784Dubois (1992). Dubois has a very playful style of writing that matches the subject matter perfectly, and he covers an extraordinary range of faerie types from around the world, co-ordinated into sections that describe each entity alongside an illustrative story. The description usually includes the ‘behaviour’ of the faerie in question. Typical of Dubois’ tone is this entry for the behaviour of The Mimi, supernatural entities of the aboriginal Australians…

“As we have seen, these elves from the middle worlds are benevolent, hospitable, and gracious. But they are also amongst those elves with a sensitive, versatile and quick-tempered nature – quite suddenly, they can change a serene environment into a disaster zone if someone has dared to stand on a sacred stone, pick their favourite herb, or dirty the water they came to draw in the evening. The Mimi keep kangaroos, pythons, koalas, opossums, and crocodiles as humans keep cats and dogs. So anyone who lays a finger on them is regarded by the Mimi as damaging their pets.”

It seems possible that it is the Mimi that are invoked in the aboriginal rock shelter paintings from Kimberley, Western Australia, c.10,000 BCE (see Shamanic Explorations of Supernatural Realms: Cave Art – The Earliest Folklore for a discussion of the faeries as subjects of prehistoric cave and rock art).

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The Mimi, Kimberley, Australia, c.10,000 BCE

Briggs and Dubois are indebted for many of their interpretations of the faeries to the folklorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these was Edwin Sidney Hartland 9781445508399(1848-1927) whose The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology (1891) is one of the first studies that attempts to place the faeries in an anthropological context. Whilst couched in somewhat sonorous Victorian language, this volume dissects various aspects of faerie lore, such as the changeling and faerie midwife stories, and what Hartland calls ‘the supernatural lapse of time in fairyland’. Hartland is happy to recount the requisite folktales in full, but he provides a constant running commentary on the possible meanings and originations of the stories. It’s an essential primer, both for a window into 19th-century views of the faeries, and as the earliest attempt to understand the phenomenon, using the anthropological toolkit of the 1890s.

Two decades later WY Evans-Wentz went one step further by applying his interpretations of the faeries on fieldwork he carried out himself. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries was published in 1911, and was based on Evans-Wentz’s journeys through the Celtic realms of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany, between 1907-11, where 9780486425221_p0_v1_s260x420he collected stories and anecdotes about the faeries from the rural populations. His language can occasionally seem archaic and quaint, but there is no doubt that he imbued himself in the Celtic communities that he spent time with during his years of travels amongst them. He had the time, that a modern anthropologist/folklorist could only dream of, to visit these communities and spend time with them, soaking up their stories and anecdotes, which revealed so much about the deeply ingrained belief in the faeries and the way these entities interacted with consensual reality. In doing so, he gained a great admiration for the rural people he came across, who would tell it like it was.

“The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition,’ and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial and economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural… they have lost all sympathetic and responsive contact with Nature, because unconsciously they have thus permitted conventionality and unnaturalness to insulate them from it.”

This quote is from the introduction to The Fairy-Faith, and it sets out Evans-Wentz’s stall. He was on the side of the rural peasantry who were the repository of the vast wealth of folklore represented in their tales of the faeries. He recognised the innate importance of what they were conveying, and was not shy about convincing his reader of the authenticity of what they told him, even if it was anathema to the conventual scientific and materialistic wisdom of his age. But by the time Evans-Wentz made his tour of Celtic countries between 1907-11, the general belief in faeries was waning. By cataloguing rural stories, anecdotes and theories about the faeries, just before WWI tore apart many of the traditional ways of life, and by doing it in such an open-minded and empathetic manner, he has left us with a rare treasure mine of Celtic faerie data.

Evans-Wentz spends much time discussing seership and the second-sight that was usually necessary to interact with the faeries. This was taken to another level by the Austrian f8d16e459d4768e8f183e46bcf2a76e4spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who, in a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924, outlined his concept of the faeries as nature spirits (sometimes calling them elementals) and their fundamental role in ensuring the propagation of the natural world. Steiner called second-sight clairvoyance, and took it as a given reality. His language is sometimes difficult and obtuse, but his descriptions of the inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world is compelling, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognise how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine.

Steiner’s theosophist ideas gained traction through the 20th century, and helped shape a new vision of the faeries as elemental forces of nature, that stripped them somewhat of their folkloric mischievous immorality. By 1952 Geoffrey Hodson was able to take this 412j60j79jl-_sy344_bo1204203200_concept further in his book The Kingdom of the Gods. For readers with a materialistic disposition, this work may be a step too far, and will certainly require a re-tuning of the Western mindset to accept what he is conveying. But Hodson is very clear in his description of a hierarchy of metaphysical beings, which exist alongside physical reality and interact with it. Without this hierarchy there is no life. Hodson uses his clairvoyance to investigate the phenomenon gnostically, and takes us into a dense world of cosmic vitality, introducing several Eastern mystical traditions to explain his direct experiences with nature spirits. One such is Fohat:

Fohat is the universal constructive Force of Cosmic Electricity and the ultimate hidden power in this universe, the power which charges a universe with Life, with Spirit; it is described as the Will and the Mind, the very Self, of God. This supreme force is in all creatures. When specialized and enclosed within the spinal cord of man it is called Kundalini, or the power that moves in serpentine path; hence its other name the Serpent Fire.”

Also from the mid 20th-century theosophist tradition (although not published in English seeing-fairies-a-687x1024until 2014) is Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies. Johnson (acting on behalf of the Fairy Investigation Society) collected over 500 anecdotal descriptions from people who claimed to have seen or interacted with faeries, and compiled them together with her own experiences. Some of her correspondents were Theosophists, with an avowed history of clairvoyance. But the majority were not, and their honest appraisals of seeing faeries are usually singular events in their otherwise non-clairvoyant lives. Their subjective anecdotes may be contentious as scientific evidence, but they are a fascinating collection of experience reports. The faeries described range from traditional folkloric types to metaphysical nature spirits, occasionally morphing into the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention.

bb87ade2c078b0b33ec95315fb374992Perhaps that should be Victorian re-invention. The best overview of what happened to the faeries in popular consciousness during the 19th century is Carole Silver’s Strange and Secret Peoples from 1999. She marshals evidence from a range of sources in an attempt to explain how the pre-Victorian folkloric faerie traditions were appropriated by artists and writers through the 19th century, and remoulded into a new vision of what they were and what they meant. Part of this movement spawned the image of faeries as tiny, incandescent creatures with wings – unknown before the 19th century – which has in turn informed our own disneyfied faeries of modern popular culture… the Tinkerbell effect. But there was much more to the re-invention than this:

“That the Victorians were utterly fascinated by the faeries is demonstrated by the art, drama. and literature they created and admired. Their abiding interest shows in the numerous, uniquely British faerie paintings that flourished between the 1830s and the 1870s – pictures in part inspired by nationalism and Shakespeare, in part as protest against the strictly useful and material, but in either case, as attempts to reconnect the actual and the occult.”

As with most academic studies of the faeries, Silver is willing to go only so far into an investigation of the origins of the faeries themselves, and their potential real presence in the material world. But such restraint is not shown by Carlo Ginzburg in his monumental 1989 book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Whilst the main subject matter is the 601fcbfcd9b656f5ed4c06e850a4b918witches’ sabbath in the medieval and Early Modern periods, Ginzburg recognises the essential role the faeries play in accounts of the sabbath. His use of historical sources to recreate what was really going on at the sabbaths is deeply impressive, and he has single-handedly overturned previous cultural historical theses, that the sabbath was simply an imaginary construct of the ecclesiastic and secular elites to close down on perceived heretics and maintain control over subversive groups. The sabbaths were real, and Ginzburg goes into detail as to how and why the faeries were included in these sacred rituals, facilitating ‘ecstasies’ and accompanying the witches on their metaphysical journeys. This eventually brings us to Ginzburg’s main hypothesis, that the sabbath was a survival of Eurasian prehistoric shamanism. The ‘ecstasies’ were brought about through group altered states of consciousness that enabled the witches to partake in a metaphysical reality for magical purposes… they were travelling to the otherworld, accompanied by their faerie familiars, just as Eurasian shamans had done. Ginzburg convincingly argues the case for continuity from prehistoric shaman to medieval/Early Modern witch.

1845190793In her compelling 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Emma Wilby takes up the baton from Ginzburg and looks in detail at the role ‘familiars’ played in British witchcraft. These were the faeries, associated with both witches and ‘cunning folk’ (white witches). Titus L’s review sums up the trajectory of the work:

“Wilby’s hypothesis is that the faerie encounter narratives of cunning folk and witches recorded in the early modern witch trials, evidence a surviving trend of folk beliefs extending unbroken from a pre christian shamanic world view. Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, 2006, the author makes an overwhelming case for the long term existence of an ancient British-Shamanic tradition. She also re-configures our understanding of witches and cunning folk as animist shamans embedded in local communities. This is an iconoclastic reversal of modern academic opinion that witches experience of spirits and their attested narratives were either the product of mental illness or more likely perhaps an enforced or contrived collusion between the often illiterate prisoner and their elite and educated religious inquisitor. That magical practitioners across the length and breadth of Britain had stood up in courtrooms and persisted in telling long and involved stories about faeries despite the fact that in doing so they often knowingly condemned themselves to death, demonstrates in as definite a way as could be possible the conviction, integrity and respect with which the cunning folk regarded their familiar spirits… the faeries.”

412-the_visions_of_isobel_gowdie_magic_witchcraft_and_dark_shamanism_in_seventeenth-century_scotlandWilby’s work is indeed iconoclastic, and has opened the way for a more esoteric and unconventional take on the faeries amongst academic folklorists and anthropologists. Her 2010 follow up book The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, goes even deeper into the concept of witchcraft as a survival of shamanism, using the compendious records from the trial of the Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie (and her compatriots) in 1662. These records are replete with confessions that talk about faerie familiars and zoomorphic witches, and they give us an unparalleled view into patterns of metaphysical belief in the 17th century. Wilby has an unerring ability to differentiate the real words and beliefs of the accused from witch trial documents, from the presumptions imposed on them by the persecuting Christian elites. Her work makes it very clear that in 17th-century rural communities the faeries were an accepted phenomenon, who played an essential role in the spiritual beliefs and practices of the population; under the radar of Christianity, until the witch hunts caught up with them.

But this metaphysical understanding of the faeries can be taken even further. If we step out of the halls of academia we find some truly cutting-edge interpretations of who the faeries are, and their intimate connection with a prehistoric supernatural1shamanistic tradition. In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock puts forward the hypothesis that the shamanistic cultures of the Stone Age were interacting with entities that to all intents were the same as the faeries of folkloric tradition. Around 30,000 years ago there was an explosion of symbolism in human culture, primarily represented by cave art. This cave art is usually located in hard to access underground spaces that must have had significant meaning for the artists and those who would have been experiencing these strange images by torchlight. And strange they are. Much of the cave art represents therianthropic beings, that is half human, half animal shape-shifters. Hancock makes the convincing argument that these cave paintings were produced to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of the anthropologists David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are motifs by the hundred in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these stone age cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings that coincide with descriptions of faeries in the historic period.

Hancock was building on work done by the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée, who, in his 1969 book Passport to passport-to-magonia_0Magonia, suggested that the folkloric faeries were one and the same as the alien abductors of the 20th (and now the 21st) century. His hypothesis is that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore. He suggests the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. He makes special reference to the regular motifs in faerie-tales of the abduction, by various means, of humans by faeries. There’s a lot of data here – it’s the commonest motif in faerie folklore. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to faerieland in the stories, either as midwives or nurses for faerie children, as servants to the faeries, for sex, as punishment or reward, or just because the faeries feel like it. They were also keen on abducting babies, and replacing them with changelings; wizened old faerie creatures who would usually die before the end of the story if a ruse to return the human baby wasn’t discovered. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the monumentally strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s. Vallée uses a range of evidence to tie-up faerie abductions from folklore and alien abductions from modern reports, and goes as far to state:

“… the modern, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs and lutins of the Middle Ages. Through the observations of unidentified flying objects, we are concerned with an agency our ancestors knew well and regarded with terror: we are prying into the affairs of the Secret Commonwealth.”

The Secret Commonwealth was the term coined for the faeries by the Reverend Robert Kirk in a manuscript of 1691, and Vallée spends much time in the book linking the descriptions given by Kirk of the faeries to the portrayals of aliens from the 1950s onwards. Whatever you may think of the alien abduction phenomenon, it is clear that there is much consistent evidence to support Vallée’s claims. It’s a classic book, written (like Graham Hancock’s books) outside the remits of academia, and therefore free to break free of conventions, and tell us some truths without the constraints of academic orthodoxy.

376d03c2902c81a79cc6bfe3a0966316Serena Roney-Dougal takes this theme of the faeries as external agents of interference in human culture and runs with it in her 2002 book The Faery Faith: An Integration of Science with Spirit, which pulls in a range of interpretations to get to the bottom of who the faeries are and their place in the world. It’s a nice blend of New-Age thinking and science, and covers a wide range of ideas, from Jungian analysis to quantum theory, written in luminous prose and with an evident understanding of the elusive nature of the faeries when we attempt to pin them down to a materialistic existence.

Finally, special mention needs to be made of the classic 1978 book Faeries by Brian Froud faeries-by-brian-froud-and-alan-lee-magical-creatures-7836336-325-475and Alan Lee. This is a playful, illustrative romp through faerie-lore, based on the descriptions given by Katherine Briggs in her Encyclopedia of Fairies. Froud and Lee capture the essence of folkloric faeries in their intense and atmospheric images of faeries from Britain and Ireland, always with the prescribed conviction that they are acting on ‘inside information’. There are no gossamer-winged faeries here… they’re real and vital, and the consistent republications of the volume prove the popularity of their vision. Take a look at any website about the faeries, and you’ll find some of their illustrations there. It probably ranks as the bestselling faerie book ever.

There are reams of other books about the faeries, not to mention the ever-spiralling online presence covering faerie-lore in all its aspects, but this summary is intended as an overview of what I think are the best interpretative studies of what the faeries are, where they come from, and what their stories mean. Most of the books discussed here also have good reference sections for further reading. But the faeries are elusive; interpretations can be made, but we’re always left with the distinct impression that we have not quite got to the bottom of things… and that we probably never will.

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Froud and Lee Faeries

A companion piece, looking at filmic representations of the faeries, can be found here: Faeries on Film.

For more books on the faeries take a look at the extensive list on the Fairyist website here. If any readers think there are other books essential to the interpretation of the faeries, not  discussed in this article, then please do leave a comment below.

The cover image is by Polish artist Valentin Rekunenko.

Distancing Ourselves from the Faeries

“The piskies, thought of as little people who appear on moonlight nights, are still somewhat believed in here. If interfered with too much they are said to exhibit almost fiendish powers. In a certain sense they are considered spiritual, but in another sense they are much materialized in the conceptions of the people. Generally speaking, the belief in them has almost died out within the last fifty years.” Richard Harry from Mousehole, Cornwall, quoted in WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).

There is a common thread running through the collected folklore of faeries. Stories and descriptions are frequently couched with the explanation that they happened, or were believed to have happened, a generation or several generations previously. You can find this time and again in the collections of 19th- and 20th-century folklorists, where they come across people willing to tell tales about the faeries, but who locate the action in their ‘grandparent’s time’ or at some indistinct period in the past. Depending on the source, this is usually explained as being because the faeries have drifted out of consensus reality, either due to them not being able to exist alongside humans as they used to, or because humans no longer believe in them. There is a large crossover between these two ideas. This may also be due to the storytellers covering themselves in the face of possible ridicule from the perceived modernistic notions of the folklorists collecting the stories. Whilst there is plenty of evidence for a strong belief in the reality of faeries amongst various types of communities up to the present day, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to share this belief openly with outsiders. It’s less problematic for them to use time to give some distance between themselves and the implicit or explicit belief in supernatural beings.

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The Fairy Tree by Richard Doyle

Slightly surprisingly, this vernacular tactic can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In 1452, thirty-four French villagers were questioned by an ecclesiastical commission about a ‘faerie tree’ (arbor fatalism, gallide des fees) in Domrémy, as part of the process of overturning Joan of Arc’s conviction at the hands of the English/Burgundian Gestapo twenty years earlier. In the face of her inquisitors, Joan herself had offset her own belief in the faeries by apportioning it to her godmother, who had apparently seen the faeries gathering at the tree. And, even though they were under no threat from the commission (quite the opposite in fact), none of the thirty-four interviewees would admit in a belief of the faeries, or that they had ever seen them at the tree. Instead, they informed the commissioners that ‘they had heard that in the old days faeries were said to have been seen there.’ As the villagers would have been well aware of the Spanish Inquisition’s requirement for questioning of anyone who confessed to a belief in faeries, this was probably understandable. But the fact that there was a ‘faerie tree’ to begin with, suggests that there was an ingrained belief in the faeries and their gathering places amongst the 15th-century peasantry.

5194hgzuatl-_sx346_bo1204203200_Richard Firth Green, in his 2016 book Elf Queens and Holy Friars, digs deep into the medieval vernacular belief in faeries, mostly by utilising the surviving texts of mystery plays, to demonstrate that there was a widespread acceptance of the faeries as a supernatural race of beings who interacted with humans on a regular basis. He makes the convincing argument that this was a popular cultural reaction to the ecclesiastical conception of faeries as minor-demons. But other medieval commentators and chroniclers were not so quick to dispatch the faeries to the work of the Devil. In the 12th and 13th centuries, English luminaries such as William of Newburgh, Walter Map and Ralph de Coggeshall wrote extensively about the faeries, without portraying them as demons. William and Ralph both recounted the story of The Green Children (see my take on this here: The Green Children) as a real faerie-story that actually happened, and William tells the story of a 12th-century Yorkshire rustic, who stole a cup from a faerie revel inside a hillock, and then goes on to retrace the subsequent history of the cup (of unknown material) until it ends up in the household of King Henry I. These stories were told as genuine occurrences, by educated men, with a certain acceptance of a supernatural realm that was neither Christian nor diabolic. But again, even here the chroniclers are careful to locate the action in the past, to places and societies slightly removed from their own. This is suggestive of a nervousness amongst the medieval educated class when talking about faeries, but also that accounts of the faeries and their engagement with humans were embedded in the culture, even though it’s difficult to penetrate below the writings of the elite class to that of the vernacular.

By the time of the heyday of folkloric collection in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we find the vernacular popular culture mimicking the circumspection of the medieval chroniclers. Faced with an educated, modern folklorist, the parochial purveyors of stories about the faeries seem to have instinctively distanced themselves from the actual events of the stories. T51dyk2tn99l-_sx334_bo1204203200_he rural people evidently had a deep belief and understanding of how the faeries operated, but when asked to recount their anecdotes, they would tend to disassociate themselves from this conviction by placing the stories in an indefinite period in the recent past. The faultless folklorist, Katherine Briggs gives an example of this from late 19th-century Somerset, which also includes an explanation for why the faeries may have made themselves scarce from everyday interaction with humans. The story is a common folklore motif (F388 in the Aarne-Thompson Index) of the departure of the faeries, told in c.1900 but recounting something that happened a few generations previously:

The farmer of Knighton Farm on Exmoor was on friendly terms with the faeries. They used to thresh his corn for him and do all manner of odd jobs around the farm, until his wife, full of good-will, left suits of clothes for them as a reward. As per usual with the faeries, this was a taboo, and they had to leave. But the faeries evidently still resided in the neighbourhood and retained their affection for the farmer. One day, after the local church bells were hung and rung, an elder faerie made himself manifest to the farmer.

“Will you give us the loan of your horses and cart,” he said.

The farmer was cautious as he’d heard how the faeries could use and abuse horses.

“What do you want them for?” he asked.

“I want to take my kind out of the noise of those ding-dongs, as we cannot stand them.”

The farmer trusted the faeries, who moved over the hill and out of the neighbourhood, and when the two old pack-horses trotted home they looked like beautiful and healthy two-year olds.

15622116_372405709769948_1165554650865587739_nApart from suggesting that the faeries were unable to co-exist with Christianity, this story demonstrates nicely an explicit reason why the faeries have disappeared from a locality, leaving us with an impression that they are real, but that at some point in the past they have removed themselves from everyday intercommunication with humans. This idea extends into the later 20th century, as the Isle of Man folklorist Margaret Killip describes: “The true believers, if they may be called that, for they are never consciously so, require no audience, and in fact possess knowledge they may never tell to anyone. They are far more likely to keep it hidden, but if inadvertently they let slip a hint of familiarity with a supernatural dimension, the person listening experiences a strange sensation, as if a glimpse had been given of a country heard of but hitherto unrealised.”

Indeed, in modern times, a belief in, and knowledge of, the faeries can find distance in anonymity as well as time. In his brilliant 2010 book Somerset Faeries and Pixies: Exploring Their Hidden World, Jon Dathen finds out that there is a vibrant living tradition of faerie-lore in the county, and he allows his interviewees much time and space to give their detailed stories of encounters with the faeries. The people he interviews, however, do not place their stories in the past; they are anecdotes recounted by the people who have experienced them, but none of his interviewees were willing to be identified beyond their Christian name. This appears to be a defence mechanism against their perception of an established orthodoxy that takes a scientific worldview, which does not include supernatural beings. They were simply afraid of ridicule. One intriguing tale is told by ‘Frank’, who had farmed his Somerset land since the second world war, and suggested that the faeries were to be found everywhere, but that people needed to slow their pace of life to encounter them. He describes a winter night when all the family except him were asleep. Hearing noises in the kitchen he crept downstairs. His description of the event is worth quoting in full, as it encapsulates the strangeness of many chance meetings with the faeries:

The fire was raging as if some soul had jiffied it up a bit, so that was the only light in the room. There perched in front of the fire, perched on a three-legged stool was a strange little creature about the size of a cat. I sort of froze. Gave me a turn it did, but I peered and peered trying to make it out. For all the world it looked like a hare done up in clothes as if it were a little old man. He or it had his legs drawn up and his head resting on his knees, with his hands clasped in front of his shins. I edged in the room on all fours to get a better look. Great big long hairy feet with long toes. He had little grey trousers on, and a collared shirt that was too small, a green waistcoat, and on his head a sort of cap, but his face… it was ugly, half hare half human, big bulgy wide hare eyes, a long twitchy nose, plenty of whiskers sticking out all ways, and long hairy ears sticking downwards from either side of his cap… I stood up and made a noise doing so. The little thing turned then, and I don’t know who was more surprised and frightened. He opened his mouth in alarm and there were two big buck hare teeth in there. He said, ‘Ohw,’ as if mortified to be caught out. I thought how ugly and strange he was, but he looked scared so I spoke, ‘Hello, what are you doing here?’

The little thing looked at me and said one word: ‘Cold’. Then he flew from the stool and ran on his hind legs really fast for the door. Before I could rouse myself to move, he was through it and away. I sprang to the door and looked out after him. I saw his queer little shape hightailing it up the road towards the copse. Then he was gone… I’ve since heard tell of hare type pixies from other people, but then hares are magical creatures.

brian_faeries_22The rational response is that Frank was indeed asleep and dreaming, but he reiterates that this was definitely not the case; he was lucid and the adrenaline was coursing through him. This might suggest he experienced the faerie in an altered state of consciousness, perhaps as the result of a natural surge of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, a compound released regularly (probably) through the pineal gland in the brain, but which, under certain circumstances, can flood the brain, causing reality to be observed in a remodelled fashion (I investigate this concept in more detail here: Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT).

But as with Dathen’s other interviewees, Frank was nervous about telling the story and quickly changed tact to talk about some older faerie anecdotes, told to him by his father. This sort of discountenance is a common feature of people recounting modern faerie encounters. Unlike encounters with their technologically updated manifestations, extraterrestrial aliens, confrontations with faeries are beyond the pale within the mainstream. They’ve been safely delegated away to children’s stories, cartoons, folktales and as arbiters of psychological allegories and metaphors. They cannot be allowed safely into our five-sense consensus reality. So if they are not distanced into the past, the observer needs to find the distance of anonymity between themselves and the observation.

With an increasing understanding and interest in non-usual states of consciousness, the spiritual aspects of the natural world, and the strange alternative reality of the quantum realm, this distancing is starting to change. The reductionist, materialistic scientific worldview that has imposed itself on humanity for the last few hundred years is being broken down as a growing number of people explicitly and implicitly investigate aspects of reality that do not fit in with the mainstream paradigm. Despite the degraded reputation of faeries, they appear to be making a comeback, without the need to distance them into an indefinite past or to be embarrassed about describing encounters with them. It seems that they were perhaps here all along… just waiting to be rediscovered for what they really are.

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Here is a nice forum for discussion of Modern Fairy Sightings.

Swapping Babies: The Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

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

By the end of the 19th century, the changeling motif was mostly relegated to the folklore of what happened in the past, but which doesn’t happen anymore. Improved hygiene and greater access to medicine, raised life-expectancy in rural populations and lowered child infirmity. At the same time the development of universal education ensured the new scientific view of child infirmity and disease replaced many of the folk beliefs that had previously attempted to explain why children became ill, and what could be done about it. But the deeper meaning of changeling folklore remains. At its roots it offered psychological therapy through storytelling to people who were in difficult situations due to a child’s infirmity. The faeries acted as the supernatural agency to explain traumatic experiences that were otherwise unexplainable. It is this supernatural quality to the changeling stories that allowed their long existence in folklore, and which gives us a vivid insight into the consensus reality of the past.

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

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PJ Lynch – A mother threatens a changeling with a roasting

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

Evans-Wentz’s Celtic Faeries

“If fairies actually exist as invisible beings or intelligences, and our investigations lead us to the tentative hypothesis that they do, they are natural and not supernatural, for nothing which exists can be supernatural; and, therefore, it is our duty to examine the Celtic Fairy Races just as we examine any fact in the visible realm wherein we now live, whether it be a fact of chemistry, of physics or of biology.” WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries

Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) was the sort of character who could only have thrived at the beginning of the 20th century. He’s probably best known these days for bringing the first translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol) to the West. But prior to his travels in Tibet, Nepal and India, he was a self-styled American gentleman (i.e. independently funded) polymath, and between 1907-11 his incarnation was as a folklorist, who travelled around the Celtic bastions of Ireland, Brittany, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, collecting, analysing and interpreting the ‘faerie faith’ in these places. His work was published as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries in 1911, and it remains one of the most important testimonies of the belief in faeries amongst the Celtic peoples, collected at a time when for the majority of the rural population in these areas, faerieland was a bona-fide reality, to be revered and feared in equal measure.

His language can occasionally seem archaic and quaint, but there is no doubt that he imbued himself in the Celtic communities that he spent time with during his years of travels amongst them. He had the time, that a modern anthropologist/folklorist could only dream of, to visit these communities and spend time with them, soaking up their stories and anecdotes, which revealed so much about the deeply ingrained belief in the faeries and the way these entities interacted with consensual reality. In doing so, he gained a great admiration for the rural people he came across, who would tell it like it was.

“The great majority of men in cities are apt to pride themselves on their own exemption from ‘superstition,’ and to smile pityingly at the poor countrymen and countrywomen who believe in fairies. But when they do so they forget that, with all their own admirable progress in material invention, with all the far-reaching data of their acquired science, with all the vast extent of their commercial and economic conquests, they themselves have ceased to be natural… they have lost all sympathetic and responsive contact with Nature, because unconsciously they have thus permitted conventionality and unnaturalness to insulate them from it.”

This quote is from the introduction to The Fairy-Faith, and it sets out Evans-Wentz’s stall. He was on the side of the rural peasantry who were the repository of the vast wealth of folklore represented in their tales of the faeries. He recognised the innate importance of what they were conveying, and was not shy about convincing his reader of the authenticity of what they told him, even if it was anathema to the conventual scientific and materialistic wisdom of his age.

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Anna Brahms – A Faerie Gathering

Evans-Wentz travelled on foot, visiting remote villages and farmsteads throughout the Celtic countries he visited, as often at night as by day, and would frequently take advantage of his hosts’ hospitality for days at a time, so as to hear as many stories as possible. He would take a local translator with him sometimes, as many of the informants spoke only their native Celtic language. The impression is gained of an extremely affable chap, who, by his own admission, gained the confidence of the countryfolk he visited by dint of being an American and not English! Those opening up to him with traditional stories were most often the oldest people of the communities, and whilst many of the stories were either contemporary or dating back to their youth, others were handed down to them from their parents and grandparents, taking the timeline back as far as the late 18th century. Some are first-hand accounts, whilst others are anecdotal, but there is a strong consistency in themes and motifs, that suggest a folklore ingrained into the belief-systems of those telling the stories. Their reality was physical and psychological, with no apparent need to separate the two.

His natural starting point was Ireland, where he found belief in the faeries (commonly termed aes sídhe in Ireland) most vigorous and unquestioned amongst the rural communities. The following excerpt gives a taste of the evidence and Evans-Wentz’s style of transcription, made especially interesting through its setting at the Neolithic passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth:

“Between Knowth and New Grange I met Maggie Tinunons carrying a pail of butter-milk to her calves. When we stopped on the road to talk, I asked her, in due time, if any of the ‘good people’ ever appeared in the region, or about New Grange, which we could see in the field, and she replied… ‘I am sure the neighbours used to see the good people come out of it at night and in the morning. The good people inherited the fort.’ Then I asked her what the good people are, and she said:- ‘When they disappear they go like fog; they must be something like spirits, or how could they disappear in that way? I knew of people, who would milk in the fields about here and spill milk on the ground for the good people; and pots of potatoes would be put out for the good people at night.'”

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Newgrange Neolithic passage tomb, and home of the faeries

Evans-Wentz collected a multitude of these types of anecdotes, but he also sought out ‘seers’, the members of communities who could give him first-hand accounts of interactions with faeries. He met one such (un-named) Irish mystic in Rosses Point, County Sligo. This seer talks about various types of faeries that inhabit the landscape of Sligo, making them sound like a cross between nature spirits and mystical visions. But Evans-Wentz was just as interested in the mechanics of interacting with the faeries as he was with the stories themselves. How did the seer interface with them?

“I have always made a distinction between pictures seen in the memory of nature and visions of actual beings now existing in the inner world. We can make the same distinction in our world: I may close my eyes and see you as a vivid picture in memory, or I may look at you with my physical eyes and see your actual image. In seeing these beings of which I speak, the physical eyes may be open or closed: mystical beings in their own world and nature are never seen with the physical eyes.”

Evans-Wentz then asked him what sort of state was he in when he saw the faeries…

“I have seen them most frequently after being away from a city or town for a few days. The whole west coast of Ireland from Donegal to Kerry seems charged with a magical power, and I find it easiest to see while I am there. I have always found it comparatively easy to see visions while at ancient monuments like New Grange and Dowth, because I think such places are naturally charged with psychical forces, and were for that reason made use of long ago as sacred places. I usually find it possible to throw myself into the mood of seeing; but sometimes visions have forced themselves upon me.”

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The Fairy Glen near Uig, Isle of Skye

In Scotland Evans-Wentz travelled extensively through the Highlands and Islands collecting stories about the faeries. There is a sense that here, as opposed to Ireland, the belief in faeries had diminished amongst the most recent generation, and many of the tales and anecdotes relate to the person’s parents or grandparents. In Uignisb on the Isle of Skye, he came across Miss Frances Tolmie, who had a wealth of faerie-tales from an unspecified period shortly before the present. It includes this one about refusing faerie hospitality. It includes many common motifs and encapsulates well the capricious nature of the Highland faeries:

“Two women were walking toward the Point when one of them, hearing churning going on under a hillock, expressed aloud a wish for some buttermilk. No sooner had she spoken th14233106_318304381846748_399534937570341566_n-2an a very small figure of a woman came out with a bowlful and offered it to her, but the thirsty woman, ignorant of fairy customs and the penalty attending their infringement, declined the kind offer of refreshment, and immediately found herself a prisoner in the hillock. She was led to an apartment containing a chest full of meal and a great bag of wool, and was told by the fairy that when she had eaten all the meal and spun all the wool she would be free to return to her home. The prisoner at once set herself to eating and spinning assiduously, but without apparent result, and despairing of completing the task consulted an old man of very sad countenance who had long been a captive in the hillock. He willingly gave her his advice, which was to wet her left eye with saliva each morning before she settled down to her task. She followed this advice, and gradually the wool and the meal were exhausted. Then the fairy granted her freedom, but in doing so cursed the old man, and said that she had it in her power to keep him in the hillock for ever.”

There were more incidents of vindictiveness amidst the faeries from the Isle of Man, where Evans-Wentz found pockets of the rural population with a firmly entrenched understanding of the faeries. John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey, told a story with the familiar motif of being blinded by the faeries (Aarne-Thompson motif F362.1):

“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: “You’ll never see us again”; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”

The faeries in Wales were usually called Tylwyth Teg, and much of the testimony taken during Evans-Wentz’s Welsh visits concerned their nature, and what they were supposed to be. We’re left with the impression of an amorphous race of spirit beings, who usually tolerate humans in their own environment, but who are quick to vengeance for any perceived wrongs. Through an English translator, John Jones of Pontrhydfendigaid told Evans-Wentz:

“I was born and bred where there was tradition that the Tylwyth Teg lived in holes in the hills, and that none of these Tylwyth Teg was taller than three to four feet. It was a common idea that many of the Tylwyth Teg, forming in a ring, would dance and sing out on the mountain-sides, or on the plain, and that if children should meet with them at such a time they would lose their way and never get out of the ring. If the Tylwyth Teg fancied any particular child they would always keep that child, taking off its clothes and putting them on one of their own children, which was then left in its place. They took only boys, never girls.”

Evans-Wentz interviewed more church ministers in Wales than elsewhere, and it is interesting to note their more rationalised, folkloric tone compared to the village natives. The Rev. TM Morgan, vicar of Newchurch parish, two miles from Carmarthen, was keen to impart a Christian veneer to the faeries but was able to convey a range of faerie folklore gleaned from his parishioners over many decades:

“The Tylwyth Teg were thought to be able to take children. ‘You mind, or the Tylwyth Teg will take you away,’ parents would say to keep their children in the house after dark. It was an opinion, too, that the Tylwyth Teg could transform good children into kings and queens, and bad children into wicked spirits, after such children bad been taken–perhaps in death. The Tylwyth Teg were believed to live in some invisible world to which children on dying might go to be rewarded or punished, according to their behaviour on this earth. Even in this life the Tylwyth Teg had power over children for good or evil. The belief, as these ideas show, was that the Tylwyth Teg were spirits.”

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When Evans-Wentz visited Cornwall, he found a much reduced contemporary belief in faeries (usually termed pixies throughout Cornwall and Devon). Most of the stories he recounts are more evidently overlaid with storytelling tropes, and usually relate to an indefinite past. But he did hear from Miss Susan Gay of Falmouth, who articulates, what was then, a modern and novel metaphysical explanation of these entities derived from the ideas of the Theosophical Society, which had evidently made an impression on Miss Gay in the west of Cornwall:

“The pixies and fairies are little beings in the human form existing on the ‘astral plane’, who may be in the process of evolution; and, as such, I believe people have seen them. The ‘astral plane’ is not known to us now because our psychic faculty of perception has faded out by non-use, and this condition has been brought about by an almost exclusive development of the physical brain; but it is likely that the psychic faculty will develop again in its turn… It is my point of view that there is a basis of truth in the folk-lore. With its remnants of occult learning, magic, charms, and the like, folk-lore seems to be the remains of forgotten psychical facts, rather than history, as it is often called.”

In Brittany Evans-Wentz found that the belief in faeries was intimately woven in with the belief of the spirits of the dead, most commonly termed Corrigans in Breton:

“Like the fairies in Britain and Ireland, the Corrigans and the Cornish pixies find their favourite amusement in the circular dance. When the moon is clear and bright they gather for their frolic near menhirs, and dolmens, and tumuli, and at cross-roads, or even in the open country; and they never miss an opportunity of enticing a mortal passing by to join them. If he happens to be a good-natured man and enters their sport heartily, they treat him quite as a companion, and may even do him some good turn; but if he is not agreeable they will make him dance until he falls down exhausted, and should he commit some act thoroughly displeasing to them he will meet their certain revenge.”

The association of prehistoric sites and faerie activity in Brittany is taken fully on-board by Evans-Wentz, and he highlights the myriad of faerie folklore surrounding Carnac, location of a potent prehistoric landscape of stone rows and burial chambers, as evidence for a mutated ancestor worship; a preservation of deep-seated spiritual beliefs manifesting in the faerie folktales. Especially interesting is the testimony from Madame Marie Ezanno, who lived in Carnac and relayed several narratives of the local corrigans. Note the mention of mushrooms (an implicit reference to the method of seeing the corrigans?), the ritualistic silence during the dance, and the belief that they lived under prehistoric burial mounds:

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Prehistoric stone rows at Carnac, Brittany

“They whistled in order to assemble. Where they danced mushrooms grew; and it was necessary to maintain silence so as not to interrupt them in their dance. They were often very brutal towards a man who fell under their power, and if they had a grudge against him they would make him submit to the greatest tortures. The peasants believed strongly in the corrigans, because they thus saw them and heard them. The corrigans dressed in very coarse white linen cloth. They were mischievous spirits (espirits follets), who lived under dolmens.’

Less than half of The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries is taken up with testimonies. For the remainder Evans-Wentz applies the anthropology of his day in an attempt to explain the specific ethnology of Celtic faeries. He does this through an examination of the written faerie-lore, and then an assessment of the prevalent learned opinions on the reasons for belief in faeries, and the origins for these beliefs. These interpretations run the gamut, and although some of the archaic anthropological terms uses by Evans-Wentz can be disconcerting, he takes us through the main ideas about how the faerie faith was originated and propagated:

  • The faeries are a folk memory of a pre-Celtic race, who lived in liminal environmental areas. This might explain faerie motifs such as kidnapping babies and replacing them with their own changelings. Evans-Wentz suggests that the continuation of changeling-type stories represents the depth of this Celtic folk memory, and retained its power even when the faeries had become non-human spirits.
  • The faeries are dwindled gods, and their stories are corrupted vestiges of Pagan nature worship rituals.
  • The faeries are fallen angels, trapped on earth after the Fall.
  • The faeries are the spirits of the dead. Especially in Brittany, but also throughout the Celtic countries, this was probably the commonest belief of the rural people who told and disseminated the stories.
  • The faeries are simply a different race of metaphysical beings, who interact with humanity on their own terms.

Sensibly, Evans-Wentz comes to the general conclusion that they are all right. But they only work as parts of a whole, where the entirety of faerie belief is constructed from a complex range of influences over large spans of time. And Evans-Wentz consistently emphasises the need to fully understand ‘visions’ of the faeries seen through second-sight or altered states of consciousness, and to incorporate them into any interpretation, because the majority of the stories he heard were either told by seers, about seers, or about someone in an altered state of consciousness. In conclusion he even goes as far as to say: “Fairyland exists as a supernormal state of consciousness into which men and women may enter temporarily in dreams, trances, or in various ecstatic conditions; or for an indefinite period at death.”

Evans-Wentz was well-versed in contemporary theosophist ideas about the true nature of reality, and the part the faeries had in it. Whilst he didn’t attempt to use theosophy to explain the faerie faith, he was open to their idea of using seers and mediums to connect with metaphysical entities, if their testament helped to explain the folklore and the reality of the faeries. Once he began his field research and encountered these seers and mystics first-hand, he became even more convinced that these people were (and had been for centuries) conveying legitimate information about the faeries by altering (purposely or not) their states of consciousness and interacting directly with a metaphysical environment.

But by the time Evans-Wentz made his tour of Celtic countries between 1907-11, both people with the second-sight, and the general belief in faeries was waning. By cataloguing rural stories, anecdotes and theories about the faeries, just before WWI tore apart many of the traditional ways of life, and by doing it in such an open-minded and empathetic manner, he has left us with a rare treasure mine of Celtic faerie data.

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WY Evans-Wentz in Tibetan regalia, c. 1919

The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries has been republished several times, but the full text can be viewed online through the Sacred Texts website: WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries