Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales by Mika Loponen

Here’s something new for Deadbutdreaming. The Finnish scholar Mika Loponen has written this piece exploring the variety of medieval faerie folklore from British and Irish sources. Although described as an ‘introduction’, it is an excellent overview and assessment of how deeply embedded the faeries are in medieval folklore. I hope readers will appreciate a perspective slightly different from my own rather more esoteric take on medieval faeries, which can be found on the Ancient Origins Premium website here: Fantasies from Evil Spirits? Faeries in the Medieval Imagination.

Mika is a doctoral post-graduate student at the Department of Modern Languages in the University of Helsinki. His main field of interests are in the translation of culture specific metaphors and in the development of fantasy and science fiction literature. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis on the semiotic issues of translating and domesticating cultural concepts, artifacts and irrealia in fantasy and science fiction literature. Thanks to Mika for permission to republish his work here at Deadbutdreaming.

The original pdf. version of the article can be found here.

FAERIE FOLKLORE IN MEDIEVAL TALES – AN INTRODUCTION

Introduction
Although every country has – at least at some point of time – had its share of beliefs in mythological creatures that have been thought to affect the everyday lives of people, few cultures can boast as widely spread, well detailed and rich tapestry of tales as composes the fairy folklore of the British Isles. In this paper I am going to introduce the faeries of medieval legends, tales and folklore of the British Isles. I will place emphasis on the inspection of the natures and characteristics of the individual faery types in the tales. I will also explore some of the common denominators that bind these different types together, point out a few common concepts that are universal in the faerie legends of the British Isles and mention some of the more curious details, exceptions and variations of the superstitions.

It is not my intention to analyze any of these legends and myths deeply; I will place more importance in introducing a variety of different ideas than in exploring any one of them thoroughly. Although many faerie legends clearly share obvious common roots, the legends and superstitions concerning them can vary immensely between regions. Thus trying to create stereotypes or generalizations is not desirable or even possible. Instead of this I will try to introduce as many aspects of the faerie folklore as possible within the context of this paper, and provide notes on some regional variances as they are found.

Technicalities
Most of the names of the faerie types have several different forms of writing. For instance, the brownie is also known as bwca, hob, hobman, bwbachod, hobgoblin, dobie and bog (and many other names), while the sluagh have been known as slaugh and sluag (Lindeman), and the phooka as pooka, pouka and puck (Briggs 1976: 229). The spelling problem is made even more frustrating by the fact that the different types of spelling might as easily as not point to sub-categories of the same faerie types. One example of this is the sluagh: Briggs (1967: 19) agrees that sluagh (“the host of unforgiven dead”) is the Scottish version of the faerie type, while Lindeman argues that sluagh would be the Irish version and that the Scottish form of the faerie is sluag (the Scottish wild hunt), which in Garvin’s text appears as slaugh. Likewise, the word ‘faerie’ could also be spelled as ‘fairy’, ‘fairie’ or ‘faery’.

I will be using the most commonly known spelling form, or in absence of that, whatever form happens to please me; for example, I have generally chosen to use the term ‘faerie’, but I also use ‘faery’ in certain compound words, such as ‘Faeryland’. When describing all different kinds of faeries, I may at times use the term ‘fae’. For the sake of being more easily comprehensible, I have sacrificed readability by using italics in the names of the faerie types, like pooka or Tuatha de Danann, and in all faerie-specific terminology, such as glamour or Unseelie Court.

Although it is not a major point, I think that it is worth mentioning that many of the names of the different types of faeries lack plural endings. For example Tuatha de Danann, sidhe, sluagh and pooka are both the singular and plural forms of the words. Lastly, the categorization made in the tiles of this paper (e.g. as Lords and Ladies or commoners) are my attempt to enhance the readability of this introductory paper and should not be considered as categories per se among the folklore.

Faeries, Fay, Fey
Defining the term ‘faerie’ is not easy; some definitions include only specific, pre-Christian types of mythological creatures while other definitions include all of the spirits, angels and supernatural animals as well as the souls of the dead. I will take a middle road and include the spirits and the souls of the dead, since the dead and the faeries have an intimate connection in the folklore of the British Isles. I will not include supernatural animals except for the kelpies and selkies, who are portrayed as intelligent and self-aware. I will similarly exclude the angels except in two instances, to which I will return later in the paper.

Although the faeries vary quite much from tale to tale, there are some common faerie types in both legends and folklore. An amusing notion is that the restrictiveness of these types depends on the ‘social status’ of the faerie type; the noble and beautiful sidhe and Tuatha de Danann are well-defined faerie ‘races’, and most of the individual faeries of these types share the same qualities and characteristics, while the goblins, pooka and other common folk have much looser definitions and more variation within their ranks.

The Roles of the Faeries
In every culture there is – and has been – a need to explain the unexplainable; to catalogue the world into understandable concepts related to each other (Lévi-Strauss 1974: 8-10). This catalogization has been performed through the means available to each culture at each specific point of time – through mythological concepts, religion or modern science among other methods. As with all mythology (Lévi-Strauss 1974: 9-13), the faerie folklore of the British Isles is created through this process of catalogization and contextualization – through people’s need to explain the way the world functions and their own place in the world, and through their trying to create boundaries and basis for cultural concepts as well as through trying to explain different phenomena in nature.

It has been speculated that some of the faerie folklore – as well as many other mythological concepts – would be created as metaphoric images used to convey warnings; for example, the kelpies – as explained below – might have been used as metaphoric imagery to warn people from trying to ride unfamiliar horses (which might behave aggressively) or from reaching and falling into lakes and drowning. However, as Siikala (1992: 157-158) argues, abstract conceptualization is foreign to cultures that categorize their world through mythological concepts, and therefore for example a “thunder bird” – a bird seen to represent thunder – is not viewed or understood in such a culture as a metaphor for thunder, but as the concrete personification of thunder; thus, the metaphoric image of a faerie causing somebody’s drowning would not be seen as a metaphor inside the culture, but the faerie would be seen as the real and concrete cause of death.

Although the roles the different faerie types filled within the culture are partially explored in this paper, the paper concentrates on introducing and examining the different types as they are presented in the tales; the scope of this paper does not allow a deeper inspection of the educational and explanatory functions for which faerie folklore was used in the medieval British Isles.

The Commoners
Belief in tutelary spirits is found in nearly every culture. In some cultures there are ancestral spirits who protect the household while in others there are faeries and spirits that are attached to the house or the family. In either case it is seen as extremely bad to lose the protection, help and luck provided by them, and there are many tales to exemplify what happens when the family loses (usually through greed, misery or blunder in etiquette) the help of the supernatural element.

In the British Isles there was belief in both ancestral protectors and faerie helpers, and since the border between the dead and the faeries were quite shallow, it is sometimes hard to draw any lines between them. I will start the introduction of these ‘commoners’ with some of the so-called household faeries, and continue to ancestral faeries.

Household Helpers
The English brownies and its Welsh counterparts, the bwbach and bwca are perfect examples of tutelary faeries. These faeries were usually seen as household helpers (quite like the Finnish tonttu): they cleaned up untidy rooms, finished unfinished tasks, made bread, harvested grain and mended broken items (especially tools). Even more importantly, they were seen to bring luck to the households they lived in. Curiously most of the tales in which brownies appear tell about households that manage to drive them away by angering them, which is usually very easy, for the brownies seem to have a very strict code of etiquette. Although this etiquette varies greatly from tale to tale, there are some common concepts that appear in most of the legends: brownies demand a nightly bowl of milk or cream, and sometimes a honey cake. The milk and cream have to be of good quality, and the cakes have to be made out of good ingredients, or the brownie will be angry; one feature that is common to nearly all English faerie legend is the faeries’ hate of misers and greedy people. The food is to be left out for the brownie to take as he wishes, and not given directly. In fact, the brownies should never be given gifts, for they become extremely offended when offered reward for their services.

Other usual ways of angering the brownies included giving them a nickname (I will give an example of this in the section when discussing the boggarts), performing some of their duties, thanking them, cursing them, forgetting to give them food and giving them clothing. Forgetting to give the brownies food and giving them clothing seems to be the most popular ways of angering them in the tales; many of the tales are center around someone doing either of these. However, these methods seem to contradict each other very often: in the majority of the tales the brownie of a house is angered because the family gives him clothing, yet in some tales he is angered because the family did not give him clothing (Briggs 1976: 32). Sometimes, when a brownie got angry, he was either replaced by or transformed into a boggart, a malicious and unhelpful version of the brownie. The boggarts were dark, hairy and dressed in tattered clothes. They were quite ugly and deformed, and they had oversized hands and clumsy feet. The boggarts were used to explain small accidents and nasty things, as well as the strange noises and creaking in the night. They were also thought to blow out candles, hide small tools and equipment and make babies cry.

The bogies can been seen as a hybrid of boggarts and brownies. They were mischievous but harmless faeries, who amused themselves by doing stupid and uncreative pranks, like pulling blankets from beds on cold nights and hiding small items. The bogies were quite interested in gossip; they liked to spy on people and listen to their conversation.

Although the brownies, bogies and boggarts could be annoying and sometimes even dangerous, in most of the tales the occupants of the boggart-infested houses found ways to make them leave. One of the most common methods was to give the faerie a name (or, in later versions, to baptise him). Briggs tells us a typical version of these tales:

“A Brownie on the Celtic fringe, on the edge of the Gaelic-speaking country in Pertshire, haunted Altmor Burn, not far from Pitlochry. He used to be heared paddling and splashing in the burn, then he would go up with wet feet to the farm near, and if everything had been left untidy he would tidy it, but if it was left neat he would throw everything about. It was counted unlucky to meet him, and the road was avoided at night. He was laid, not by a gift of clothes, but by a nickname. A man returning very merry from the market one dark night heard him splashing about in the burn, and cried out jovially, ‘Well, Puddlefoot, how is it with you this night?’ The Brownie was horrified. ‘Oh! Oh!’ he cried, ‘I ́ve gotten a name! ́Tis Puddlefoot they call me!’ And he vanished, never to haunt the place again.” (Briggs 1976: 29).

The Grieving Dead
The best example of ancestral faeries is the Irish banshee (Briggs 1976: 25) (also known as the bean sidhe), who was seen as a long-dead virgin belonging to the family. At first the banshee was seen as a good, grieving spirit who appeared to warn a family member of a certain death, but after a time the legend evolved to the point where the banshee lost its grief and sympathy and became just an evil harbinger of death. As the tale evolved even further, the banshee’s song transformed from a message to the reason of somebody’s death.

The Scottish version of this faerie is the bean-nighe, who, unlike the Irish version, is anything but beautiful: she has one nostril, one large tooth and webbed feet. She is usually spotted at the riverside washing the clothes of one who is destined to die (Briggs 1976: 25).

The Nasty Ones
Although the boggarts and bogies were seen as annoying and sometimes even dangerous, they were not even nearly as nasty as some of the really bad faeries. Although they caused harm and mischief, and sometimes even caused (directly or indirectly) someone’s death, their actions were usually at least somehow justifiable. In most of the legends they stopped their mischief before any serious harm was done.

Not surprisingly – the line between the less harmful faeries and truly dangerous faeries was between home and wilderness: the helpful faeries lived and worked in the house, courtyard or fields, while the nasty ones lived in forests, rivers, marshes and moors. Prime examples of the evil spirits are the kelpies, will-o-the-wisps and the redcaps.

The Scottish kelpies were spirits of water, who left their watery homes to find victims whom they might drown (quite like the east-Slavic rusalka or the Finnish näkki). In order to accomplish this, the kelpie changed his form into a magnificent horse, handsome, seaweed-haired young lord or hairy man, and lured people into lakes and rivers. Briggs tells a typical kelpie tale:

“One story commonly told was of seven little girls who were out walking on a Sunday, and saw a pretty little horse walking near the lochside. One after another they got on its back, which gradually lengthened itself so that there was room for them all. A little boy who was with them noticed this and refused to join them. The horse turned its head and suddenly yelled ‘Come on, little scabby-head, get up too!’ The boy ran for his life and hid among the boulders where the thing could not get at him. When it saw this it turned and dashed into the loch with the seven girls on its back. And nothing of them except their entrails ever came to land.” (Briggs 1976: 57).

The kelpies had also other ways to lure their victims into the water. For example, dracae (another Scottish version of the kelpie; the singular form is in some tales draca and in some tales drac) lured their victims into their underwater domains by leaving gold or jewels floating on the surface of the water and abducting the people who reached for them, taking them into subterranean caves where the victims were used as slaves. According to some of these tales blessing the floating treasures made them safe for taking (Lindeman, Garvin). Although some of the tales about kelpies tell of resourceful lords who were able to enslave a kelpie with a magic bridle, most tales are quite like Briggs’ story. As mentioned earlier, these tales were used to make children cautious of rivers and lakes, so that they would not drown in them accidentally.

Tales about will-o-the-wisps were used similarly to warn children (and adults) from going to the forests alone. Will-o-the-wisps (also known as ignus fatuus [lit. ‘foolish fire’], Ellylldans, fairy lights, corpse-candles, peg-a-lanterns, will-o’the-wykes, Joan-in-the-wads, Hinky-Punks as well as many other names; Briggs 1967: 52 among others) were thought to be imps, pixies or souls of mischievous, unbaptized children, who appeared as faint lights on marshes and bogs on still nights after sunset. In many tales will-o-the-wisps try to lure people from the road deeper and deeper into the forests, until the victims either drown in a swamp or lose their way and starve to death.

While the kelpies and will-o-the-wisps of the legends were evil and malicious, even they can not be compared with redcaps, the short, bloodthirsty and gruesome goblins of the Lowland (Briggs 1976: 57). The redcaps got their name from the caps they wore: they used to dye them in the blood of their victims. The redcaps were thought to live in abandoned towers and castles where evil deeds had been done (by this aspect they could be seen as even more degenerated boggarts). The redcaps were described as short, old men with red eyes, arms that ended in sharp talons and a large mouth full of sharp teeth. Unlike most of the other faeries, the redcaps were not vulnerable to iron; they even bragged about this by using iron boots. In most of the folklore, travellers who strayed to the dwellings of redcaps were killed and eaten. The only way to defend against a redcap was to recite the scriptures. If this was done, the redcap would vanish with a scream, leaving one large tooth to the spot where it had stood. This form of defence is naturally a Christian addition to the old legend.

In addition to the man-eating redcaps, there were faeries with vampiric characteristics. One example of this would be the Scottish baobhan sith, of whom Garvin gives a good example:

“Four men were hunting in the wilds of Ross-shire, and took refuge for the night in a deserted shieling. To keep themselves warm they began to dance. Three of them danced, and one supplied the mouth music. As they danced one of them wished that their sweethearts were with them. At once four beautiful girls came into the building, in green clothes, with long golden hair. Three of them danced, and one sat by the singer. Presently the singer noticed drops of blood falling from his friends. He started up, and his partner flew at him. He escaped from her, and took refuge among the horses, where he was safe until daybreak. In the morning he went back to the shieling, and found the bloodless bodies of his companions, sucked to death by the dreadful baobhan sith” (Garvin).

The Wild Ones
Not all of the faeries who lived in wilderness were seen as evil or bloodthirsty. Some of the wild faeries of the legends dwelled in forests because they wanted to live with animals, while others wanted to stay as far from humans as possible. The pooka and the selkies are good examples of these kinds of faeries.

The pooka (also known as phooka, pouka and puck) are described by the legends as a truly wild race of faeries, who live in forests and are able to change form from one animal to another. Although the pooka are not evil, they are mischievous: in some tales a pooka appears as a tame pony, offering a ride to careless people. When the traveller mounts the pony, it starts to run faster and faster through marshes, thorn-bushes and forests, until it suddenly throws the rider into a ditch or mudpool (Lindeman). Although this resembles the behaviour of a kelpie, there is one major difference: the pooka’s victims tend to remain alive, with no serious injuries. It seems that the pooka do these trick just to amuse itself, with no malicious intents.

The selkies, or seal people, appear in tales as gentle, humble and loving folk who can change their forms from a human to a seal. In most of the tales the selkies appear in, they are described as dying people, whose death is being caused by ignorant men who hunt and eat them. In spite of this, the selkies are nearly never portrayed as angry, bitter or vengeful. An exception of this is made by some tales where selkies sink ships and cause storms to avenge the hunting of seals (Lindeman). In most of the selkie tales a good-natured seal hunter catches a selkie, realises what he has catched, releases the selkie, promises to change his career and is handsomely rewarded. The other major brand of selkie tales is quite different: in these tales a man sees a female selkie who comes ashore and sheds her skin (the selkies must do this to become human), and sneaks to the beach, stealing the skin. With the skin, the man forces the selkie to remain on dry land and to become his wife; the man usually tells her that he will burn the sealskin if she will not marry him. The tale usually ends in the selkie finding her sealskin and escaping to the sea, although in some versions the selkie dies of her sorrow.

Changelings
Changelings (Briggs 1976: 7) were perhaps the most well known faeries during the medieval times. It was widely believed that if a newborn baby was left alone or unwatched before he is baptised, the faeries might steal him and leave a changeling in his place (the use of male pronoun is intentional; in most of the legends and tales, the faeries steal male babies). In some of the folklore this changeling was said to be made out of wood and earth, with a spell cast on it so that it would look and act as a real baby. More often the faeries would leave an unhealthy, ugly faerie child who would die in a few years or an old faerie, who would remain in the cradle, eating much but never growing.

In the tales, the only way to retrieve the real child was to expose the changeling for what it was. The tales tell of many ways to reveal the true nature of the changeling. Unfortunately, most of these were quite lethal for the baby. Even more unfortunately they were quite often practiced in real life; it was much easier for the parents of a sick or malformed child to think of him as a changeling. Certain ways to expose a changeling’s true nature (according to Briggs, these methods were practiced even at the beginning of this century; Briggs 1976: 117) included placing him on a hot stove, leaving him on the manure pile for a night and mistreating him. It was thought that these things would force the faerie’s real parents to arrive to stop their child from being mistreated or killed. It depended on the legend whether the human parents’ real child was returned or not. In some legends the real child returns from Faeryland years after the changeling has died, and sometimes he has aged many years in a few months or a few days in many years. The amount of wandering orphans might have given birth to these tales; when an orphan appears to the doors of the parents who have killed their ‘changeling’, they would quite likely want to see him as their long-lost son that has been brought home by destiny.

Not all of the ways of exposing changelings were lethal, or even dangerous. One of the most popular methods in the tales is to brew with eggshells. When enough brewing would be done, the changeling would no longer be able to contain himself and would sit up and exclaim something like: “I have seen three forests grow and wither, but I have never seen ale brewed in an eggshell before!” The faeries’ reasons for stealing babies vary greatly between different legends. One of the most common reasons seems to be that the stolen babies were married (naturally after growing up) to members of the faerie nobility. Another, quite curious reason is introduced in some post-Christian legends; once every decade (or seven years) the faeries needed to pay a tithe of one child to Hell, and the faeries try to evade this by stealing human children whom they send as the tithe.

The Lords and Ladies Tuatha de Danann
“These Tuatha were great necromancers, skilled in all magic, and excellent in all the arts as builders, poets and musicians. At first the Milesians were going to destroy them utterly, but gradually were so fascinated and captivated by the gifts and powers of the Tuatha that they allowed them to remain and build forts, where they held high festival with music and singing and the chant of the bards” (Wilde 1992, 21).

The ‘nobility’ of the faeries differed from the ‘commoners’ even more than the human nobles differed from the commoners of the medieval times. While the bogies, boggarts and brownies were seen as ugly, simple and often quite stupid household helpers with little magical abilities, these ‘noble’ faeries were seen the picture of everything high, and respected, envied and even feared; at least in Ireland people used nicknames like ‘the fair folk’, ‘the gentle folk’, ‘the gentry’ or ‘the noble ones’ when talking about the faeries, so that the faeries would not notice them and cause them bad luck (e.g. Briggs: 1967: 218).

The first mentions of ‘noble’ faeries are thought to be in the Irish-Celtic mythology, where the Tuatha de Danann (the children of Dana, mother goddess of Eire) were mentioned in the Book of Invasions as gods who came from the west and defeated the Firbolg (the early gods of Ireland, who invaded Ireland successfully, defeating the Fomorians, the original inhabitants of the islands; the name Firbolg can be translated as ‘Men of the Bags’). Some time after this the Milesians (who represent the first Gaels) conquested the land and drove the Tuatha de Danann into the hills and under the seas. After settling under hills and seas, the Tuatha de Danann became melancholic and bitter, and tried. In time the Tuatha de Danann diminished in size and power into the daoine sidhe (Lindeman), who later evolved into sidhe (the term ‘sidhe’ seems to have originally been a synonym of ‘faerie’, it evolved to mean only the so-called human-like, ‘noble’ faeries), the most beautiful, noble and humanlike kind of faeries.

The Sidhe
“The Sidhe dwell in the Sifra, or fairy palace of gold and crystal, in the heart of the hill and they have been given youth, beauty, joy, and the power over music, yet they are often sad; for they remember that they were once angels in heaven though now cast down to earth, and though they have power over all the mysteries of Nature, yet they must die without hope of regaining heaven, while mortals are certain of immortality. Therefore this one sorrow darkens their life, a mournful envy of humanity; because, while man is created immortal, the beautiful fairy race is doomed to annihilation” (Wilde 1886: 132).

The (daoine) sidhe were seen as heroic faeries who enjoyed the pleasures of the medieval chivalric life. They were seen as nobles, knights and royalty, and were the first faeries associated with glamour (I will return to this subject later). The sidhe were human-sized, unbelievably beautiful beings, who, depending on the tale, could become invisible whenever necessary, or could only become visible when in the presence of humans. It is thought that the concept of these chivalric faeries arrived from France, where they played large parts in medieval romances.

In addition to the generic sidhe, there were some specific sub-categories, like the Leanan-sidhe (originally the Lhiannan-Shee of the Isle of Man) and the bean sidhe (also known as banshee). The Leanan-sidhe were, according to the legends, either spirits of life who inspired poets and singers (Wilde 1886: 134) or spirits who inspire poets and singers and live on their thoughts and imagination, burning the poor artists up. The Scottish version of the Leanan-sidhe is the leanan sith, a fairy lover of either sex. Garvin mentions that translators, who translated the Bible into Scots Gaelic, used this term and some of the common people took this as Biblical proof of the existence of the fairies.

These noble faeries were quite commonly used in medieval legends and tales. Sometimes they even replaced original characters; Briggs mentions Lanzelet, a twelfth-century German version of Lancelot’s tale, where the Lady of the Lake is presented as a faerie, who brings Lancelot to the Faeryland (Briggs 1976: 5). Likewise in the wonderful Lay of Sir Orfeo, the fifteenth-century English version of the legend of Orpheus, Hades was replaced by the King of the faeries and the original land of the dead was replaced by Faeryland. The legend remains otherwise mostly untouched, except for a few changes that nicely reflect the beliefs concerning Faeries. For example, Orfeo’s wife did not die naturally, as Orpheus’ wife did. Instead, the King of Faeries found her in a traditional wild hunt (I will return to this subject later), while sleeping in the garden.

One of the best known legends that tell of the ‘noble’ faeries is the thirteenth-century romance of True Thomas (or Thomas the Rhymer). In several versions of the romance, Thomas is wandering around in the countryside when he meets a beautiful lady with golden hair and jewels sparkled all over her spring green cloak. The lady introduces herself as the Queen of Faeryland, and Thomas, who is mesmerised by her beauty, asks for a kiss, which the Queen grants him. Depending on the version of the tale, Thomas either accompanies Queen willingly to the Faeryland or is forced to go along as a payment for the kiss. In one version of the tale the Queen’s glamour fades and she is revealed to be an old hag. In most versions, Thomas accompanies the queen to Faeryland for three days, which turn out to be seven years in the real world; upon returning, Thomas can only speak truths and prophesies, and returns to Faeryland in a few years (Jarvin 1992: 60-64; Briggs 1976: 9, 89).

The Wild Hunt or Host of Unforgiven Dead
When Christianity came to the British Isles, the legends and tales of faeries began to change. One of the first changes was the nature of the faeries. While in some legends the faeries became associated with demons or angels (yet another subject to which I will return later), it was even more common to associate them with the spirits of the dead.

One of the most notable changes happened with the tales of the sluagh, who were in the original folklore the Scottish version of wild hunt. The original versions of the tales saw sluagh as flying around the land on midnight (Garvin), swooping down to earth and kidnapping people or forcing men to shoot down women milking cows or other men working in the field. After Christianity arrived, the sluagh were transformed into the host of the unforgiven dead: a pack of souls of sinners, who would arrive to a deathbed to grab away the soul of a dying person. In the Irish version of this legend, the sluagh arrived from west and could be kept away from the dying person by keeping the windows and doors on the western side of the house closed. In one Irish version, the sluagh moved in procession from hill to hill, and it was extremely unlucky to build any obstacles on their travel routes (Briggs 1976: 19) – i.e. directly between hills.

One of the tales in which the faeries are associated with demons is the legend of St. Collen (Briggs 1976: 13). In the tale, St. Collen was a Celtic saint, who lived as a hermit in a small cell in Glastonbury Tor. After interrupting two men who were talking about the King of Faeries (Collen announced that they spoke of demons), a stranger arrived and asked St. Collen to join the King of Faeries for a dinner. Three times Collins refused, until deciding to go. When St. Collen and the stranger arrived to the top of the hill, Collen saw a beautiful palace that he had not seen there before. When St. Collen entered the castle, he found the King waiting for him. When the King asked St. Collen to eat some food, Collen announced that he would not eat dry leaves. When the King asked St. Collen what he thought of the King’s beautiful blue and scarlet liveries, Collen told the King that blue was the colour of eternal cold and red was the colour of the flames of Hell, from which the King had come. After saying this, the saint took a bottle of holy water he had brought with him and threw it at the King. When the water hit the King, he disappeared as did the food and the castle. This is one of the only tales where no harm falls on a visitor who breaks the etiquette in Faeryland.

Not-so-Fallen Angels
“One day a great fairy chief asked [saint] Columb-Kille if there were any hope left to the Sidhe that one day they would regain heaven and be restored to their ancient place among the angels. But the saint answered that hope there was none; their doom was fixed, and at Judgement day they would pass through death into annihilation; for so had it been decreed by the justice of God” (Wilde 1886: 132).

One of the most interesting changes in folklore that arrived with Christianity was that the Faeries were associated with a Christian concept – angels. While the tales of faeries as demons (like the tale of St. Collen) see the faeries as fallen angels, there are some interesting and original variations of this tradition. According to a common medieval Irish belief (Garvin), the faeries were angels that sided with the devil in the rebellion in Heaven, and for this they were sentenced to Hell. When God ordered the gates of Heaven and Hell closed, some of the angels had not reached Hell yet and they fell on earth and in sea, where they hid (Wilde 1886: 89). These not-so-fallen angels were not thoroughly evil like those who had fallen into Hell, but they were not above sin. They would obey orders from the devil and do evil deeds, but they preferred being left alone.

A more interesting version of the same legend has these faeries remain unaligned in the rebellion in Heaven, taking arms neither for God nor for devil, and for this, being exiled on earth. This version has these faeries living in hills and under seas, which links this version of the legend closely to the tales of Tuatha de Danann, who were also exiled under the hills, where they mourned for their exile from the lands they had conquested. There are other, quite evident similarities in this version and the legend of Tuatha de Danann; while Tuatha de Danann filled their eternal lives with song and dance so that they could forget the loss of sunlight and their lands, the partially fallen angels did the same things to forget the joys of Heaven, which were now eternally forbidden from them.

One rather nice example of linking the faeries with angels is in the legend of True Thomas. When Thomas accompanies the Queen, they soon reach a crossroads, where they can choose from three paths. The path on the left is wide, flat and straight, and according to the Queen, leads to Hell. The path on the right is narrow, thorny and hard to travel. The Queen tells Thomas that this path leads to Heaven. The path between them is surrounded by wild plants and mostly lost in the forest. This path, as the Queen tells Thomas, leads to the Faeryland.

The Gifts and Woes of the Fae The Gifts of the Fae
Although the characteristics and abilities of the faeries vary greatly between different tales, legends and folklore, there are some common attributes and flaws shared by most of them. One of the most obvious (and most easily explainable) powers of the faeries was the ability to become invisible. So far I have not been able to find a single type of faerie that does not possess this gift; even the selkies are able to vanish from the sight of humans. Another gift that seems to be quite usual is the household faeries’ ability to affect things without touching them: many tales tell of boggarts and angered brownies that cause plates, mugs, chairs and tables to shatter or fly around.

One of the other traits that seem to be quite common to at least the ‘noble’ faeries is immortality (Squire 2000: 25). In many tales the great age of the faeries is pointed out, most often as a comparison to the briefness of human life. The gift of immortality is most often encountered in the legends of the noble faeries, particularly the daoine sidhe, and it is supposed to originate from the tales of the Tuatha de Danann, who achieved immortality through magical ale. Although immortality seems to be a common trait given to the faeries in legends, not all of them seem to possess the gift; some stories of faerie funerals exist as well. Still, whether the tales tell that they are immortal or not, the passage of time is never the same for faeries as it is for humans.

Another curious notion on the same subject is the passing of time in the lands, hills and cities of the faeries. Time spent in these locations does not ever seem to correlate with time in the outside world. There are many legends that tell of men who entered a faerie residence and stayed for one night or several days, while a few years, decades or even centuries have passed outside. Similarly, some tales of stolen babies mention that the children grow up inside the Faeryland, while only a few days pass outside.

The Curses of the Fae
One of the most common flaws of the faeries is a vulnerability to cold iron. Although cold iron is especially useful in the form of a knife or a cross, it can also harm, kill or banish faeries nearly as well in other forms. In the folklore of the British Isles scissors that are hung over the cradle are commonly seen as a sufficient protection against fairies from kidnapping the child and leaving a changeling behind. An interesting notion is that in the original game of tag, the one chasing was called a witch or fairy, and those being chased could declare themselves “safe” if they could reach and touch iron. (Garvin). Another quite common curse of the faeries is that they do not have souls. This attribute seems oddly widespread; although it is a natural notion in legends that describe faeries as fallen angels, it is mentioned in many other legends as well. For example, there are tales of faerie mothers who travel around seeking human mothers, so that they could ask the human to give the faerie child a sip of her milk; this is supposed to give the child a soul (Briggs 1976: 120). Other tales tell of faerie mothers who try to do the same by stealing human babies and leaving their own children in the human babies’ cradles.

Faerie Morality
“The Queen [of the sidhe] is more beautiful than any woman of earth, yet Finvarra [the King] loves the mortal woman best, and wiles them down to his fairy palace by the subtle charm of the fairy music, for no one who has yet heard it can resist its power, and they are fated to belong to the fairies ever after. Their friends mourn for them as dead with much lamentation, but in reality they are leading a joyous life down in the heart of the hill, in the fairy palace with the silver columns and the crystal walls” (Wilde 1886: 133).

As Briggs mentions (1976: 108), faeries tend have a complicated, not easily understandable set of morals in the folklore. Although in many legends the faeries have a strict sense of right and wrong, they do not usually match the human opinions on the same subject: “The morality of even the most ordinary, decent, well-wishing fairy is of a brand of its own” (Briggs 1976: 111).

Although most of the wicked faeries could be seen as plainly evil, some of the ‘good’ faeries do not seem much better. In many tales the good faeries seem to be able to help and hurt people with as great ease, and some of them seem to be just waiting for the humans to blunder so that they could do them some harm. As Briggs mentions, the faeries seem to be much more interested in etiquette and social order than in morals.

The changelings are a good example of this faerie morality; obviously the faeries do not see anything wrong in stealing a human child from his parents, or even enslaving this stolen child. In addition, in many tales the faeries who leave their own child to the humans are portrayed as sympathetic, caring and kind. Another example of this same theme is the stealing of Orfeo’s wife in the Lay of Sir Orfeo: the King of the Faeries is not described as an evil character, just as someone with a very odd morality. Although in the British Isles the division between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ faeries never reached the level of the faerie legends of France, there was some division between these; in Scottish legends the faeries are often divided into the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is comprised of the good, kind fairies, while the outright evil faeries tend to belong to the Unseelie Court (Briggs 1976: 222). These courts were not seen as very confining: the faeries of the Seelie Court could be violent when angered, while the not members of the Unseelie Court could sometimes just have fun in non-lethal ways.

The morality of the faeries seems to be even more lax when sexual matters are in concern. In many tales faeries have casual sexual relationships with mortals or other faeries, or they are searching for a mortal lover (Briggs 1976: 127).

Glamour

Glamour can make a lady seem a knight,
A nut shell seem a gilded barge,
A sheeling seem a palace large,
And youth seem age and age seem youth,
All was illusion, nought was truth.
-Reginald Scot, The Lay of the Last Minstrel

The magic of the faeries, sometimes called ‘glamour’, is seen to be the art of illusions, movement, shape changing and enchantments. While it mostly used in the legends that told of the ‘noble’ faeries, some of the household faeries and wild faeries were said to possess it and to be able to perform some minor tricks with it. A good example of this is a tale in which a mischievous pooka makes a woman lose her way in a forest by making a path disappear from her sight. According to different tales, the use of glamour is not restricted to simple illusions or tricks: in many tales whole castles are built and with glamour. More commonly faeries use glamour to create their magnificent clothes and jewels or to make themselves more beautiful.

These kinds of use of glamour are found most often in medieval faerie romances (see the example of Thomas the Rhymer above), in which a young man or woman (usually a virgin) falls in love with a faerie. In these tales the affair usually ends with the faerie lover leaving the human and the poor man or woman realising that his or her partner pretended to be much more than it actually was. Quite obviously these kinds of tales are used mainly to point out that strangers, no matter how beautiful or charming they are, should not be too easily trusted.

The tales about faerie gold serve similar purpose. There are quite many variations of this basic concept. One of the most common versions tell of a greedy man, quite often an old innkeeper or merchant, who is visited by an enigmatic noble. Since the noble seems very rich, the greedy man proceeds to sell him whatever the noble wants (a room for a night, food, wine, horse etc.), naming outrageous prices for everything. The noble seems happy to pay the horrible costs, giving the man all the gold he had asked. When the mysterious noble leaves, the man is quite pleased with himself, for he has made a fortune in one night. Still, things do not end happily for him: when the man wakes up next morning, he finds out that the gold given by the noble has turned into grass or dried leaves.

Conclusion
The faeries of the British Isles are a fascinating topic: the Isles have a great amount of tales and legends concerning them, and they can be found on any level of the medieval folklore, from romances favoured by the nobility to superstitions of the commoners. Yet, although the amount of material is huge and the folklore and legends are products of many different times, cultures and social conditions, there are many interesting traits that bind the faeries of the different tales together.

As the variation of different versions of faeries is wide, this essay has not been able to discuss some very interesting faerie types, such as the leprachaun, knockers, barghest and the pixies, and many interesting legends, such as the faeries’ common use of human wives and midwives. One of the most interesting things shown in the legends is the effect time and cultural changes have had on them. This change is best shown in the way Tuatha de Danann changed slowly from ancient gods of pre-Christian times into post-Christian partially fallen angels, and the sluagh evolved from the wild hunt to the host of unforgiven dead.

Also interesting is the frequent use of faeries as pedagogic means, as in the stories of kelpies. These tales were used to teach children (and to remind adults) of certain dangers; stories about kelpies were used to warn the children of the dangers of rivers and lakes, while stories about the pooka and will-o-the-wisps were used to prevent the children from wandering into forests alone.

In the British Isles the faerie legends have been used to entertain and teach people. They have been used to explain things that have puzzled people and to give reasons to difficult questions, such as deformed children. The faeries have been used to permit infanticide and to explain miscarriages, diseases and accidents. Whether a family or a farm has had good or bad luck, Faeries have been held responsible for it.

The faeries have been used in legends to bring justice to those with no morals and to personify total lack of morals. In the medieval British Isles, faeries were present from a child’s birth to his or her deathbed. They were present from the minute the proud father tied a pair of scissors over the cradle to prevent the faeries from swapping the baby for a changeling, to the time the grieving wife shut the western windows so that the sluagh could not steal her dying husband’s soul.

References
Briggs, Katherine (1967) The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. London: Bellew
Briggs, Katherine (1976) A Book of Fairies. London:Penguin
Garvin, Allen (accessed 11.10.2000) Faeries. http://faeryland.tamu-commerce.edu/~earendil/faerie/
Jarvin, Gordon [ed.] (1992) Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. London: Penguin
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1974) The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Lindeman, M.F. Encyclopedia Mythica. http://www.pantheon.org/mythica/
Siikala, Anna-Leena (1992) Myyttiset metaforat ja šamanistinen tieto, in Harvilahti, Lauri et al., ed.: Metafora: ikkuna mieleen, kieleen ja kulttuuriin, Tampere: Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura
Squire, Charles (2000) The Mythology of the British Islands. London: Wordsworth
 Wilde, F.S. (1887) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London Wilde, F.S. (1992) Ancient Legends of Ireland. London. New York: Sterling

The cover image shows a demon performing a baby changeling swap from The Legend of St Stephen by Martino di Bartolomeo (15th century).

The Faerie Abduction of Anne Jefferies

“Faerie fair and faerie bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.
Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my faerie dear?”

Attributed to Anne Jefferies in Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England (1865)

Outside the dramatic inventions of Shakespeare, Drayton, Herrick et al., most accounts of human interaction with the faeries from the Early Modern period are derived from the disparate records of witch trials. These records often chronicle the accused witches’ testimony (usually under torture) of consorting with faerie familiars, for the purposes of divination, healing and sometimes flying to Sabbaths. Historians such as Carlo Ginzberg and Emma Wilby have teased out the detail from the trial records to create a convincing argument that they encode genuine evidence of shamanic practice amongst the witches, who were frequently able to interact with the faeries in a disassociated altered state of consciousness. The records supply us with the largest body of documentary evidence for the ontology of the faeries between the 16th and 18th centuries. But there is one unusual case that comes down to us from different sources, and yet contains many of the motifs usually contained in the witch trials. This is the story of Anne Jefferies from St Teath, close to the north coast of Cornwall.

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An amalgamation of the faerielands of John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906)

Anne Jefferies’ Story

Anne Jefferies was nineteen, when she went into service in 1645 with the wealthy Pitt family on their country estate near St Teath. A description of what happened to her is contained in a letter, dated 1696, from Moses Pitt to the Right Reverend Dr. Edward Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester. Moses was a young boy when Anne was in service with his parents, and the letter seems to be in part a memoir but also a request for some Christian explanatory guidance from the bishop (although there is no record of any reply). The letter found its way into the hands of the 19th-century folklorist (and scientist) Robert Hunt, who was able to supplement the details with his own collection of local oral testimony, where the story had evidently been doing the rounds for over 150 years. Hunt’s literary rendering of the story appeared in his 1865 publication Popular Romances of the West of England, along with extracts from Moses Pitt’s letter. Hunt’s folkloric version is worth quoting in full, although, as we’ll see, it’s not the end of the strangeness surrounding Anne.

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Illustration from Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (1865)

ANNE JEFFERIES was the daughter of a poor labouring man, who lived in the parish of St Teath. She was born in 1626, and is supposed to have died in 1698. When she was nineteen years old, Anne, who was a remarkably sharp and clever girl, went to live as a servant in the family of Mr Moses Pitt. Anne was an unusually bold girl, and would do things which even boys feared to attempt. Of course, in those days every one believed in faeries, and everybody feared those little airy beings. They were constantly the talk of the people, and this set Anne longing anxiously to have an interview with some of them. So Anne was often abroad after sundown, turning up the fern leaves, and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time–

“Faerie fair and faerie bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.”

She never allowed a moonlight night to pass without going down into the valley, and walking against the stream, singing–

“Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my faerie dear?”

The faeries were a long time trying this poor girl; for, as they told her afterwards, they never lost sight of her; but there they would be, looking on when she was seeking them, and they would run from frond to frond of the ferns, when she was turning them up its her anxious search.

One day Anne, having finished her morning’s work, was sitting in the arbour in her master’s garden, when she fancied she heard some one moving aside the branches, as though endeavouring to look in upon her; and she thought it must be her sweetheart, so she resolved to take no notice. Anne went on steadily with her work, no sound was heard but the regular beat of the knitting-needles one upon the other. Presently she heard a suppressed laugh, and then again a rustle amidst the branches. The back of the arbour was towards the lane, and to enter the garden it was necessary to walk down the lane to the gate, which was, however, not many yards off.

Click, click went the needles, click, click, click. At last Anne began to feel vexed that the intruder did not show himself, and she pettishly said, half aloud —

“You may stay there till the kueney [moss or mildew] grows on the gate, ere I ‘ll come to ‘ee.”

There was immediately a peculiar ringing and very music laugh. Anne knew this was not her lover’s laugh, and she felt afraid. But it was bright day, and she assured herself that no one would do her any mischief, as she knew herself to be a general favourite in the parish. Presently Anne felt assured that the garden gate had been carefully opened and again closed, so she wait anxiously the result. In a few moments she perceived at the entrance of the arbour six little men, all clothed very handsome in green. They were beautiful little figures, and had very charming faces, and such bright eyes. The grandest of these little visitors, who wore a red feather in his cap, advanced in front the others, and, making a most polite bow to Anne, addressed her familiarly in the kindest words.

This gentleman looked so sweetly on Anne that she was charmed beyond measure, and she put down her hand as if shake hands with her little friend, when he jumped into her palm and she lifted him into her lap. He then, without any more ad clambered upon her bosom and neck, and began kissing her. Anne never felt so charmed in her life as while this one little gentleman was playing with her; but presently he called his companion and they all clambered up by her dress as best they could, and kissed her neck, her lips, and her eyes. One of them ran his fingers over her eyes, and she felt as if they had been pricked with a pin. Suddenly Anne became blind, and she felt herself whirled through the air at a great rate. By and by, one of her little companions said something which sounded like “Tear away,” and lo! Anne had her sight at once restored. She was in one of the most beautiful places — temples and palaces of gold and silver. Trees laden with fruits and flowers. Lakes full of gold and silver fish and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the more brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about. Hundreds more were idling in the most luxurious bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing, engaged in sports of various kinds. Anne was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she had previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Anne found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes. So grand, indeed, did she appear, that she doubted her identity. Anne was constantly attended by her six friends; but the finest gentleman, who was the first to address her, continued her favourite, at which the others appeared to be very jealous. Eventually Anne and her favourite contrived to separate themselves, and they retired into some most lovely gardens, where they were hidden by the luxuriance of the flowers. Lovingly did they pass the time, and Anne desired that this should continue for ever. However, when they were at the happiest, there was heard a great noise, and presently the five other fairies at the head of a great crowd came after them in a violent rage. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but this was soon beaten down, and he lay wounded at her feet. Then the faerie who had blinded her again placed his hands upon her eyes, and all was dark. She heard strange noises, and felt herself whirled about and about, and as if a thousand flies were buzzing around her.

At length her eyes were opened, and Anne found herself on the ground in the arbour where she had been sitting in the morning, and many anxious faces were around her, all conceiving that she was recovering from a convulsion fit.

According to Moses Pitt, Anne only related her experience at a later date, after she seems to have acquired healing abilities. This was after her mistress slipped and broke her leg.

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Brian Froud – Girl amongst the Faeries

Anne convinced her to allow her to ‘lay her hands on’ the leg over the course of the next few days, thereby healing the fracture without the need to call a surgeon. Under further interrogation, Anne told her that she had been told about the accident by the faeries, and that she would be able to heal her mistress’s leg through some type of osmotic faerie power. Once this was admitted, Anne spilled the beans about what had happened to her when she had fallen into convulsion in the arbour. She also confessed that the faeries were now frequently visible to her, but to no-one else, and that it was through them and their otherworldly influence that she found herself with clairvoyant attributes and the ability to go long periods without eating any food, claiming that she did not need to as the faeries supplied her with a special bread that sustained her. Pitt also chronicles her apparent ability to make herself invisible, something which she explained as another gift of the faeries to be used sparingly and without malice.

Word of Anne’s healing and clairvoyant faculties soon spread throughout the county and beyond, bringing a steady stream of visitors to partake of her services, for which she never charged. Unfortunately, this brought her to the attention of the notorious Cornish magistrate Jan Tregeagle, who issued a warrant for her arrest on the basis that she was consorting with the Devil, and she was duly imprisoned at a residence of the mayor of Bodmin. She avoided being tried as a witch. Although there were no more than fifteen witch trials in Cornwall through the main period of the ‘witch craze’ in 17th and 18th centuries (a small number compared to some other counties such as Essex and Somerset), only a decade later in the 1650s there was a mass trial of twenty-five alleged witches at the courts of assize in Launceston, six of whom were found guilty and hanged. Anne was lucky to escape such a fate. She was, however, deprived of food whilst imprisoned, but her faerie allies once again came to her aid and kept her fed with their thaumaturgic bread. Interestingly, a 1647 document containing correspondence from the mayor (now held in the Clarendon manuscripts archive) confirms Anne’s presence in the  gaol and that she was deprived of food for several months without any apparent detriment to her health. This is another piece of tantalising evidence to suggest the strangeness surrounding Anne’s life.

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‘An Even Smaller World’ – Josephine Wall http://www.josephinewall.co.uk

Anne was released without trial and went to live with a widowed aunt of Moses Pitt near Padstow, later marrying a labourer named William Warren. She continued to cure people throughout her life by the laying-on of hands and became a strict Episcopalian. But whether she continued to consort with the faeries is unknown. In 1693, in the hope of gleaning some more details about her supernatural visitors, Moses Pitt (living in London) sent a friend, Humphrey Martyn, to interview her, but in a letter from Martyn  to Pitt he made it clear that she was not willing to divulge any details of her experience or of her later life:

“As for Anne Jefferies, I have been with her the greater part of one day, and did read to her all that you wrote to me; but she would not own anything of it, as concerning the faeries, neither of any of the cures that she did… I asked her the reason why she would not do it; she replied, that if she should discover it to you, that you would make books and ballads of it; and she said that she would not have her name spread about the country in books and ballads of such things, if she might have five hundred pounds for it.”

The memory of her time incarcerated at the Mayor of Bodmin’s pleasure, and the fear of repeating the experience, would almost certainly have been another reason for her to hold her tongue. Anne Jefferies died in 1698.

Some Interpretations

Anne’s experience of abduction by the faeries bears many similarities with the recorded confessions of witches on trial in the 17th century. There is much evidence to suggest that these witches were recalling metaphysical rather than physical events and that they were achieving flight, contact with faerie familiars, and journeying to faerieland (or/and Sabbaths) via an altered state of consciousness, brought about by a variety of methods. This correlates with shamanic practice, and several authors have suggested that this was what underlay the witches’ experiences:

“Many of the core attributes of shamanism described by Mircea 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.”

From ‘Faerie Familiars and Zoomorphic Witches

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17th-century woodcut of witches in flight

Anne’s newfound healing abilities after her visit to faerieland certainly have shamanic undertones. But she was never accused of being a witch and her experiences do not suggest that she was ever involved with any other practicing witches. Her original adventure was unexpected, and whilst many of the story’s motifs find commonality with the confessions of tried witches, Anne’s narrative retains a unique, personal quality that sets it apart from trial records.

However, the details of the story including flight, immersion in a faerie realm, and the ability to continue communion with supernatural beings, do suggest that Anne was accessing a metaphysical reality through an altered state of consciousness. The clues built into the surviving documents suggest this might have been caused by a neurological condition. It is clear from both Hunt’s version of the story and Moses Pitt’s letter that she was prone to ‘distemper’ and ‘convulsion-fits’, and Pitt reports her as saying that ‘You know that this my Sickness and Fits come very suddenly upon me.’ These seizures sound like epilepsy, more specifically Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. This condition has been linked to a variety of transcendent and mystical experiences, with many modern testimonies of those with the condition matching several of the components of Anne’s description of her abduction. Clifford Pickover has summarised some of these experiences, where “people with frequent bursts of electrical activity in their temporal lobes report sensations of flying, floating, or leaving the body, as well as other mystical experiences.” The onset of an epileptic episode often includes a tingling or pricking of the eyes prior to loss of vision, just as reported by Anne after the faeries crawl onto her in the arbour.

One of the most detailed explorations of this condition and how it relates to transcendent  experiences is Eve LaPlante’s 1993 book Seized. She uses historic and contemporary examples to demonstrate that Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can provide access to an altered state of consciousness where the human mind participates in a reality several steps removed from the consensus material world. This often includes full immersion in alternative landscapes and contact with non-human intelligence. Interestingly, LaPlante also links the condition to personality change and creative energy; again providing parallels with Anne’s story:

“Hidden or diagnosed, admitted or unknown, the mental states that occur in Temporal Lobe Epileptic seizures are more than simply neurological symptoms… People with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, whether or not they know the physiological cause of their seizures, often incorporate their symptoms into poems, stories and myths. And the disorder does more than provide the stuff of religious experience and creative work. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is associated with personality change even when seizures are not occurring; it amplifies the very traits that draw people to religion, healing and art.”

passport-to-magonia_0-2She also suggests that the condition might be responsible for the reliably bizarre phenomenon of alien abduction. She notes that one of the most famous alien abductees, Whitley Streiber, submitted to a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan that revealed “occasional punctate foci of high signal intensity” in his left temporoparietal region, which is suggestive of scarring that could lead to Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. As detailed in a previous post, Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT, researchers such as Jacques Vallée and Graham Hancock make convincing arguments for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 20th and 21st centuries. The experiences are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and might suggest a common source for the phenomena. UFO researchers Chris Aubeck and Jenny Randles have even insinuated the Anne Jefferies story has all the attributes of a modern day alien abduction scenario. Obviously, it cannot be definitively proven that Anne Jefferies suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, and the relationship between folkloric faerie abductions and modern alien abductions remains tentative, but Anne’s unusually well-documented case does allow us to speculate that she did experience life-changing supernatural contact whilst in some form of altered consciousness.

The question remains: who were the faeries and where was the faerieland in Anne’s story? If she was genuinely describing her flight to an alternative reality, and the retention of contact with metaphysical beings, was it real? The answer may reside with Anne’s belief in the faeries – the story and Moses Pitt’s correspondence make it clear that she did believe in the objective reality of supernatural faerie entities even before she met them. It simply took the circumstances of an altered state of consciousness (perhaps in the form of an epileptic seizure) for her to realise this reality. As usual with both folkloric faerie encounters and modern experiences, we need to allow for the possibility that consciousness is not constrained to what is usually considered consensus physical reality. Just as for shamans or witches, the potential for consciousness to access non-physical realities by bypassing the usual neurological confinements may explain interaction with non-human intelligence and the matrix in which they usually live. The ex-NASA scientist and Out-of-Body phenomenon adherent Tom Campbell, has coined the phrase ‘entering a different data stream’ to explain the ontological reality of what the mind experiences when it is freed from its incarceration in the brain. It is simply a different reality with different rules. If, like Anne Jefferies, you believe in faeries, however culturally-coded, that is what your consciousness will bring to the table if it is allowed to do so.

***

The cover image is one of Brian Froud‘s hallucinogenic faerie illustrations from the classic 1978 book Faeries.

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.