The Space-Time Continuum in Faerieland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Oisín and Niamh travelling to Tír na nÓg’ by Stephen Reid (1910)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fractal Time

Going Round in Circles: The Faerie Dance

“I realise we may not even have begun to understand what is going on with the phenomenon known as the fairy dance. Still, I repeat my suggestion that it feels like some sort of technology for jumping between worlds, and in particular for entering and leaving this one.” Graham Hancock, Supernatural (2005)

william-sullivan-fairy-danceAt the end of the excellent documentary The Fairy Faith, the narrator, John Walker, goes with Marie-Rose and her daughter April, to a forest river in Cape Breton Island, Canada, to hear about their faerie encounter several years previously. It’s quite clear that they are authentic, and genuinely recalling the experience as best they can. The encounter consisted mostly of hearing music and singing — Marie-Rose was evidently afraid of the phenomenon and dragged her children away from the river and into the car to get away. As they drove away, April watched out the back window as a group of small faeries were: “jumping around in a circle, holding hands. They were singing… and dancing in a circle. They sort of mixed right in with the background, and I don’t know whether they were see-through or what.”

This is an interesting modern testimony of a very common faerie practice, recorded by folklorists as motifs 261.1.1 – faeries dance in faerie ring, and 262.10.2 – faerie music issues from faerie ring. There are hundreds of stories that include this circular dancing favoured by the faeries, usually with the embedded idea that it’s dangerous to go near them, or even watch them, whilst they are doing it. The proliferance of this motif in faerie-tales suggests it has an important meaning, both to the faeries and to the deeper understanding of the story. It is like a hidden code, installed into the story for those who might look for it and learn from it.

One of the most common folktales of this type involves someone being trapped within the circle of dancing faeries, either by their own volition or by mistake. The Welsh tale Rhys at the Fairy Dance has many variants, and is a typical example of the tale. It tells the story of Rhys and Llywelyn, who, whilst walking home through a wood, were separated after Rhys rushed away when he heard some ‘enchanted music.’ Llywelyn goes home and leaves him, but when check is made next morning Rhys is still missing. Llywelyn is thrown into jail for suspected murder…

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… Things remained thus for nearly a year, when a newcomer into the neighbourhood, who had some experience of fairy ways and customs, suggested that he and a company of neighbours should go with Llywelyn to the place where he had parted from Rhys. This was agreed to and they came to a faerie ring.

“This is the very spot,” said Llywelyn, “and hush, I hear music; melodious harps I hear.”

The whole company listened, but could hear nothing, and told Llywelyn so.

“Put your foot on mine, David,” said Llywelyn, whose foot was now upon the outward edge of the faerie circle, to one of the company. David put his foot on Llywelyn’s, and so did they all, one after another: and then they heard the sound of many harps in full concert, and saw within the circle a number. of little figures enjoying themselves vastly. They were dancing round and round the ring with hands joined, and among them was Rhys, footing it with the best of them. As he came whirling by, Llywelyn seized hold of his smock frock and switched him out of the circle, taking great care not to overstep the edge of the ring.

Full text of Rhys at the Faerie Dance – Thomas Keightley, 1870

Once out of the ring Rhys insisted he’d only been dancing for about five minutes, and that he was keen to continue. But the company took him home, and as happens in many of these stories, he became depressed, sickened and died soon after.

William_Holmes_Sullivan_-_The_Fairy_Ring;_the_Enchanted_PiperAnother Welsh story tells of a shepherd playing his flute on a hillside:

“… when he was surrounded at a distance by little beings like men, who closed nearer and nearer to him until they became a very small circle. They sang and danced, and so affected him that he quite lost himself.”

Again, his perception of the singing and dancing lasting only minutes is dispelled when he returns home to find three weeks have passed.

These folktales were recorded in the 19th century, but they hold up a mirror to earlier beliefs and perceptions of what the faeries were and what they got up to. The stories of faeries dancing in circles also find common ground in eyewitness descriptions of the same time period, such as that of David Evans and a friend who, in 1862, were walking in the hills of Carmarthenshire in Wales when they saw a troupe of about fifty ‘small people’ walking up a hillside. When they reached the top they formed into a circle…

… After dancing for a short time, one of the dancers turned into the middle of the circle, followed by the others, one by one till they appeared like a gimblet screw. Then they disappeared into the ground. After a while one of them reappeared again, and looked about him in every direction as a rat, and the others followed him one by one and did the same. Then they danced for some time as before, and vanished into the ground as they had done the first time.

From  Janet Bord, Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People (1997).

Of course, it would be easy to dismiss both folktales and eyewitness sightings of dancing faeries as works of pure imagination and/or misperceptions of natural phenomena. But the universality of the circular dancing theme trumps such a reductionist view — there’s got to be more going on to the faeries dance to imprint the idea so vividly in the collective memory.

One theory is that the faerie dance was an otherworldy mimicking of circle dances attested to since the medieval period and earlier, such as in this Italian version from the 14th century.

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The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Siena, 1340

The circle dance was certainly of ancient origin and common throughout the world. It would have been only a small leap of storytelling imagination to transfer the popular forms of dancing in a circle into the culture of the faeries. Modern circle dances such as the kalamatianos from Greece, the mayim mayim of Israel and the Catalonian  sardana dance probably had their genesis in earlier forms, and give an idea of the energy, togetherness and social cohesion that can be achieved by linking hands, forming a circle and moving in a choreographed way to music and singing. A particularly interesting modern manifestation is the Sacred Circle Dance, brought from Eastern Europe in the 1970s by Bernard Wosien, first to the alternative community of Findhorn in Scotland, from where it has spread worldwide. Here is a video of the Findhorn Sacred Circle Dance in 2012. It’s not quite clear what the ‘sacred’ represents, but I think it might be bringing us a little closer to the meaning behind the faerie circle dance.

Many circle dances incorporate various ritualised elements, such as placing flowers in the centre, the passing of handkerchiefs between participants and adherence to numbered steps whilst dancing. These elements look like fossilized versions of earlier practices… practices that may have been about taking the participants of the dance into an otherworld through altering their states of consciousness.

The Saan people of Southern Africa continue to use the ritual circle dance of their ancestors for this very specific purpose. The archaeologist David Lewis-Williams describes the dance:

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Saan rock art depicting a healing circle dance, c.1000 BCE

The most important Saan ritual was the healing or trance dance. These dances continue to be practised amongst San groups living in the Kalahari today. Dancers stomp in a circle around the campfire for many hours. The women clap the rhythm of the dance and sing powerful songs. After hours of stomping, some dancers start to slip into trance or half-trance. In this altered state of consciousness many have out-of-body experiences. They describe travelling to the spirit realm. The shamans push themselves towards an altered state of consciousness; they enter ‘half-death’. They attain ecstasy simply by means of their dancing, concentration and hyperventilation, with the help of the women’s insistent, complexly rhythmic singing and clapping.

This continuity of the circle dance in Southern Africa, unchanged in its basic format for millennia, may suggest how other circular dances developed elsewhere in the world. The dances of medieval and modern Europe may be remnants of an earlier form of prehistoric shamanic dance, designed to alter the state of consciousness of its participants, just as it still does for the Saan people. We cannot find a direct archaeological route into prehistoric ritual dance, but the Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles of Western Europe are highly suggestive of monuments built for a ritual that involved circular movement.

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The Avebury Circle Dance from the TV series Children of the Stones (1977)

In the mind-bending 1977 TV series Children of the Stones (the sort of crazy 1970s children’s television that will leave you dropping your jaw if you’ve never seen it… you can give it a try here Children of the Stones full series), a secret sect uses the energy of the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury to create power for their own nefarious purposes. The painting shown here hangs on the wall of the sect’s leader, and is constantly referred to visually in the series. It shows the stone circle in its prehistoric heyday, a beam of light being generated from the centre by the whirling circular dancing of people. This might be a case of fiction getting close to the truth, with the idea that frenetic circular dancing was a technique to unlock an energy, whatever that energy might be. Folklore certainly embeds the notion that dancing is intimately associated with stone circles. Many stone circles come complete with a legend that the stones are petrified dancers, a pagan theme christianised by stating that the dancers were punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan in Cornwall is a good example, where the story tells us that the nineteen stones are young girls turned to stone for non-observance of the Sabbath. In this case there are even two outlier stones, that take the part of pipers in the story (see A modern antiquarian’s view of the Merry Maidens).

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The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan, Cornwall, c.2000 BCE

These petrification stories can be multiplied many times at other stone circles, especially in Britain. It’s not too much of an interpretative stretch to suggest that these folktales represent a mythic memory of one of their original purposes – circular sacred spaces for circle dancing. For whilst the stone circles would have been used for various purposes, their shape suggests rituals that saw the circle as sacred – a representation of wholeness and infinity that would have found manifestation in physical activity in and around them. A place to dance to music and singing may have been the main reason for their construction. And in shamanic cultures such dancing was just another method (either alongside or instead of ingesting psychoactive plants) to alter states of consciousness so as to be able to interact with the otherworld of spirit.
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So what are the faerie circle dances? One neat theory is that the faeries are one and the same as our psychedelic prehistoric ancestors. Their intense circular dances have embedded them into certain parts of the landscape through the latent emotional energy they generated, to be tapped into by sensitive or stoned individuals in touch with the Collective Unconscious of humanity. The common folkloric motif of people finding themselves trapped within the circles is nothing less than a shamanic experience of travelling to a dimension of reality separated from our own only by a malleable membrane. The sense of unreality and time distortions that usually occur to the protagonists in these stories are very suggestive of an altered state of consciousness. They interact with otherworldly beings, they hear supernal music, and they become caught up in this world completely, to the extent that their perception of the passage of time is altered radically.

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Psilocybin faerie ring

It is interesting that the grass circles known colloquially as faerie rings are caused by sub-surface fungal growth, and that many of these rings come complete with above-surface psychoactive mushrooms such as the amanita muscaria and psilocybin. These rings are intimately connected to the folklore of the faerie dance, acting as observable physical markers in the environment for the stories. And whatever the objective reality of the faeries dancing within the rings, the fungal association is highly suggestive that the human protagonists were able to collude with them after partaking of psychotropic mushrooms and entering a non-usual state of consciousness.

This takes us back to the point – what are these faerie-tales about circle dances trying to tell us? The circularity of the dance is evidently important and represents wholeness, oneness, eternity and a complete closed system. The circle may also represent what Graham Hancock calls ring portals, circles of energy providing access to and from this 4D world and whatever dimension the faeries hang out in. But the deep message seems to lie in the circle. These otherworldy faeries may be attempting to convey a message about the importance of understanding the never-ending circularity of life, wisdom better understood by our stone-age ancestors. The message might come in a folktale, or through a reported sighting… or you might find yourself in the circle after nibbling some mushrooms, and unable to resist the music and dancing of the little people who seem to have magically appeared within your reality.

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17th-century woodcut of faeries in a circle dance outside their hollow hill, with an amanita muscaria mushroom in the foreground

The Green Children

The story of the the Green Children of Woolpit, Suffolk, has always been one of the strangest medieval folktales, and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition. If you don’t know it, it goes a bit like this…

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The story is set at some point in the 12th century. The location is the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England. One day during the harvest, the villagers discovered two children loitering around the ‘wolf pits’ (deep excavations designed to trap wolves, which at that time were still relatively common in England) and apprehended them. Apparently, they “had the form of all their limbs like to those of other men, but they differed in the colour of their skin, which was tinged all over a green colour.” They also could not speak English or any language known to the villagers, who escorted them off to a local lord, a knight by the name of Sir Richard de Calne. Here they were offered food but would not eat anything until some beans (probably either broad beans or a type of vetch, both common crops throughout the medieval period) were brought to them. They lived on such beans until they were eventually induced to eat other food within the manorial residence. In a short time the boy sickened and died, but the girl survived, lost her green colour, was baptised and was given a position of some sort within the knight’s household. One version of the story suggests that she was “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.”

The story then reports her words, after learning English, in response to questions about how the children arrived at Woolpit and where they came from. She asserted that they came from a land where all the inhabitants had green skin, ate only green food, and that there was perpetual twilight. “Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.” On the day they arrived in Woolpit they had been tending their father’s flock (the insinuation is that they are siblings, although this is never directly stated) when they came upon a cave, from which they heard the sound of bells. They wandered into the cavern and after some time emerged into the Suffolk landscape where they were struck senseless by the excessive sunlight and unusual temperature of the air. Frightened and disorientated, they were caught by the harvesting villagers and so the story comes full circle.

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What can be made of this story? For a medieval folktale it has the unusual quality of authenticity about it. There is no Christian moral, places and people are named, and it appears to be a unique incident, reported in the chronicles much as more everyday historical occurrences were mentioned. These two chronicles were those of Ralph de Coggeshall and William de Newburgh, both written in, or shortly before, c.1200, compiling both earlier texts and oral testimony. In Ralph’s case, some of the oral testimony came from the knight Sir Richard de Calne himself, and it is clear that both chroniclers made the effort to retrieve the story from villagers who were alive at the time of the incident. William puts the timeframe of the tale as within the reign of King Stephen (1136-54), but Ralph implies that it happened under Henry II (1155-89). Whatever the exact date, and whatever folktale motifs have been overlain on the story, this seems like a chronicled version of something that actually happened. So how can it be explained?

8371143078_e4315646e3_bProsaic Explanations In a concerted effort to dispel any supernatural elements from the story, Paul Harris (in a 1998 article for Fortean Times) put forward the theory that the children were Flemish orphans, displaced from their community after Henry II’s co-ordinated persecution of the Flemish population in Eastern England, culminating in a military offensive in 1173. Left to their own devices, they lived in the woods before wandering into caves (Harris suggests the Neolithic Grimes Graves in Norfolk), following tunnels and emerging near Woolpit, green through malnutrition and speaking a foreign language that the locals couldn’t understand. But as with many materialistic-reductionist explanations of strange stories, it is soon found to be baloney. Grimes Graves is 40km from Woolpit, there are no known tunnels extending beyond the locality and even if there were, they do not extend to the clay geology of northern Suffolk. Flemish immigration to Suffolk had been happening since the 11th century and so the linguistic argument also breaks down – the villagers would have been well-acquainted with the Flemish language, even if it were a dialect or (even more so) an Anglicised version of Flemish. And an educated aristocrat like Sir Richard de Calne would definitely have recognised their speech. Despite being cited as the most likely interpretation in several retellings of the story, it’s actually a non-starter.

Historian Derek Brewer avoids any such tortuous interpretative-bending, and reduces the story even further, suggesting that:

The likely core of the matter is that these very small children, herding or following flocks, strayed from their forest village, spoke little, and (in modern terms) did not know their own home address. They were probably suffering from chlorosis, a deficiency disease which gives the skin a greenish tint, hence the term “green sickness”. With a better diet it disappears.

The possibility of the children suffering from Chlorosis (or Hypochromic anemia) is an interesting hypothesis. This condition is usually caused by an iron deficiency and can tinge parts of the skin green, which will return to normal colour when the iron is replaced in the diet. This might explain the children’s colour and their losing it after starting to eat the local food. However, there is no historical mention of the condition before 1554, and even in the cases noted after this date the green colouration is restricted to parts of the body, such as around the eyes and neck. In most cases there is no discolouration. So although Chlorosis might offer an exceptional explanation for the children being green, it is reliant on their having been subject to a long period of malnutrition, which is not part of the story. If the explanation were that simple, why did they not tuck into the food they were offered on arrival at Richard de Calne’s household? We’ll come back to the colouration issue, but whatever the true explanation is, the green colour of the children cannot be taken as an independent part of the story, divorced from the other surreal elements. And let’s remember, this is a very surreal story.

41LNQWelatL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Out-there Explanations In his 2012 book Children from the Sky, Duncan Lunan presents a highly unorthodox theory of alien intervention in 12th-century England. Lunan goes into considerably more historical detail than any other writer on the subject, and his close reading of the historical sources teases out the context of the story and the characters involved. Of particular importance is his interpretation of the original texts, pointing out the usages of language by the two medieval chroniclers, and how the original Latin has been skewed by later translators and story summaries. But the historical detective work soon gives way to a ‘speculative interpretation’ that suggests the Knights Templar (he identifies Sir Richard de Calne as a Templar) were in contact with an alien civilization, who were abducting humans to populate a colony world – a world where it was always twilight due to a synchronous orbit, and where genetically modified algae turned the inhabitants green. The green children were part of this colony and were accidentally transported to Earth due to a matter transmitter malfunction. Sound wackadoo? You bet. But the sci-fi angle taken by Lunan is a lot of fun and allows for some free-thinking speculation on the oddities of a story that refuses to fit in with a reductionist interpretation. A mind-bogglingly melodramatic National Geographic documentary has Lunan dashing around the Suffolk countryside in a Morris Minor in pursuit of the alien connection. You might want to take a look here: Ancient X-Files (from 25.50).

Folkloric Explanations The folkorist EW Baughman suggests the story is the only example in English folklore of the motif: Inhabitants of lower world visit mortals, and continue to live with them. It is certainly an inversion of the common faerie-tale motif of mortals travelling to faerieland and living there for various periods of time, either willingly or not. But the fact that the children come from underground is important, as the faeries were commonly thought to reside under the earth, usually beneath hollow-hills or burial mounds, but also in caves. The strange description of their world being always twilight also fits in with many folkloric descriptions of an underground faerieland. With this in mind, the story may be a jumbled attempt to overlay faerie motifs onto an historical incident. It does seem that both medieval chroniclers categorised the story as a faerie-tale that fitted in with their other accounts of supernatural beings interacting with humans. But the green children do not behave like folkloric faeries. They have none of the faeries usual attributes or magical powers. They really do seem like lost human children.

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However, as usual with folktales, deeper meaning can be read into story by asking what it is telling us about the human condition. A follower of the Carl Jung school of psychoanalysis would immediately spot the archetype of the outsider/s (see The Deeper Meaning of Faerie-tales). The children were green, came from an unknown and strange land and spoke no known language. They represented an otherworldy intrusion into the regular, consensus reality of the 12th-century villagers, that may have been treated as a threat. In a time of Christian fundamentalism their fate may have been to be seen as demonic beings in need of persecution. Things could have ended badly for them. But they were also vulnerable and frightened, and the story is never about the threat of outsiders but rather of tolerance and kindness to them. As has already been discussed, there had been largescale immigration into eastern England through the 12th century, and communities would have been forced to come to terms with foreign ideas and behaviours within the space of two or three generations… sound familiar? In the case of the green children they were accepted, protected and then integrated into the dominant society. We can see the story as a folkloric method of teaching tolerance of outsiders by using an archetypal concept.

greenchildren-colortnBut instead of using real foreigners, such as Flemish immigrants, the story is made timeless and archetypal by turning the children into faeries. Their otherworldy status makes the tale bigger and more fundamental – it becomes a tool for teaching us about ourselves. The story embeds certain faerie motifs, such as their green colour. The most common colour of the faeries was green (usually their clothing, but also sometimes their food and their skin), and people hearing the tale in the Middle Ages (and beyond) would have automatically understood and accepted that they were associated with an otherworld, most usually represented as faerieland.

Whatever the deeper meaning though, the story is still strongly grounded in a specific time and location. Something material and real happened in a small Suffolk village in the 12th century, which will never be fully understood or explained, because so much of the story is strange and edged with the supernatural. Despite the uncommon and inverted motifs, it is in effect a faerie-tale that uses an historical event as a vehicle for telling a story with a lesson. But then that’s usually what faerie-tales do.

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A recent detailed and exhaustive examination of the story by historian and folklorist John Clark, with the original sources printed in full, can be found here: John Clark’s The Green Children of Woolpit. This correlates all the sources and secondary literature into a fully referenced article, that deals comprehensively with most interpretative aspects of the story. It will most likely become the standard reference point for all future discussion about The Green Children of Woolpit.

The cover image is by my friend and artistic colleague Katalin Polonyi.

Here is Paranormal Kativity telling the story of the Green Children of Woolpit: Paranormal Kativity tells the story of the Green Children of Woolpit

And finally, here are The Green Children singing about… well, The Green Children: The Green Children — Encounter

The Deeper Meaning of Faerie-tales

‘Myth is a story that implies a certain way of interpreting consensus reality so to derive meaning and effective charge from its images and interactions. As such, it can take many forms: fables, religion and folklore, but also formal philosophical systems and scientific theories.’ Bernardo Kastrup, More Than Allegory: On religious myth, truth and belief (2016).

Faerie-tales are a type of mythology. They have spent much time debased to the level of children’s stories; just amusing tales pulled up from an archaic folkloric past that bear little relevance to a modern society saturated with every imaginable storytelling media, from IMAX to Xbox. But if we just give them a chance and scratch the surface a little, they begin to offer up and to demonstrate something much deeper: meaning. And anything that offers to demonstrate a deeper meaning to existence should probably be valued, in a world where meaninglessness seems to have become endemic.

The best faerie-tales are never one-offs, but seem to cluster as a single form from many sources, which are dispersed geographically and chronologically. In Europe and America they were mostly collected by folklorists in the 19th and early-20th centuries, from both oral and written sources, and then disseminated from there. But where did they come from, and more importantly, why were they there in the first place?

The Aarne-Thompson catalogues of folktale types and motifs were first put together in 1910 by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne and completed by Stith Thompson in 1958. They consist of several doorstop volumes, which index every conceivable story type and motif from around the world. It’s been suggested that the catalogues actually codify every human experience, distilled into story. Anyone brave enough to venture into this multi-volume information overload soon realises that they are capturing something special; an index of our collective memory as a species, realised through the medium of mythology. And after all, what is our collective memory apart from the storytelling of mythology? Amidst the catalogues are the story types classed as faerie-tales, each containing hundreds of separate motifs; they are the descriptors of a vast array of myth. And once we head off to find the actual stories outlined in the catalogues we soon discover that they are packed with meaning at many levels. These are not simple tales told to pass the long winter nights (although that was always one use for them), but rather, they are sophisticated tools that can be used to interpret human experience and to help understand the reality we find ourselves in.

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The Aarne-Thompson motif index of folk literature — not light reading

So if we hone down to pick up a folktale type with its motifs from the Aarne-Thompson catalogue, we can find a story and use it as an example — a case study to explain what a faerie-tale might tell us about ourselves and our beliefs. Type ML-4075 is ‘Visits to faerie dwellings.’ Add some motifs such as ‘Faeries made visible through use of ointment’ (F235.4.1) and ‘Faeries take human nurse to care for faerie child’ (F372), then we can narrow things down to a distinct group of folktales containing these elements, from India, Russia, Scandinavia, Lithuania, Britain, France and Ireland; all with their own idiosyncrasies but quite clearly from the same story-stock. The narratives suggest a relatively short gestation period before being collected in the 19th century and catalogued in 1910, although many of the story elements do seem to incorporate much older themes (Gervase of Tilbury records some of the motifs in a 13th-century French story). And the stories wide geographical dispersal suggests the messages they hold have a universal quality — their geneses seem to be local and organic, but tapping into an unknown non-local source. My favourite is one of the Cornish versions collected by the folklorist Robert Hunt in 1865: Cherry of Zennor. It goes something like this:

The time-setting is mid 19th century. Cherry is sixteen and lives in the village of Zennor on the north Cornish coast with her family in respectable poverty. She heads off to seek a job in service, but lethargy and a certain work-shyness get the better of her and she sits down for a mope on the moors, next to an ancient stone cross. Out of nowhere a well-dressed gent appears, flatters her, flirts with her, and tells her he’s a widower and wants her to come to his home, where there is a child to look after. She agrees enthusiastically. There is an interesting sequence where they walk what seems to be miles, but always downwards and through sunken lanes where the overhanging trees formed a tunnel-like descent. The house and gardens are beautiful and so is the little boy, who is to be Cherry’s charge. Unfortunately, for Cherry, the ex-mother in law is still hanging around and she’s a surly sort, who goes out of her way to make Cherry’s life difficult.

Here we are introduced to the magic ointment, which Cherry has to balm the child’s eyes with each morning. She is advised by the mother in law to never apply it to her own eyes (I think you’ll guess what might happen later with that loaded concept). The old woman then takes Cherry through dark corridors in the house (another tunnel-like journey) into a forbidden room, where there are (bizarrely) a group of human statues, some complete, others not. The insinuation is that they’re real humans turned to stone. When Cherry is ordered to polish a ‘coffin-like box’ containing one of the statues, they start to come to life. Quite reasonably, Cherry faints, a ruckus is caused and the master turns up. He kicks out the mother in law, forbids Cherry to enter the room again, and then turns on the charm for a few days, kissing and flirting with Cherry in the garden.

All’s well for a while — Cherry looks after the child, gets her romance-lite and is generally enamoured with her new life. But when she — inevitably — decides to use the ointment on her own eyes things take a change for the weird: “Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass.” She sees the master playing with some of the little ladies in a well, and then the following evening spies him in a surreal musical communion with the stone statues through the keyhole of the forbidden room, where sure enough they had all come to life.

So the next day, when he comes on hot with some hanky-panky, she slaps his face and tells him what she saw and how jealous she’s been. That’s the end of the road for Cherry — her use of the ointment and her betrayal of trust means she has to go home. The master takes her back (uphill through the tunnel-like sunken road) to the downs and cross where she first encountered him and leaves her there. She wails for a bit and then returns home (more time has passed here than in her faerie home) with a story no-one believes. Her remaining life consists mostly of depression and hanging out on the downs hoping to see the master again. But he never comes.

Full text from Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England

In some of the other variations of this story, the girl encounters the master (or the mother in law) again, usually at a market or fair, and when she is asked which eye she sees him with he blinds her in that eye, and she sees faeries no more.

But what can be made of this strange story? What does it mean? Time to apply some interpretations…

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  1. A reductionist-materialist interpretation  This interpretation might see the whole story as a load of baloney, predicated on deluded rustics making it all up from fevered imaginations and promulgating it to the gullible by way of fireside stories over the years, until some gentleman folklorist turned up and recorded it. This is the rigid interpretation to be expected of a modern Western sceptic, but it doesn’t explain the commonality of the story type and motifs over a wide geographical area without mass communication. It also suggests a worldview that has become tightly dogmatic and refuses to accept meaning or reality in anything that does not adhere to its own self-built belief-system based on a universe knowable only through the scientific method. Aldous Huxley called this the disenfranchisement of consciousness. But then such is the world we live in.
  2. A Jungian interpretation As usual, Carl Jung, and adherents to his psycho-mystical outlook, have much more interesting things to say. A Jungian analyst would immediately start looking for archetypes, mythological themes common to humanity, which find their way into these types of folkloric fables for the purpose of teaching us something about existence. According to Jung, these archetypes reside in the Collective Unconsciousness of humanity — the sum total of all knowledge and memory stored in a transcendent Mind, accessed through dreams, stories and mythology. They would find plenty of archetypes in Cherry of Zennor. One archetype is the need to understand that the breaking of social taboos has consequences. This is a universal archetype, that can be applied in most social groups as a life lesson. Cherry breaks the taboo of using the ointment as well as the prohibition against looking into the forbidden room. If she’d kept her mouth shut about seeing the master playing music with the animated stone statues and playing with the faerie ladies in the well, she might have been allowed to stay in faerieland. But that was never going to happen — the story is aware to the fact that people cannot expect to get away with breaking conventions that seem to have a higher purpose, even when that purpose is never explained… it’s just the way of things. It may seem culturally conservative, but it is a lesson embedded in the story. It’s a reinforcement of social mores, disguised within the narrative; a subliminal message based in the collective experience of humanity. Likewise, the innocent maiden, the critical old woman, the all powerful master, and the opportunity to see reality behind the illusion — all are archetypes that can be applied as metaphors and analogies back in the consensus reality of the listener to the story. But a Jungian interpretation such as this requires us to accept that there is a Collective Unconscious that is being tapped into for the purposes of spreading the knowledge contained therein through the telling of faerie-tales. This Collective Unconsciousness is an alluring and convincing idea that finds its way into many philosophical, psychological and scientific theories of how things work for us. But for now its complexity and mind-boggling nature might need to wait for another time… although if you’re interested, this is a good intro. to Jung’s Collective Unconscious.
  3. The faerie-story is a dream This allows common ground between followers of the first two interpretations. Jung would have been happy to contend that the archetypes in faerie-stories may have originally surfaced in dreams, but also that this would not detract from their value as tools for understanding consciousness. For a Western sceptic, a dream is simply another type of epiphenomenon produced in the brain for no particular reason. Its subsequent retelling as a faerie-story can be safely reduced to meaninglessness. But once again, the commonality of the story type and motifs through space and time sits happier with a Jungian interpretation. Whether it started as a dream or dreams isn’t as important as where the dream/s came from in the first place, because those dreams are plugging into the Collective Unconscious and sending us messages to learn from. There are certainly dreamlike elements to the story, most especially the statues coming to life and the sudden appearance of a bunch of humanoid entities at the application of some ointment to the eyes. This does give some clout to the dream-made-into-story interpretation, but only if we accept that the widespread geographical sources of this story type have a collective source for the dreams.
  4. The story is a retelling of events experienced in an altered state of consciousness Once more, this interpretation is dependent on a single type of experience finding its way to lots of people in dispersed locations and in different times, before modern means of mass communication. But its an interpretation of faerie-tales that has begun to gain a lot of traction in recent times, best articulated by Graham Hancock. The basic premise is that when, for whatever reason, we enter an altered state of consciousness, we contact different realities than the one we normally experience. The altered state can be brought about by ingesting chemicals, meditation, trauma, excessive physical exertion, disease and illness, or even spontaneously without any apparent reason. We could also include the dreams from interpretation number 3 as an altered state, as it is the most common way humans experience a fundamentally different reality . Once the mind is in the altered state the usual physical rules of the universe no longer apply and anything can become possible. Cherry’s story certainly includes many components of various induced altered state of consciousness: moving through a tunnel, time dilation, humanoid entities appearing suddenly, non-organic lifeforms, entering a beautiful landscape, and even depression on return to normal reality. Adherents to a reductionist interpretation would be able to agree this is a viable interpretation, but would also remind us that everything experienced can be written off as an hallucination, explained by changes to brain chemistry. However, anyone who has experienced an extensive altered state of consciousness beyond a dream, will be able to associate with the super-reality of the experience. There can be a sense of touching something every bit as real as regulation reality. What the mind finds there can be brought back, in this case in the form of a faerie-story. The two motifs of the faerie ointment and the potential traumas Cherry experiences, such as weeping on a desolate moor, are embedded clues as to the means of her reaching the altered state of consciousness. There’ll be a blog post going into detail on this possible interpretation for the interaction with faeries very soon. Meanwhile, here’s the late, great Terence McKenna talking about faeries and DMT: The DMT experience, with faeries included.
  5. The story really happened This interpretation might reside comfortably with the altered state of consciousness theory. If it’s accepted that perceived reality can be achieved through a variety of consciousness states, then what really happens can be extended beyond experiences in five-sense reality. However, the insinuation of interpretation number 5 is that the world of faerie has been encroaching on our consensus reality and interacting with it at a material level. If that’s the case, then where is that world, how is it crossing over into ours, and why is it doing so? I’ll talk about the Quantum Mechanics of faerieland in a future blog post, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is worth mentioning that certain current quantum theories suggests that in order for our physical universe to operate as it does, we are required to take into account at least seven extra dimensions of reality, and perhaps many more. These enfolded dimensions exist as implicate spaces, that can presumably hold many different forms of reality than the one we accept as the absolute reality (who lives in the 11th dimension?). If this is the case, then what resides in these dimensions may be able to seep through to ours when the conditions are right. It might be difficult for most people brought up on a diet of classical, materialistic Western science to stomach such a proposal, but in the wackadoo-world of quantum physics the unbelievable is the usual, and our entire universe is made up of this crazy sub-atomic reality where time doesn’t seem to exist, and no particles are present until someone observes them. Compared to some of the current mind-bending scientific theories about the way our universe works, a parallel faerie world only slightly tweaked from the one we seem to live in, and interacting with it, begins to look a lot less insane.
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Many things are possible in an altered state of consciousness

So what do we conclude? There is probably much truth in all five interpretations, and certainly much overlap. We could also greatly expand the interpretations here and add further theories (how about the theory from Solipsism that suggests that the story does not exist at all until you the observer come across it and allow its subsequent creation in your own conscious awareness). But hopefully, it is clear that faerie-tales such as Cherry of Zennor hold depths of meaning within them; coded meaning that just needs unscrambling to reveal some secrets direct from faerieland. It’s a strange place… but then reality is strange.

To finish, you might like to try this very trippy faerie cartoon from the 1970s. It’s highly odd, but made by people who demonstrate great attention to faerie detail.

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