Paracelsus, Nature Spirits and Faeries

There is a long tradition of metaphysical entities becoming manifest in our consensus reality as distinctive attributes of nature. They interact with the material world but they are never fully consolidated within it. They are deemed essential to the propagation of nature but their presence remains supernatural and beyond the bounds of relativistic inquiry. They are usually termed nature spirits, or sometimes elementals, and while they are frequently equated with the faeries of folklore there is a disparity between these classes of beings, which has, however, become increasingly enmeshed, to the point where they are often seen as the same thing. Are they the same thing? Are nature spirits faeries and vice versa? This post investigates the, sometimes complex, entanglements of these metaphysical entities beginning with the 16th-century progenitor of the concept of nature spirits: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more often (and conveniently) known as Paracelsus.

Paracelsus and Nature Spirits

Paracelsus was born in 1494 in the district of Einsiedeln, in what is now Switzerland. He trained as a physician, specialising in chemistry, but also incorporated astrology into his practice (as did the majority of Renaissance physicians), and produced several volumes investigating what he called the alchemical catechism. In fact, he produced an enormous body of work (most of it published posthumously) ranging from philosophy to toxicological treatises, which had much influence on post-Renaissance thought, from medicine to spiritual traditions such as Rosicrucianism. While some of his philosophical works touch on the subject of metaphysical nature spirits, it is in the volume Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris, et Gigantibus etc. (1566) where he treats the subject in detail, and sets the blueprint for what were to be later termed elementals.

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Paracelsus drew on Greek and Roman mythologies, which suggested the metaphysical world interacted with the physical world via the four Empedoclean elements of water, earth, air and fire. But his classification of the entities that made up the interaction went much further than his classical sources, and he designated particular attributes to them as well as new names. The title of the volume is somewhat misleading in this respect, probably due to the need of the publisher to apply classical appellations to attract an educated readership. In the body of the work Paracelsus consistently applies the following names to describe supernatural nature spirits, which were able to manifest within physical reality: Undines (water), Gnomes (earth), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire). Each nature spirit was only able to operate within its own element, but their presence in these elements was essential to the continuation of the physical world. They were the underlying metaphysical reality, which enabled our own to exist. In order to make this palatable Paracelsus ascribed human-like characteristics to these entities: “They are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb like we who are from Adam.” They were supernatural, with the ability to live in environments in which humans would not survive, but under the right circumstances (Paracelsus describes these circumstances as ‘when we see naturally’) they could interact with humanity and even form relationships with humans – an important point explored below. He was also keen to iterate that these beings were created by God as guardians of nature. Paracelsus was twice accused of sorcery for his beliefs (although never tried in an ecclesiastical court) and he was on thin ice when discussing entities that would customarily be seen by the 16th-century Church as nothing more than demons. So he encapsulated the nature spirits within a Christian epistemology, even though they had no doctrinal credence. He reinforced this by suggesting they had no souls and could only be redeemed by being brought into the human world and accepting Christianity. But the tenor of his thesis implies this was a cover to make his concept of an overriding spirituality to nature acceptable. Paracelsus was importing pagan metaphysics into a Christian world, but he was pragmatic enough to realise this needed to be coded to the prevailing 16th-century Christian worldview.

The Influence of Paracelsus on the Rosicrucian and Theosophical Movements

Most of Paracelsus’ alchemical works only gained traction after his death in 1541, as they began to be published from the 1560s. Perhaps most crucial was the influence of his ideas on the Rosicrucian Order, which originated between 1614-17 and promulgated a wide range of esoteric and occult mysticism, which followers claimed to be based on an ancient and hidden tradition. One of the core tenets of Rosicrucianism was that through alchemical techniques (including the purging of eyes with a Panacea) the unseen spiritual world could be made manifest in the material world to the benefit of humanity. The Rosicrucian spiritual world was made up from a range of ‘Nature Forces’, which existed in an extra dimension but which were fundamental to all life on earth. Among these were the metaphysical representatives of the Empedoclean elements, as described by Paracelsus. By the 18th century these ideas had seeped out from Rosicrucianism into general occultism, so that influential writers on alchemy such as George von Welling, felt able to use the exact terminology of Paracelsus to describe nature spirits who lived beside us unseen and non-physical, but were responsible for the propagation and wellbeing of the natural world in his Opus Magocabalisticum et Theosophicum (1719). Many of these concepts of elemental nature spirits were collected and expanded on by Max Heindel in his 1909 book The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (with an annexed treatise Nature Spirits and Nature Forces), which contains perhaps the fullest description of the cosmology of nature spirits from a Rosicrucianesque perspective. His linguistic style rides on his Rosicrucian predecessors:

“With respect to the consciousness of the ELEMENTALS OR NATURE SPIRITS, it is quite correct to assume that they have what may be called a fourth dimensional consciousness, for in addition to the height, width, and depth which are the dimensions of space in the physical world, there is what we may call “thoroughness” in the ethers. With the etheric sight you may look into a mountain and if you have an etheric body such as the nature spirits possess, you may also walk through the hardest granite rock. It will offer no more obstruction than the air does to our progress here. But even among nature spirits there are different entities and a corresponding variation of consciousness. The bodies of the gnomes are made of the chemical ether principally and therefore they are of the earth earthy; that is, one never sees them fly about as do the sylphs. They can be burned in fire. They also grow old in a manner not so greatly different from human beings. The undines which live in the water and the sylphs of the air are also subject to mortality, but their bodies being composed of the life and light ethers respectively, make them much more enduring, so that while it is stated that the gnomes do not live more than a few hundred years, the undines and sylphs are said to live for thousands, and the salamanders whose bodies are principally built of the fourth ether are said to live many thousands of years. The CONSCIOUSNESS, which builds and ensouls these bodies, however, belongs to a number of divine hierarchs who are gaining additional experience in that manner; and the FORMS which are built of matter and thus ensouled have attained a degree of self-consciousness.”

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‘The Rosicrucian Order’ by John Augustus Knapp (1853-1938)

The natural inheritors of Paracelsus’ ideas and Rosicrucian alchemy were those involved in the Theosophist movement (founded in 1875). This movement suffered from various schisms during its early years, but its followers remained consistent in their mystical doctrine of the need to practice unmediated contact with nature, where divinity was to be found. Aspects of theosophy may perhaps be seen as contingent to Animism and panpsychism, where the natural world is deemed alive and conscious at every level. This ‘natural consciousness’ was responsible for the continued wellbeing of the biosphere and could be communicated with by humans when their consciousness was correctly attuned. Indeed, a main tenet of theosophy is that this communication is essential to the health of the natural world, and that the interaction point for humans is with the metaphysical representatives of nature: the elementals. The theosophical nature spirits/elementals are non-material but, as with Paracelsus’ alchemical catechism, they can manifest within consensus material reality when certain conditions are met.

One of the prime-disseminators of the theosophist 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. 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).

NatureSpiritsSteiner 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/elementals charged with the maintenance of local biosystems. Steiner uses Paracelsus’ terms for these elementals: Gnomes (earth), Undines (water), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire), in order to integrate specific supernatural characters (who had clearly defined tasks relative to their element) into the natural world. He (and Theosophists in general) were integrating a 400-year old alchemical philosophy into a new way of interacting with nature; one that involved entities that could only be recognised through attaining an altered state of consciousness (clairvoyance).

Such Theosophist doctrines continue to the present day, sometimes morphing into occult philosophies and practices, which may view nature spirits as fundamental attributes to a worldview based on respect for nature and a connection to metaphysical belief systems. This is a broad church and includes a variety of pagan, animistic, mystic, esoteric and philosophical strains, but there remains in all a recognition of a force in nature, which can sometimes make itself known in the forms of recognisable supernatural entities. These forms still often manifest as the nature spirits described by Paracelsus, most particularly in the chthonic guise of gnomes and ephemeral air-borne sylphs. There is evidently a deep-set recognition of these entities in our cultural consciousness. But are they faeries? Are faeries and nature spirits part of the same cultural tradition and (more importantly) are they emanating from the same metaphysical place?

Faeries vs Nature Spirits

There is certainly an ontological gap between the faeries found in folklore and the elemental nature spirits described by Paracelsus, Theosophists and modern occultism. While traditional folkloric faeries are often found in natural surroundings, they do not appear to be propagators of nature. The faeries can be kind to humans, and sometimes require our help, but their role is more often ambivalent or even malicious. While nature spirits are sometimes held responsible for adverse weather events or vegetation failure, they are usually deemed benign benefactors of the natural environment – either equivocal to humanity or in lockstep with us; at least those of us who respect and believe in them.

But the differences are perhaps more cultural semantics than epistemological. Paracelsus relates several (allegoric) stories of Undines being enabled to leave their water element in order to marry humans. These trysts always end badly, which put them in the same category as the folklore of lake faeries, where a supernatural entity used to existing in a watery environment is persuaded to join with a mortal, only for the relationship to end when a taboo is broken. Undines are humanoids – lake faeries are humanoids. The stories told about their behaviour contain the same motifs and the ontological gap between them seems narrow. Likewise, gnomic entities have long since become mainstays of faerie folklore, as described by John McVan: “Following their conception in Renaissance alchemical theory, gnomes became a popular subject of 18th-century fairy tales and romanticism, their traits often changing to suit the needs of the writer but their short stature and close association with the earth and underground generally remaining consistent.” While a theosophical viewpoint may see gnomes as an anthropomorphised agent of the natural environment (in this case the elements of earth and minerals), their generally consistent appearance and behaviour through a long time period makes them appear much the same as the descriptions of many folkloric faeries. Their archaic clothing, diminutive stature, a tendency to distrust humans, and their proclivity for living in underground environments are all indistinguishable from recognised faerie appearance, behaviour and story motifs.

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‘Elementals’ by Josephine Wall

Perhaps most interesting are the sylphs. As nature spirits, described by Paracelsus, they are aerial entities responsible for pollination and the cultivation of vegetation as it transitions from earth to air. Their form finds description in Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, written 150 years after Paracelsus, where Kirk attempts to convey the ability of faeries to move through the air: “Their chamælion-lyke bodies swim in the air near the Earth.” Neither Paracelsus nor Kirk suggested these entities had wings, but from the 18th century (perhaps earlier) the imagery of faeries with wings took hold in both literature and art until by the late 19th century a flying sylph or faerie were indistinguishable and accepted as one and the same thing. Once JM Barrie introduced Tinkerbell into the cultural zeitgeist in his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, aerial, winged faeries became the predominant form of the phenomenon. Barrie even describes Tinkerbell as a sylph. This had much cultural influence. Whatever the metaphysical components of the elemental sylphs and flying faeries, through the 20th century they were culturally integrated as the same thing. This cultural integration is important; because however we may attempt to differentiate faeries from nature spirits (in all their forms), they appear to be coming from the same place; a place that can be tapped into and experienced when certain conditions are met within our consciousness. Whether folkloric characters or alchemical manifestations they are supernatural entities that somehow find their way into our consensus reality and are culturally coded accordingly. They have done this for a very long time, and our conception of them as a phenomenon has perhaps evolved to a stage where now semantic differentiation and classification is less important than discovering the source of their existence and how (in true alchemical convention) their apparently non-physical forms can interact with the physical world.

A Modern Perspective

In the 2017 Fairy Census conducted by the Fairy Investigation Society, the most common explanation of respondents (of those who offered an explanation) to their experiences of interacting with faeries was that they were some form of nature spirit. There is not a single example of these respondents questioning their encounter as anything but a faerie experience, even though their descriptions tally more with nature elementals rather than folkloric faeries. This suggests, at least in popular culture, that numinous experiences with supernatural humanoid entities have come to be considered, to a majority extent, faerie encounters. And in many reports the entities could be straight out of either a traditional folkloric anecdote or a theosophist description of an elemental, as in report #18, from a woman who was in her teens during a family holiday in Cornwall, UK, in the 1970s:

“I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters… when I saw a gnome sitting by the side of the path. It was so unexpected; I think I remember feeling scared – or wondering if I was seeing things or going mad? I took another couple of steps and I saw his nut brown wizened face in detail. He was cheekily grinning at me. He had a mossy brown beard and dark brown shining eyes; he was wearing a peaked hat (brown) and a shiny jacket and trousers in shades of brown and ochre. I’d say he was about twelve- to fourteen-inches tall. I (literally) could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed (dumbstruck is apt here) to turn around and tell my family to ‘look at the gnome’ by the path. Then the gnome cocked his head (again, cheekily), turned his back on me and kind of changed/melted (transmogrified?) into an old tree stump.”

An American woman, who experienced faerie beings while on a student exchange visit in Sussex, UK, articulated an important view of what these entities might be, which correlates with many of the respondents, while also bringing some Eastern mysticism to the table:

“[Fairies are] nature spirits. [Fairies] could be tulpas that manifest with group consciousness. When you dwell on them in thought, they will manifest. They are protectors of the earth and remind us that there is more to our plane of existence than just physical.” (Report #128).

To ‘dwell on them in thought’ mirrors the intentionality of Paracelsus’ alchemy, Rosicrucian ideas and Steiner’s brand of theosophy. The thought can, of course, only originate in human consciousness – consciousness that is culturally coded and, when altered from its usual view of consensus reality, may tap into non-usual states. The entities that consciousness experiences in these states will, nevertheless, be informed by personal and cultural memory. Many of the census reports describe winged faeries. As discussed, this particular faerie/elemental archetype has become deeply embedded in our culture for well over a hundred years, even though it has no folkloric precedence and does not adhere to any historic epistemological classification of nature spirits. But for over a century, winged, Tinkerbell-like, faeries have become a dynamic cultural trope. When, for whatever reason, a person becomes able to see or interact with non-physical entities, there appears to be a good chance they may experience faeries/nature spirits as the winged sylphs so ubiquitous in our culture.

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‘Nature Faeries’ by Brian Froud

If we accept these types of testimonies as genuine experiences with something supernatural it would seem as if what is being manifested in these encounters is from a collective experience. Carl Jung’s theory of a Collective Unconscious is a starting point for understanding that perhaps these numinous encounters with supernatural entities are actually individual human consciousnesses plugging into the totality of human existence. The totality is represented by archetypes, which are present in many fairy-tales, but which also appear in dreams and altered states of consciousness, where the individual is in the presence of the collective. The (non-physical) entities residing in the collective (un)consciousness make themselves known as faeries or nature spirits depending on the cultural expectations of the experiencer. They might be the ambivalent characters of folklore, benign propagators of nature, or winged Tinkerbells. Their appearance and purpose will depend on the observer and their particular cultural, psychological, philosophical and spiritual backdrop.

Jung’s Collective Unconscious is adapted and expanded in the theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:

346529“Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.”

Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is an overall lifeforce acting as (what he terms) the memory of nature: human, animal, vegetable and mineral. This memory may be what manifests itself in anthropogenic form as faeries or nature spirits when we are in a state of consciousness to experience it via our cultural lenses. Sheldrake’s theorem finds resonance in animism and panpsychism (where everything is alive with consciousness) as well as a wide diaspora of environmental spiritual movements and occultism. But his idea of a metaphysical memory takes things one step further. It allows for the prospect of us remembering the collective of existence. When this remembering happens, we are liable to enter a state of consciousness where reside a myriad of entities, who we encounter in forms to suit our cultural and psychological expectations. They may be gnarled faeries dressed up in 18th-century garb and beckoning us to dance with them in a circle, elementals ensuring the propagation of the soil and flora, or fluttering Tinkerbells. They may have even morphed into grey aliens to meet our sci-fi sensibilities. But whatever they are, they would appear to be coming from the same place, deep inside our collective consciousness and nature’s memory – places we seem to be able to tap into when circumstances allow. Faeries and nature spirits may or may not be the same phenomenon, but they are both non-physical entities, and so it is perhaps logical to attempt to understand them via the only non-physical thing we know to exist definitively: consciousness.

Edmund Siderius provides a detailed assessment of Paracelsus’ incorporation of nature spirits into his philosophical/alchemical writings in his 2011 article: Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals.

The cover image is by Fi Bowman, and was produced for the book Mermaids, Sylphs, Gnomes, and Salamanders: Dialogues with the Kings and Queens of Nature by William R Mistele.

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.

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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).

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‘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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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Terence McKenna’s ‘Self-Transforming Machine Elf’

The Origins of the Faeries

The website Ancient Origins have been kind enough to add me as a guest author. Below is a link to a new article The Origins of the Faeries.

The faeries appear in folklore from all over the world as metaphysical beings, who, given the right conditions, are able to interact with the physical world. They’re known by many names but there is a conformity to what they represent, and perhaps also to their origins. From the Huldufólk in Iceland to the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland, and the Manitou of Native Americans, these are apparently intelligent entities that live unseen beside us, until their occasional manifestations in this world become encoded into our cultures through folktales, anecdotes and testimonies. In his 1691 treatise on the faeries of Aberfoyle, Scotland, the Reverend Robert Kirk suggested they represented a Secret Commonwealth, living in a parallel reality to ours, with a civilization and morals of their own, only visible to seers and clairvoyants. His assessment fits well with both folktale motifs, and some modern theories about their ancient origins and how they have permeated the collective human consciousness. So who are the faeries, where do they come from, and what do they want?

Here are the article links:

Part 1 – The Origins of the Faeries: Encoded in Culture

Part 2 – The Origins of the Faeries: Changes in Perception

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