‘Marjorie Johnson, Shaman of Suburbia’ by Simon Young

The story of Marjorie Johnson (1911-2011) is fascinating. Her primary legacy is the book Seeing Fairies, but, as recounted here, her interactions with the faeries took many paths and she may legitimately be seen as a mystic, and perhaps even a modern shaman, albeit a very unusual one. She also became secretary of The Fairy Investigation Society, a role now inhabited by Dr Simon Young. Simon has written extensively on faerie folklore and currently teaches at the University of Virginia Program (Siena, CET), Italy. This article appeared originally in the newsletter of The Fairy Investigation Society (no. 7, 2018), a twice yearly publication available to members. Membership is free, and deadbutdreaming strongly recommends readers head over to the website and sign up. The newsletters are always packed with faerie data, from a vast range of perspectives. And the FIS website is also excellent, including a downloadable version of the 2017 Census, which updates the accounts of faerie interactions from Seeing Fairies with over 500 modern testimonies from around the world. Thanks to Simon for permission to republish this article here.

At first glance her life seemed so normal. Marjorie Johnson, Nottingham’s fairy woman, was born in a lower middle class street, in 1911. She would die, a hundred years later, having lived through the Somme, the Blitz, the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, in the same terraced house on Brooklands Road, Carlton. Stability was an essential part of her remarkable development. Not only did she live in the same building, she lived, for much of that time, with the same individuals. Mum and Dad had an idyllic marriage: a prized family possession were the courtship letters between the two. Then, there was sister Dorothy, nine years older, who would become Marjorie’s soul mate: neither married and neither seemed to have had any inclination to do so. The worst that could be said about this family was that perhaps it was too happy, too self-contained.

The outlines of Marjorie’s life suggest a buoyant normality: not quiet desperation, but essential satisfaction. She had met D.H. Lawrence and Freida as a young girl: the writer and his lover had come over for tea. Later in life, she worked in a law firm as a secretary. Her sister Dorothy worked, meanwhile, as a professional pet painter and travelled around the country to undertake portraits. Marjorie had the typical quotient of outside interests: she was, for example, a passionate member of the anti-vivisection league, and became a vegetarian; she and her sister kept dogs; she also was interested in gypsy culture. She was universally liked by those who knew her: again and again in talking or writing to her acquaintances the words ‘kind’, ‘good’, or ‘considerate’ come up. The closest Marjorie came to decadence was that she, later in life, would allow herself a tipple of Baileys in the evening. Oh and then there were the fairies…

There is no easy way to say this but Marjorie Johnson, from very early in life, until her death heard, saw and conversed with fairies. Sometimes they were glimpsed out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes they came in dreams. Sometimes she believed that the fairies were sending her messages: for example, a series of dead birds in the garden were interpreted as the fairies wanting her to bury their animal friends. Once she was pushed on a beach by invisible hands: a sea nymph was apparently angry that she had tried to take a shell. On another occasion the fairies played tricks on her and she lost an important letter only for it to turn up in a place she had already looked for it. With the right expectations we could perhaps all convince ourselves, on grounds like these, that we have fairies in our lives. Things go missing but then are found. You slip on the sand while trying to reach a shell. There is an ornithological murrain and bird corpses appear in the garden. A bee or a butterfly glimpsed in the loaming becomes a fairy on patrol.

But Marjorie’s experiences were often stronger, and more difficult to explain away. She once, for instance, stood by while a fairy procession passed in front of her and was invited to join the fairies in their feasting: she declined because she was worried about being made to eat their food. In advanced middle age Marjorie, was misled by fairies at a cemetery and came face-to-face with a fairy house that then vanished. On yet another occasion she watched fairies running to and fro in the street and dancing, getting ready for a summer solstice festival: they warned her telepathically not to approach. Then, when Marjorie wanted to buy some land for gardening a fairy came to tell her not to, shaking its finger energetically: thanks to the fairy Marjorie was able to rent the land for practically nothing and saved a good deal of money. In these cases it would be difficult for someone to live these experiences without a schizophrenic condition or access to hallucinogens; neither of which, needless to say, featured in Marjorie’s life.

Marjorie had always seen fairies. An old friend of the family confirmed that as a toddler, in the Great War, Marjorie had babbled about the colours of fairies she saw among the flowers. However, Marjorie’s most significant fairy experience came when she was six. We know about the experience because, aged twenty-five, Marjorie wrote about what she had seen to the letters page of a then much-read national magazine, John O’London’s Weekly, where a number of readers had contributed their own fairy experiences:

On this particular morning I was lying in bed enjoying the early morning sunshine which streamed in through the low, open window, when suddenly I felt compelled to sit up in bed and turn my eyes to the empty fire grate. There, on a filmy cobweb on the bars, sat a strange little creature. It seemed quite unafraid and, from the broad grin on its face, appeared to enjoy my observation. At first I just kept still and stared, and it blinked back at me with a blank expression which showed very little intelligence. Soon I had to satisfy my childish curiosity by climbing out of bed. The elf immediately disappeared. I climbed back, and when I turned round it was perched in the same place. This disappearance and reappearance continued until I brushed away the cobweb. I never saw the nature sprite again.

The elf episode was, for Marjorie, a wake-up call. As we shall establish, below, many people and perhaps especially young children have experiences of this kind. But very few twenty-five year olds are ready for their name to appear under an account like this in a national publication, particularly in the stifling and judgmental Britain of the late 1930s. Marjorie, as noted above, was repeatedly described as ‘good’ and ‘considerate’ by friends, but she also had a steely resolve. She would not ignore the evidence of her senses. Here it is worth stressing that a small part of the population do see impossible things: ghosts, fairies, monsters, aliens…. The first great survey of the paranormal, the wonderfully named ‘Census of Hallucinations’, began in Britain in 1889 and 16000 people, from all runs of life, were interviewed. Of those interviewed about ten percent had had a striking paranormal experience in their lives. Since then there have been other surveys. Some have put the number of visionaries in our society as low as five percent, others as high as twenty percent. It is possible that the number contracts or grows according to factors within a given society: totalitarianism, war, hardship, busts and booms… But what is clear is that, in every society, a small, but not a vanishingly small, part of the population have supernatural experiences. It is also interesting that many of these have frequent supernatural experiences; there seems to be a predisposition in certain individuals to have visions and unworldly meetings.

This all makes sense in terms of evolution. These five, ten or twenty percent are likely the men and women who were supposed to become sibyls and druids, soothsayers and healers in early societies; the elders who painted dreams onto cave walls, or who worked miracles in the first human villages. These were the spirit-folk who would speak to the ancestors. They would bring wisdom and cohesion to the tribe. They would give medical relief, with herbs and by ‘faith’. The problem is that, again in evolutionary terms, these visionaries no longer have a straightforward role in a world dominated by automated machines and by the internet. There is, then, the danger that the mystic tendency has become like our tail-bones, a relict of a previous epoch, which has no relevance to us today. This is why most people with such dangerous ‘gifts’, conscious of the potential for embarrassment or even humiliation, ignore or hide them.

Yet Marjorie Johnson had, already by her mid twenties, decided to be defined by her fairies. We know, for example, that aged twenty-three, two years before she wrote to John O’ London’s, she made a bamboo pipe and took it out to play to any fairies she might happen upon. There is an extraordinary photograph of Marjorie in 1934 kneeling in the ferns at Castle Rising (in Norfolk) and playing passionately to something invisible: she looks like a snake charmer without the cobra. A smudge of light on the negative is described, on the back of the photograph, as ‘Nature spirits veiled in ectoplasm’.

Marjorie was at it again a few days later, playing as she and her sister Dorothy strolled through the countryside, and when she reached a copse of trees the fairies answered with music. Marjorie being Marjorie she stopped and wrote the notes down: she would later, always thorough, get a composer to give proper notations to the fairies’ riffs and harmonies.

Why is it that Marjorie embraced mysticism, when most of the visionary ten percent try, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, to turn off this part of their hardwiring? The first reason was her family. There is no clue that there was any special interest in the paranormal in the Johnson household, though Marjorie later wrote that her mother had premonitory dreams. But Dorothy had seen fairies, too, as a child and continued to do so through her life: even if with less frequency than Marjorie. As a young child Dorothy had lost a ring in some woods outside Nottingham. After asking the fairies to help her find it she returned to the wood at twilight and, in her own words, ‘I was able to discern in the dim light the ring moving towards me about a foot above the ground, as if floating on air or being carried by some invisible being, and, as I watched, it dropped at my feet.’ Dorothy, Marjorie later revealed, had also seen the elf in the fireplace – she had been fifteen: the sisters had been sleeping in the same bed when the elf had appeared and Marjorie had nudged her sister awake.

Had the parents perhaps fostered, then, a belief in fairies? It seems unlikely. Marjorie believed that her mother had once seen a fairy. While washing Mrs Johnson had thought she saw, at the upstairs bathroom window, a tiny face peeping through. But there is no suggestion that the Johnson parents had any interest in small men or winged sylphs or, indeed, knew anything about supernatural forces. There is not even any sense of strong religious beliefs in the household. Their most important contribution to Marjorie’s development was that of providing a loving and understanding environment while the girls grew up. Some imaginative Victorian and Edwardian children were punished for ‘lies’ or simply mocked into conformity. As one of Marjorie’s later correspondents put it: ‘It is so nice to know that someone else has seen fairies besides myself. I saw them when I was a child, but I was laughed at so often that gradually I ceased to go where they were, and did not speak of them again….’

This was not how such things worked in the Johnson household. This is Marjorie’s description of Dorothy’s first fairy experience and her mother’s model reaction:

[A] fairy had appeared in front of [Dorothy] in the old orchard when she was a small child and I was not yet born. It stood smiling at her – a dainty little fairy dress with silvery wings. It had a pretty coronet on its head, and in its hand was a wand with a tiny, twinkling star on top. My sister said she was so thrilled that she ran up the garden path to fetch Mother, who hurried back with her, but of course, by then, as usually happens, the little creature had disappeared. But Mother knew from Dorothy’s joy and excitement that she was telling the truth. We were very lucky in having wise parents who never scoffed at us or crushed our excited outpourings, but always found time to listen understandingly to what we had to say.

Marjorie was born, then, into a tolerant and imaginative family. However, she had another advantage, she was born at just the right time, the time that a new kind of fairy was emerging into the British imagination. In the nineteenth century there had been two kinds of fairies. There were the rather frightening fairies that ‘infested’ the most rural and isolated regions of Britain and Ireland, stealing children and cursing crops: it must be remembered that just sixteen years before Marjorie’s birth a woman, Bridget Cleary, had been burnt in County Tipperary because it was believed that she was a fairy. These traditional fairies were viewed, by almost everyone who cared to write about them, as unhappy fossils of medieval (and in Ireland Catholic) barbarism. Then, there was the sugar plum fairy, a proto-Tinkerbell in children’s books, in art and, perhaps most importantly, in the theatre. These were the priggish white winged fairies of the Victorian imagination, fairies that are still with us today in Disney films and toy franchises: these fairies, it goes without saying, were understood not to be real. They were like our unicorns or dragons.

Had Marjorie Johnson been born in Nottingham in, say, 1850 she would doubtless have had visionary experiences, but she would not have described those experiences with the word ‘fairy’. After all, the fairies in her children’s books would not have been living things; and she would have had no contact with the scary fairies of Wales or northern England. Her experiences would have been difficult to situate or she might have been taught the word ‘ghost’. However, in the late nineteenth-century, a third fairy emerged, the spiritualist fairy. The spiritualists were a breakaway Christian movement and they are most famous today for their energetic efforts to contact the dead with rapping in darkened rooms. As spiritualism developed, though, and particularly in the branch of spiritualism called theosophy, there was an attempt to reduce the entire universe to supernatural mechanics. Yes, there were the spirits of the dead, said the theosophists. But there were also ‘elementals’, forces that inhabited flowers, rocks and other objects in the natural world. These ‘elementals’ were, it was argued, what our ancestors had called ‘fairies’.

This idea burbled gently away at the end of the nineteenth-century in spiritualist books and occasional newspaper columns: impressing several important figures, not least W.B. Yeats, whose fairy visions were based, in part on traditional lore and, in part, on theosophy. It became more and more commonplace in the early twentieth century. Then, the idea went mainstream after the First World War with the Cottingley fairy photographs. In 1917 two girls from Cottingley in West Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, saw and photographed fairies. We now know that these photographs were faked by the girls. But when they were published in 1920 and 1921, after theosophists had publicized them, the photographs divided opinion. Those who did support their authenticity, among them Arthur Conan Doyle, did so, on the basis of the spiritualist idea of fairies: these were nature spirits from the beck at Cottingley, caught on camera for all the world to see.

Marjorie saw her cobweb elf in 1917, the same year as Elsie and Frances took their first photographs. It is not impossible that she had already picked up, from school or friends, the idea of ‘nature spirits’. But by the time she wrote to John O’London’s Weekly, in 1936, she had very definite ideas about fairies and these ideas were theosophic. In fact, in the letter to John O’London’s she quotes, approvingly, Geoffrey Hodson, a theosophist, who had gone to Cottingley to look for the fairies with Elsie and Frances; and who had published accounts of his fairy encounters elsewhere. Hodson memorably claimed to have met a nature god on Hellvellyn in Cumbria, among many other visionary experiences. Marjorie, then, by her mid twenties had not just decided that she could see fairies: she had also found an explanation for this mystical force. She would remain true to that explanation for the rest of her life and she would even project it backwards onto her early experiences. She came to believe, for example, that the elf she had seen aged six was actually the nature spirit of a rambling rose outside her window. It had presumably crept in, having decided to treat the cobweb as an improvised hammock. The remarkable thing about Marjorie is not that she had a personality programmed to having these experiences; in that, as we have seen, she was far from being alone. But, rather, what is striking is that her personality survived, where many others conformed to modern ideas about what the senses should and should not do. Marjorie had grown up in a family where these experiences had been accepted. The society she had grown up in had also, even if only as a minority opinion, attempted to explain what Marjorie was seeing and Marjorie enthusiastically took up this explanation. But, with a happy childhood, and books on theosophy, she would have led a very lonely and frustrating existence in her terraced house in Nottingham, sustained only by her sister. Marjorie, though, made a concerted effort to find others like herself. She clutched at every chance: and this was, remember, a young woman with a gift for friendship. So after she had published in the John O’London’s Weekly she reached out, through the editor, to those who had written in with their experiences. Some of these became pen friends with whom Marjorie would have a decades-long correspondence. She would also write to Geoffrey Hodson, a man she stoutly defended against charges of fakery in the 1980s  and the 1990s. It was not that she joined a tribe. There wasn’t one. She painstakingly created her own around a fairy totem.

1936 was a special year in Marjorie’s life not only because of the John O’ London letter. It was also the year that she began to collect fairy accounts in a systematic way, ‘cuttings of true experiences’: Marjorie loved the word ‘true’. She wanted not only to live as a fairy seer (the term she used for herself and for others with her gift of fairy sight) she wanted to educate society more generally. ‘[A]s I grew older’ she wrote many years afterwards, ‘I became filled with a burning desire to keep the Fairy Faith alive and to know more about this fascinating evolution that runs parallel to and merges with our own.’ Her clippings collection got bigger as did her contacts with other seers and the idea slowly germinated that she should publish a book of these encounters between human- and fairy-kind. But there was a problem. Would the fairies approve?

Folklorists will tell you that fairies do not enjoy publicity. In fact, in traditions from all over Europe the fairies punish or abandon those who betray their confidences. The typical story goes like this: a child becomes friends with the fairies who leave a coin at a certain tree every day for their favourite. But the child is bullied, by a parent or sibling, into revealing where this small fortune comes from. The child tells the secret, and the fairies immediately cease to leave gifts and want nothing more to do with the child. This was Marjorie’s greatest concern. She apparently had personal relations with some of the fey, her ‘familiars’ to use a witchcraft term, her ‘spirits’ thinking of shamans, and she did not want to risk a break in the relationship. She was not receiving money, but she was receiving insights and direction.

To talk about a relationship with the fairies might seem bizarre, but though Marjorie did not know this, there were strong British precedents for what she was experiencing in the 1930s and the 1940s. We know that in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern period, and as late as the nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland, certain men, and particularly women claimed to have relations with fairies, communicating with these fairies for the good of their communities. These reports, especially in the early period, often come out in witch trials or ecclesiastical records where cunning men or cunning women were investigated for holding unorthodox religious opinions. There is, indeed, the suspicion, one that has been articulated by a British historian of witchcraft, Emma Wilby, that many ‘witches’ who were executed in England and Scotland, in the early modern period, were not devil worshippers, but fairy seers, who got on the wrong side of authority.

A striking case, and one with some relevance to Marjorie was Joan Tyrry of Taunton, who, in 1555, was called before the diocesan court in her home city. There she revealed that ‘the fairies taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’: her powers of healing animals and people and picking out witches from among her neighbours, depended, by her own testimony, on the local fairies’ good will. Joan was let off but told to stay away from the fairies: she was lucky, a century later she might easily have been executed. Joan, though, was bereft. She replied that this staying away from the fairies would not be a problem because now that she had revealed fairy secrets, her magical neighbours would want nothing more to do with her. It is remarkable to see two individuals separated by about four hundred years with the same gifts and the same problem, the desire to respect the fairies’ confidences.

Let us give, in her own words, Marjorie’s negotiations with the fairies, because it is the only time that she reveals in writing her private communications with these spirit guides. The word ‘deva’, in what follows, is a Hindu word that had been adopted by theosophists in the late nineteenth century:

One day in the 1940s, I was thinking seriously about [publishing a book on fairies], but was a bit apprehensive as to whether the fairies themselves would like it, and I wished I could obtain their consent. That night I went to bed thinking about it, and early the next morning I had a wonderful true dream. Standing in front of me was one of the higher devas, or ‘Shining Ones,’ and I had never before seen such a vision of loveliness. She glowed with light; her hair was long and golden; her gown was flowing and opalescent; and the aura, which surrounded her, coruscated with all the colours of the rainbow, I christened her ‘Iris,’ and felt she was a Guardian of the Fairy Borderland. She was standing in front of a symbolic filmy curtain of gauze, which she drew aside and beckoned me through, so I knew I had been accepted. She was showing me some interesting things when something – perhaps a sudden noise – made me waken, but not before she had impressed on me that whenever I saw the rainbow-flash of her aura I was to ask the person who might be next to me in a street, shop, or other building, etc., if he or she had, or knew someone who’d had, any fairy experiences.

So the deva fairy had not only given Marjorie permission to gather accounts, she had given her a magic power to do so as well. Whenever Marjorie was to see someone with a ‘rainbow flash’ around them she was to ask about fairies. And Marjorie, as she put it, ‘plucked up my courage to do it’. Her rainbow informants represented a goodly range of  men and women: one can only imagine their bewilderment as the earnest middle-aged woman bustled towards them. There was a concert pianist, a man at a printer’s shop, someone at a meeting, a clairvoyant housewife and ‘a tourist in the porch of Coventry Cathedral’, among many others. The deva’s advice proved good. All were able to talk to Marjorie about fairies, with Marjorie naturally keeping notes. Marjorie was a shaman in the age of the printing press. She would collect ‘true’ accounts of fairies and, then, publish them. She now had her life mission.

Marjorie was helped towards this goal, in 1950, by a new and exciting role that was offered her. In that year, aged thirty-nine, she became secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society. The FIS was a body that had been founded in 1927 by a number of theosophists and bohemians in London. It had fallen apart by 1932. But, after the Second World War, one of its original members, Quentin Craufurd, a naval commander and scientist, refounded the organisation and recruited Marjorie, recognizing her talent, her energy and her convictions. Marjorie was responsible for welcoming new members – the only condition for membership was a belief in fairies – and for bringing out the FIS newsletter, an occasional publication that detailed new sightings and fairy projects. The FIS was, in terms of its members, a remarkable organisation: there were just over a hundred in the rosters including several famous men and women. Walt Disney, for example, was a fairy believer and was on the FIS lists. So was Lord Dowding, the man who had won the Battle of Britain for the RAF, and who, later in life, wrote an introduction to a fairy seer book. Walter Starkie the controversial Irish author, who wrote entertaining descriptions of his wanderings with the Roma in eastern Europe, had also signed up. There was, then, a marvelous crop of lesser known eccentrics. Take Daphne Charters, a fairy seer who attempted to create a fairy League of Nations. Ithell Colquhoun, a gifted occultist and artist. Naomi Mitchison, a fantasy author, whose reputation has risen in the last years. There was Wellesley Tudor Pole who founded the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, where many Britons still go to see fairies, and there was, moving down into the C list of celebrities, June Kynaston, author of Nude Dancing for Health.

Addresses were shared in the newsletters and members were encouraged to get in touch with each other. Indeed, group visits were organized. Marjorie, in one of her letters describes a holiday where four members met in Iona in the Hebrides to look for fairies. Marjorie herself responded with her sister Dorothy to a call from Lincolnshire about some elves that had been seen in a forest there in ‘a very rudimentary phase of development’. In 1956 she took two field trips and saw a fairy dog and a ‘green, shapeless, ectoplasm mass’, which she interpreted as an ‘embryo elf’. Marjorie may have become a fairy administrator but she was still given to strong mystic fits. In the late 1960s, about ten years after her investigations on the east coast, she was at her house when she had a vision of these Lincolnshire elves ‘and was able to watch swarms of them climbing up the stems of plants and sliding down again’. ‘Though I knew I was at home’, she wrote, ‘I seemed no more than a yard away from them in the woodland and could even sense their strong, magnetic quality.’

The FIS brought another boon to Marjorie: Alasdair Alpin MacGregor. MacGregor was a gifted Scottish writer and folklorist who wrote a number of books on fairies, ghosts and other unworldly traditions. He was a member of the FIS and he soon came into  contact with Marjorie Johnson. A bold, charismatic man MacGregor and Marjorie, ten years his junior, seemed to have quickly established a working relationship of unusual intensity. They were both passionate anti-vivisectionists and they both, of course, believed in fairies. The two decided to publish together the book of Marjorie’s fairy accounts. But MacGregor was used to doing things on a larger scale and proved a canny publicist. In 1955 and 1956 MacGregor took the whole idea of collecting fairy accounts to another level. He wrote letters to newspapers and journals, asking whether readers had fairy sightings to contribute to Marjorie’s survey.

Marjorie’s clipping book now seemed modest, as accounts, some very dramatic, began to pour in from around the English-speaking world, and sometimes from beyond: South Africa, Italy, Canada, California, Germany, New Zealand… MacGregor detached himself from the project in the next year: he was a brilliant but restless man and announced that he wanted to travel abroad. But Marjorie had gathered scores of accounts, convincing her more than ever that she was not an isolated eccentric, but part of a global encounter between humanity and nature spirits: an encounter that had to be proved and, then, explained to the general public. This was not the age of Aquarius but of Oberon. It is interesting that after MacGregor came into her life Marjorie no longer saw the rainbow flashes around total strangers. In fairy terms, perhaps the time for magic had passed; or perhaps it was simply that MacGregor’s more efficient but louder strategy had unsettled the fairies’ always delicate sense of decorum.

Collecting fairy accounts might have been central in Marjorie’s life, but the mystic quality of her day-to-day existence continued, often with her new FIS friends provoking and assisting. Marjorie reports, for example, the visit of a fairy seer named Vera Westmorland who found a fairy on one of Marjorie’s chairs. The fairy, after complaining about Marjorie’s decorating – this fairy did not like the smell of paint – decided to go on a journey with Vera and rode away in her car, returning several days later. Marjorie considered Vera the more powerful seer: her ‘psychic gifts far exceeded my own’, not least because Marjorie had not been properly aware of the fairy and had certainly not seen it. However, some days afterwards Marjorie spotted for the first time ‘a misty little figure’ in an upstairs’ room. Marjorie was, forever bumping into nature spirits in her house. Another day the dogs of two visitors alerted her to ‘the semi-transparent figure of a gnome or dwarf, one and a half to two feet in height, with a large head, a beard, and a pointed cap,’ in a downstairs corridor. ‘Although I was unable to see any colouring, he appeared to be wearing the traditional belted jacket and trousers of his kind.’

If Marjorie’s mystic experiences continued progress on the book was more uneven. MacGregor had claimed that Fairy Vision, as the two had wanted to call their opus, was almost ready for publication in 1956. But Marjorie was still looking for more accounts in 1960, when she had her most traumatic fairy experience. Through MacGregor she had learnt of the value of the media and had sometimes spoken to the press to drum up publicity for the FIS and more particularly for the fairy survey. In 1960 she was offered an interview with the Sunday Pictorial and met with one Tom Riley, a journalist, to talk about fairies. The article when it was published was cruel. It focused in on one small part of Marjorie’s interview where, unwisely, she had spoken about how fairies reproduce: no doubt goaded by Riley, who saw this eccentric Midlander as a meal ticket. A small photograph of Marjorie appeared under the title: ‘She Does a Kinsey on Fairies…’ To be mocked in this way in the national press, in an article with words like ‘bisexual’ and ‘polygamous’, must have been mortifying: this was 1960, remember, the year of the Lady Chatterley Trial and this was a middle class area of Nottingham where ‘keeping up with the Jones’ was as much about propriety as possessions.

Worse, though, was to come. The story was syndicated and slowly made its way around the world: appearing in a reduced form in newspapers from Florida to Australia. Journalists scented blood and turned up at Marjorie’s door: according to a later memory they ‘camped out’ there. The consequences, for Marjorie, were terrible. She demanded a retraction from the Pictorial and wrote imploringly to FIS members, many who had been shocked and embarrassed by the episode. Craufurd’s FIS now entered a hibernation from which it would never properly recover. Even ten years later, Marjorie’s successor as secretary, an English writer Leslie Shepard still talked about members’ privacy concerns. The organization was, finally, closed down in the early nineties. As Shepard himself noted the fey had fallen out of fashion as aliens, fairies with jetpacks, had taken their place.

The story of the visitor to a fairy feast is widely known. The human spent an hour in the underground halls of Titania, only to reappear in the world to find that a hundred years have passed. In fairyland times passes at a different rate. Marjorie’s book now entered fairyland. Marjorie was distracted, first, by her mother’s poor health, then by her sister’s and her own health problems. Through the next decades she continued to collect encounters but at a reduced rate. The fairies and nature spirits remained, however, loyal.

Perhaps the most moving passages in her writing, and one that gives an excellent flavour of her remarkable personality, is about a walk that she and Dorothy took to Colwick Woods in Nottingham, where the two had played together as children (it was where Dorothy had seen the floating ring many years before) and where they had walked with their dogs in middle age:

Now, after a long interval of many years, we were wandering again over the familiar haunts, this time in our old age, and (though we did not know it) for the last time together. We were in a nostalgic mood, and we sat down to rest on a hilltop, trying to recapture the old magic. After a while, feeling more peaceful and relaxed, we began to retrace our steps and were walking towards a tree, which had known us intimately in our younger days and grew apart from the others, when to our amazement it suddenly became illumined. This was no trick of the sunlight, for the tree shone from within, and its radiance rayed out in a golden-white aureole, ethereal and translucent. The tree wanted us to know it had recognized us, and we stood in silent communion under its branches, enfolded in its welcoming vibrations. After a while we had to say goodbye, and we continued our walk home feeling blessed and uplifted. It was a truly wonderful and touching experience to be greeted and remembered so lovingly by an old woodland friend.

Dorothy herself died in 1988. Marjorie describes how, the night before her sister passed, fairies came to dance in the air around her head. ‘I had a strong impression that they were preparing me and trying to strengthen me for something that was to come.’ The book, finally, emerged from fairyland in 1996. Marjorie, now eighty five, had rearranged the contents, added some new accounts and the title had changed from Fairy Vision to the more winsome Seeing Fairies: the entire work included some four hundred fairy sightings and encounters, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the vast majority of which had never appeared before in print. British publishers turned up their noses. By 2000 Marjorie was ready to give up, but she had a dream. She was walking up a hill and was getting tired. But Dorothy, who had died fourteen years before, and a group of fairies, urged her to continue. She awoke with a new sense of determination and soon afterwards she learnt that a publisher was interested in bringing out the book in German: and so Seeing Fairies or Naturgeister as it came to be known, enjoyed some modest success among German New Age readers. Four years later thebook was translated into Italian and Czech. Marjorie now had her book in print in threelanguages, none of which she could read. She continued to look for an English publisher but had no success and, in her final illness, she even misplaced the English manuscript. That manuscript re-emerged after her death and Seeing Fairies was finally published, postmortem, in English in 2014.

As the dream of Dorothy and the fairies suggests, Marjorie’s mystic life continued into her twilight years. There is an account in Seeing Fairies of her homehelp, at that time, Maureen having a peculiar experience in Marjorie’s sitting room while cleaning:

[Maureen] told me that ‘a little shining thing’ had flown under the table on a beam of sunlight towards her and had risen into the air in front of her. She saw that it was about three inches in length and was sparkling all over as though speckled with stardust. It was so bright that she could not see its face, and as she watched, it flew down again and disappeared. ‘It was so wonderful, and so lovely,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in my life before. I wish I could see it again.’

A one off and presumably unrepeatable incident? Well, Rose, another homehelp, in the years that followed, was shocked to see, on her first day at work, a transparent blue light pass before her while she was doing the washing up. Marjorie was now in advanced old age but her magic was still there, leaking out into the rooms where she and her sister had lived.

We all know the famous lines of Frost about two roads dividing in a yellow wood. There is the well travelled, and the less travelled path. Which should we choose? When, in her late teens or early twenties, Marjorie came to that fork, she, bamboo pipe in one hand, notepad in the other, ignored both. Instead, she thrashed her way through the undergrowth making her own way among the trees. Whatever, the reader thinks of Marjorie’s fairy experiences it is impossible not to admire the integrity of a woman who listened to her inner voice and lived her entire life according to its dictates. ‘They broke the mould when they made, Marjorie’, said one of her friends: it is the best epitaph I know for Nottingham’s fairy seer.

But the greater problem remains. What is the place of these natural mystics, in our industrial and post-industrial societies: particularly those who lack sympathetic support networks, or who have visions that do not cohere with the whims of a changing society, or who, worst of all, get lost in our mental-health system? What should they do? We have seen in recent years that archaeological and nutritional work into the Paleolithic diet have given us insights into how we should eat: we are digital men and women living in caveman bodies, goes the mantra. Perhaps new investigations into Paleolithic religion and the visions of our cave-dwelling ancestors will give us insights into our psychological well being. The propensity for some of us to have visions is well-established; the prehistoric roots of these visions are likewise generally accepted; the relevance of these visions to the modern world is interesting, but as yet unproven.

Author’s note: this article was based in large part on Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times (Anomalist Books, 2014). I also used information from a number of interviews, and also back numbers of the FIS newsletter from the 1950s, which Marjorie edited.

Marjorie Johnson, c.1929

Frightening and Enlightening: The Phenomenology of Modern Faeries

“If we are prepared to set aside the automatic scepticism and reductionism of our age, and if we spell out the problem in plain language, then we find that we are contemplating the existence of highly intelligent discarnate entities belonging to an order of creation fundamentally different than our own… By whatever name we know them – spirits, faeries, aliens – it really is almost as though the beings we are dealing with have been changing and developing alongside us for thousands of years, and that they therefore cannot simply be mass delusions, but must have a definite, independent reality outside the human brain.”

Graham Hancock, Supernatural (2005)

As Graham Hancock suggests, the faeries seem to have acculturated themselves alongside humans for a long period of time, adapting their phenomenology to our cultural creeds, but all the while maintaining their own specific metaphysical identity. They appear in folklore through cultural lenses that are distinguished by the worldview of the particular time. This might manifest through prehistoric cave paintings of hallucinogenic supernatural entities, Classical reliefs of human-like nymphs, Christianised medieval tales of marvels, the shapeshifting familiars of Early-Modern witches, or the array of liminal characters only slightly removed from consensus reality into a magical world recorded by 19th- and early 20th-century folklorists. But their presence is persistent. Despite concerted efforts to downgrade the folklore into tales for children during the late 19th and 20th centuries, belief in the ontological reality of faerie entities continues into the 21st century, albeit coded to modern sensibilities. And just as in the faerie folklore of the past, the modern phenomenology of these otherworldly beings is both diverse and elusive – frightening and enlightening.

Modern Faeries

Modern faerie sightings and experiences tend to pass under the mainstream cultural radar. The idea that there may be a parallel species of discarnate beings inhabiting our world and occasionally interacting with us is anathema to the dominant materialistic worldview. And as with anything outside the conventional reality-box, such phenomena are usually dealt with through disparagement – think of the final item on a TV news bulletin with the presenters smiling knowingly at the absurdity of a story. Faeries are particularly susceptible to such treatment due to their debasement into entities that simply do not exist except in the minds of children. However, in recent years – partly due to the internet enabling an exponential growth of alternative information – a new understanding of what the faeries are has begun to emerge, suggesting that their presence through history is not just the product of over-imaginative storytelling, but that rather they are deeply embedded within our collective consciousness, and are able to surface into consensus reality when certain conditions are met.

Part of the problem in tracing modern faeries is that the conditions of their appearances are not usually controllable, and so accounts of interactions with them tend to be anecdotal and unverifiable. Such is the case in what is probably the largest collection of Seeing-Fairies-A-687x1024-2faerie encounters in the 20th century: Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, first published in English in 2014. Johnson (acting on behalf of the Fairy Investigation Society) collected over 500 anecdotal descriptions from people who claimed to have seen or interacted with faeries, and compiled them together with her own experiences. Some of her correspondents were Theosophists, with an avowed history of clairvoyance. But the majority were not, and their honest appraisals of seeing faeries are usually singular events in their otherwise non-clairvoyant lives. Their subjective anecdotes remain contentious as scientific evidence, but they are a fascinating collection of experience reports. The faeries described range from traditional folkloric types to metaphysical nature spirits, occasionally morphing into the delicate, genteel winged faeries of Victorian invention. Two examples give a flavour of the reports, both from the 1950s; the first (transposed into the third-person by Johnson) from Kent, England by Felicity Royds recounting an experience from when she was nine years old:

“Felicity found she had left some object – her coat or a toy – in the rose garden, and was sent back alone to fetch it. The rose garden was surrounded by thick yew hedges, and at the end of it was a cast-iron gate leading into a thicket of rhododendrons. The object, which she had gone to fetch, was on the grass near this gate, and she had just retrieved it and was turning away, fearful of what may come out of the bushes, when she saw coming through the gate a small man leading a light brown horse. The man was shorter than Felicity and appeared to be wearing a blue tunic with something white at the neck. His skin was very brown, browner than his hair. The pony was about the size of a Shetland but very slender. Although she did not feel frightened, Felicity did not look at the man directly, only out of the corner of her eye. He put his hand on her wrist, and his touch was cool, not cool like a fish or a lizard, but much cooler than a human touch. He led her out of the rose garden and onwards until they were within sight of the house, and then stood still while she went in. She said that she was not musical, but while he held her hand she seemed to be aware of a strain of music that was sweet and high but sounded rather unfinished.”

The second example (slightly abbreviated) is from a Mr Hugh Sheridan, whose encounter was in Ballyboughal, Co. Dublin, Ireland, in 1953. He was walking across fields between his workplace and home at dusk:

“… and when nearing the corner of one of the fields I heard a tittering noise. At first I thought it was some of the other men who had gone on before me and who might be intending to play some prank. However, I noticed immediately afterwards what looked like a large, greenish tarpaulin on the ground, with thousands of faeries on it. I then found there were a lot more around me. They were of two sizes, some about four feet high, and others about eighteen or twenty inches high. Except for size, both kinds were exactly alike. They wore dark, bluish-grey coats, tight at the waist and flared at the hips, with a sort of shoulder cape… the covering of their legs was tight, rather like puttees, and they appeared to be wearing shoes. I started on the path towards home, and the faeries went with me in front and all around. The largest faeries kept nearest to me. The ones in front kept skipping backwards as they went, and their feet appeared to be touching the ground. There were males and females, all seemingly in their early twenties. They had very pleasant faces, with plumper cheeks than those of humans, and the men’s faces were devoid of hair or whiskers… None of the faeries had wings. They tried to get me off the path towards a gateway leading from the field, but just before I reached it I realised they were trying to take me away, so I resisted and turned towards the path again. [After slipping into, and getting out of a dry a ditch, still surrounded by the faeries] I moved towards home with the faeries round me, and they kept the tittering noise all the time. In the end I got to a plank leading across a ditch from one field to another, and suddenly all the faeries went away. They seemed to go back with the noise gradually fading. At one time I had reached out my arms to try to catch them, but I cannot be sure whether they skipped back just out of reach, or whether my hands passed through them without feeling anything. They were smiling and pleasant all the time, and I could see their eyes watching me. When I got home, I found I was about three-quarters of an hour late, but I thought I had been delayed only a few minutes [my emphasis]. While the faeries were with me, I had the rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid. I would very much like to meet them again.”

Most of Johnson’s accounts are from the mid 20th century, but the new incarnation of the Fairy Investigation Society (from 2013) has recently carried out a new survey into faerie sightings, using a standardised recording form. Whilst still reliant on anecdotal reports, and the honesty of participants, this census has currently compiled nearly 500 accounts of faerie encounters and the results will elucidate contemporary patterns of sightings in a searchable online format.

The Wollaton Park Gnomes

One of the more bizarre modern faerie encounters happened at Wollaton Park in Nottingham on 23 September 1979. It includes various traditional folkloric faerie motifs, but is overlain with some strange and anomalous features, which give it an edge of authenticity, especially as it was reported by a group of seven children between 8-10 years, who stuck rigorously to their story even when separated and questioned by their headmaster. The consistency of their testimonies is particularly impressive, despite some of the aberrant qualities of the account. Their testimonies were recorded on tape by the headmaster a few days after the event, and the transcriptions can be found here, recorded for posterity by Simon Young.

The incident happened during the early evening, just as it was getting dark. The children were playing close to a fenced-off marshy area of the park with ponds (how many children of this age would be allowed to wander around on their own in such a location at dusk today? But this was the 1970s). Without warning, there appeared about thirty small cars, each containing two gnome-like creatures, that is, with ‘bobbled nightcaps’, beards, wrinkly skin, and dressed in coloured jerkins. One of the older children described them as: ‘about half the size of me and they had long white beards with red at the bottom and they had little white and red cars and they were chasing us.’ The cars were silent and seemed able to defy the laws of physics by floating over logs on the ground. Although the gnomic cars chased the children they were consistently described as being friendly and the whole encounter seemed like a game with the gnomes laughing, although when the two youngest children fell over in the marsh they became frightened. One of the only discrepancies in the testimonies is that five of the children said the gnomes were, apart from laughing, consistently silent throughout, whereas two children described them as talking in some type of foreign language. The cars were described as having triangular lights and some sort of button instead of a steering wheel. After about fifteen minutes, soon after the two youngsters fell in the marsh, the children ran off and the gnomes disappeared back into the trees.

One of the children’s renditions of the Wollaton Park gnomes

The gnomes in this encounter seem to adhere to a fairly traditional folkloric appearance, but, of course, their levitating cars give them some modern cultural coding. If the incident is taken at face-value it could be seen as an updated version of many folklore anecdotes and stories that involve wizened gnomic faeries, behaving in a slightly irrational manner. Their manifestation in woodland and at dusk also locks in with the usual habitat and aphotic preferences of folkloric gnomes. Their materialisation to children is also important. The transcripts clearly demonstrate that the children, whilst startled by the encounter, were able to accept it without the rationalisation that might be expected of an adult. They viewed it as weird, but not unnatural. Perhaps this was simply a case of the children tuning into to the gloaming, woodland atmosphere and experiencing a non-material reality, acculturated for them by their watching (the very hallucinogenic) Big Ears and Noddy on the television.

Interestingly, Marjorie Johnson includes two more anecdotes of gnomic faeries (sans cars) in Wollaton Park in Seeing Fairies. The first detailed account is by Jean Dixon from the 1950s, where she explains how a group of gnomes led her around the park, showing her the natural features that they helped to maintain. This episode relates like an altered state of consciousness (see below) with the protagonist described as being ‘in a pensive mood’ prior to the experience, and perhaps liable to drift into a daydream state conducive to metaphysical visualisation. The second encounter happened in 1900 when a Mrs George “was passing Wollaton Park gates when she saw some little men dressed like policemen… They were smiling and looking very happy. They hadn’t any wings, and as far as I can remember they were between two and three feet in height.” It would seem that this particular park may be a significant place, where human consciousness interacts with something incorporeal if freed from the learned cultural constraints of reductionism.

Psychedelic Faeries

Such constraints can also be purposefully lifted by direct intervention into human states of consciousness – usually with the aid of a chemical agent. Most especially the psychedelic compounds tryptamines, phenethylamines and ergotamines reliably alter human consciousness and can enable it to interact with discarnate beings. There is a growing literature on this phenomenon, and it is clear that many of the psychedelically encountered entities can be classed ontologically as faeries. Terence McKenna was an enthusiastic advocate of these substances and wrote extensively about the landscapes and inhabitants of the otherworld invoked by mind-altering substances. He coined the term ‘self-transforming machine-elves’, to describe the entities that seemed to reside consistently in this chemically-induced world:

“Yes, first come the dancing mice, the little candies, the colored grids, and so-forth and so-on. But what eventually happens, quickly, like ten minutes later, is there is an entity in the trance, in the vision. There is a mind there, waiting, that speaks good English, and invites you up into its room… I come into a place. It’s hard to describe. It’s a feeling. And the content of the feeling is, ‘now the elves are near.’ But they won’t appear unless I invoke them… Trying to describe them isn’t easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jeweled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there’s a cheer! Pink Floyd has a song, The Gnomes Have Learned a New Way to Say Hooray. Then they come forward and tell you, ‘Do not give way to amazement. Do not abandon yourself.’ You’re amazingly astonished. The most conservative explanation for these elves, since these things are speaking English and are intelligent, is that they’re some kind of human beings. They’re obviously not like you and me, so they’re either the prenatal or postmortal phase of human existence, or maybe both.”

This quote is included in Jon Hanna‘s extensive 2012 survey of people who have contacted metaphysical entities while under the influence of a variety of psychedelics, most especially Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

‘Invaders’ by Naoto Hattori

Hanna’s survey, using experience reports from the website Erowid, found that 1,159 of 22,640 reports included mention of contact with entities or beings. A large proportion of these entities are what might be termed, ontologically, as faeries. Some of the reports chime with McKenna’s description of machine-elves, creatures that, while matching some of the qualities of folkloric faeries, often appeared mechanical and artificial. This might be another example of the faeries updating themselves to our cultural expectations; transforming themselves into a new technologically revised version of their former selves.

This certainly seems to have been the case in what remains the most rigorous study of entity contact by research participants injected with the potent psychoactive compound DMT. The research study was conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Dmt-The-Spirit-Molecule-Strassman-Rick-9781452601458Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman. It found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent physical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she described as ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not an hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy. Strassman published the results as DMT: The Spirit Molecule, and there is a 2010 documentary of the study, presented by Joe Rogan.

The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. It’s worth reading the book or watching the documentary to get the full range of what are incredible records of accessing very different realities. There is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants. Here is an abbreviated version of one of the volunteer’s description of his experience; 50 year old Jeremiah. After hurtling through a void he found himself:

“… in a nursery. A high-tech nursery with a single Gumby, three feet tall, attending me. I felt like an infant. Not a human infant, but an infant relative to the intelligence represented by the Gumby. It was aware of me but not particularly concerned… Then I heard two or three male voices talking. I heard one of them say “he’s arrived.” … I was in a big room… there was one big machine in the center, with round conduits, almost writhing – not like a snake, more in a technical manner. The machine felt as if it were rewiring me, reprogramming me… This is real. It’s totally unexpected, quite constant and objective… an independent, constant reality… I’m lucid and sober.”

In his 2011 review of the phenomenology and ontology of entities experienced on DMT, David Luke uses Strassman’s findings, but also expands the remit to include a wealth of other literature on the subject. Luke makes it clear that there seems to be an ubiquity of faerie-type creatures in the DMT-world: “Encounters with elves, gnomes, pixies, dwarfs, imps, goblins and other ‘little people’ (though clearly not human people), are extremely prevalent. Indeed on my first experience with DMT, unaware of virtually all lore associated with it, I found myself, eyes closed, being stuffed full of light by what I can only describe as little elves.”

But is it real? Building on a study carried out by Peter Meyer in 1994, Luke gets to the crux of the issue of psychedelically-induced faeries (and by extension all faerie encounters) and suggests there are three interpretations for what is happening:

  1. They are hallucinations. The entities are subjective hallucinations. Such a position is favoured by those taking a purely (materialist reductionist) neuropsychological approach to the phenomena.
  2. They are psychological/ transpersonal manifestations. The communicating entities appear alien but are actually unfamiliar aspects of ourselves, be they our reptilian brain or our cells, molecules or sub-atomic particles.
  3. The entities exist in otherworlds. DMT provides access to a true alternate dimension inhabited by independently existing intelligent entities in a stand-alone reality, which exists co-laterally with ours. The identity of the entities remains speculative.

Of course, all three interpretations may be true at different times, but whatever conclusions are drawn, there does appear to be a pantheon of faerie-types accessible to people who retune their consciousness with psychedelic compounds.

The Faeries as Aliens

These three explanations may apply equally to the most extreme examples of potential faerie acculturation – the consistently bizarre phenomenon of alien abductions. Whilst abductees are seldom reported as having taken any psychoactive substance, one hypothesis is that their experiences are generated by an endogenous increase of DMT in their brains. David Luke explains that the production of DMT in the body is speculated to occur through the conversion of the simpler molecule tryptophan into tryptamine and then into DMT, the tryptophan being available from the diet as an essential amino acid. Such bio-synthesis has been observed in plants and is speculated to occur in humans, but it remains unknown where, for certain, this bio-synthesis occurs. One hypothesis holds that DMT manufacture occurs at the pineal gland, but this remains unproven. Wherever it comes from, if released in larger amounts than usual, it may be the natural psychedelic that allows the abduction scenarios, which often show marked similarities to folkloric faerie encounters (usually labelled under the Aarne-Thompson motifs F.324 and F.329). The alien greys may be simply high-tech faeries, updated for our modern sci-fi tastes, and accessed via an altered state of consciousness.

1magonijaIndeed, in his 1969 book Passport to Magonia, the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée – whilst holding back on any definitive conclusions about the objective/subjective nature of alien abductions – put forward the theory that the alien beings who had been purportedly abducting people around the world for a couple of decades by that date were one and the same as the faeries of European folklore. 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. Vallée points out that Kirk’s descriptions of the faeries and their modus operandi bear more than a passing resemblance to the alien visitors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Amongst Kirk’s faerie attributes were an ability to float through the air with insubstantial and fluid bodies, that they could make appear and disappear at will. This allowed them to ‘swim’ through the air and carry off mortals, usually to large circular abodes, that Kirk presumed were underground, and which were lit by a dim, unknown illumination. They even had ‘ætheriall vehicles’ to carry them around the sky. Kirk also asserted that the faeries had a nature intermediate between humans and angels.

Their habit of abducting humans was usually for the purpose of wet-nursing faerie children or as midwives; a theme that fits in with the deluge of recent alien abduction reports (mostly unknown to Vallée in 1969) that would suggest one of the main reasons for abduction is to obtain wet-nurses for hybrid human-alien offspring. In 2005, Graham Hancock followed Vallée’s lead and took the comparison of faerie and alien abduction much further in his book Supernatural. He compiled a range of faerie folklore from various time periods and geographical locations and set them against modern-day alien abduction events. He pays special attention to the faerie abduction of young women, such as Mrs Sheridan, an Irish woman, who seems to have spent much of the last decade of the 19th century being whisked off by the fairies for wet-nursing duties:

“Where they brought me I don’t know, or how I got there, but I’d be in a very big house, and it was round, the walls far away that you’d hardly see them, and a great many faeries all about… but they wouldn’t speak to me nor I to them.”

These ‘long-faced’ faeries had a definite purpose for kidnapping her and weren’t too concerned with her tearful appeals to release her – she had a job to do, and that was feeding their faerie babies. The correlation between these types of folkloric encounters and the modern alien abductions of women is striking. Hancock surveys the work of the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack and the cultural historian David Jacobs, who have made extensive studies of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, often using ALIEN-3hypnotic techniques to extract memories from amnesic events. It’s a minefield subject, but John Mack in particular is a convincing advocate of the notion that whatever the experiences represent, they are genuinely real to the participant. One common motif involves the abductee, after being floated or beamed aboard the UFO, being taken to a part of the ship where there seem to be drawers or tanks of hybrid alien-human babies, which they are expected to nurse. There is a consistency to these experiences (there are thousands of them) that provides a dataset of testimony that Mack and Jacobs insist must be taken seriously as a phenomenon. For the abductees, the experience is often highly traumatic (Mack states that the best psychiatric diagnosis for many abductees is post-traumatic stress disorder), and no wonder, when they are confronted with alien hybrids often described as more like foetuses than babies. One abductee described to Mack their appearance, which is fairly typical: “Their bodies were short for their heads. Their heads seemed oversized. They had very blue eyes. They had very thin, wispy hair… I would say they were probably three and a half feet tall, but they all looked the same age. ‘You’re our mother and we need you,’ they said.”

The evidence presented by Vallée and Hancock makes a convincing argument for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Once again, the encounters are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and suggest the possibility of a common source for the phenomena, however the participants arrive at their experience.

The Faeries as Nature Spirits

Alien abductions are most often terrifying experiences for the participants, and do correlate with some of the more malicious episodes in faerie folklore. But modern faerie contact can take an altogether more benign and constructive form when the faeries are engaged as nature spirits. There is a long tradition of the faeries representing non-material forces of nature, essential to the propagation of nature. The 15th-century alchemist Paracelsus developed an epistemology of these beings, but it was not until the incorporation of these ideas through the Theosophist movement in the late 19th century that the concept of a metaphysical realm responsible for the wellbeing of the natural world gained a wider understanding. One of the prime-disseminators of the nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. Once again, this was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:

“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, Perception of the Elemental World (1913).

Steiner goes on to describe the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world when perceived clairvoyantly in what he calls the Supersensible World. The elementals in the Supersensible World exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of vegetation. Steiner (basing his epistemology on that of Paracelsus) divides these into four main types corresponding to earth (Gnomic), water (Undines), air (Sylphs) and heat/light (Salamanders). This is the faerie realm, existing as a non-material autonomous reality that crosses over with ours, and which can be accessed via a clairvoyant altered state of consciousness. Steiner thought everyone has this innate ability, but they had to be taught how to use it… it had somehow become almost forgotten amongst humanity.

Ylenia Viola – ‘Spring Awakening’ Fairytalesneverdie.com

But Steiner’s vision of the faeries as nature spirits has found many adherents in modern times, and a brief perusal of recent literature and websites devoted to the faeries seems to confirm that a majority of people interacting with these entities do so using some form of clairvoyant ability, and that when they do, the faeries are nature spirits. A good example is Marko Pogačnik, a Slovenian artist and ‘earth healer’, who travels the world to connect with the nature spirits, in order to communicate with them and heal damaged landscapes. His overview of how he works with the intelligence in nature is best found in his 1996 publication Nature Spirits and Elemental Beings, where he describes tuning into the morphogenetic fields surrounding landscapes and individual components within them. One of the ways he heals these landscapes is through what he calls lithopuncture, art installations of standing stones, meant to act upon the earth in the same way as acupuncture works on the human (or animal) body. This links us clearly to prehistoric morphological designs, such as stone circles and rows. Marko suggests that our prehistoric ancestors were full-time collaborators with the nature spirits, and were using their own lithopuncture partly to induce harmony and regulation to their surrounding environments. Post-industrial ignorance of the invisible intelligence in nature has created a disconnection with natural landscapes, much to the detriment of all life and the earth’s biosphere itself:

“The rational scientific paradigm has, during the last two centuries, imposed upon humanity a pattern of ignorance towards those beings and dimensions of life that do not know physical appearance and yet are inevitable for life processes to run and to evolve. My effort as an artist and a human being is to get intimate experience of those invisible dimensions and beings, and share the experience and knowledge about the invisible worlds of Earth and Universe with my fellow human beings to change that extremely dangerous pattern that ignores the sources of life itself.”

Pogačnik’s meditative clairvoyance penetrates the materiality of nature and sees what is happening at a metaphysical level; a level where the elementals appear in a vast variety of forms, but usually adhering to the general forms outlined by Steiner. Pogačnik’s incisive, easy and honest style of description allows for a deep insight into the cosmic reality of the mechanisms of interaction with these faerie nature spirits. He describes how seemingly innocuous changes to the natural environment can cause a potentially negative impact on the elementals who constitute the metaphysical aspect of that environment. His natural clairvoyant abilities enable him to contact the faeries and to resolve issues with them – even something as simple as moving a compost heap in a garden might force the elemental inhabiters of the compost to an unfamiliar environment, where they might cause mischief as a reaction to their perceived persecution. He suggests that these beings of a different order are unable to follow our rationalised thinking: “Their consciousness works on the emotional level. They think the way we feel, and the opposite is also true: our mental level is like a foreign language to them.”

Marko Pogačnik’s rendering of some unhappy fire spirit faeries (salamanders) displaced to the top of an apple tree from their compost heap

Like Steiner, Pogačnik suggests that all humans have the congenital ability to enter a state of consciousness that will allow interaction with the nature spirits, but that this requires a lowering of the mental threshold. If we want faerie interaction our ingrained reductionist belief system needs to be dissolved or suppressed, and we must enter a meditative state, free from the usual intrusions of normal rational thinking. Perhaps one reason why it is children who so often see and interact with faeries is that this rationality is as yet not fully formed and ingrained; their consciousness is simply more able and prone to slip into a daydream state, where there is less separation between the physical and the metaphysical.

Locating Modern Faeries

It would seem that modern faeries are potentially as diverse as their historic folkloric counterparts. They have survived the downgrading into harmless children’s fables and re-emerged in a variety of forms that continue to defy straightforward explanations or interpretations. Indeed, there is the possibility that there is a straight evolutionary line from the supernatural entities decorating prehistoric caves to the abstruse creatures that make up the modern folklore of alien abductions. This apparent acculturation of the faeries over time might be put down to the development of our own psychogenetic outlook, or it may be predicated on them adapting to us, if they constitute part of a stand-alone metaphysical reality.

This brings us back to Meyer and Luke’s three-part interpretation of what these discarnate entities might represent: subjective hallucinations, transpersonal psychological manifestations, or otherworldly beings interacting with our own material reality on their own terms. It would seem we are unlikely to come to a definitive conclusion about what they really are any time soon; the faeries continue to elude us, remaining, as they have always done, on the liminal bounds of human consciousness, sometimes frightening, sometimes enlightening, but never leaving us alone.


For discussion and dialogue on the phenomenology of modern faeries, readers might be interested in visiting the Facebook page Modern Fairy Sightings.

Terence McKenna’s ‘Self-Transforming Machine Elf’