Enchanted gardens (with fairies at the bottom)


Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery

I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London.  The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’  but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial  paean to English garden paradises.

Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see.  They were much larger than I might have anticipated.  There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.


Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894

The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades.  This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare.  In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens.  They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.

Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.

Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move.  English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth.  It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”

“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”

American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise.  Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.

“… we came unto a garden,

Bright within a gloomy forest…

And I saw, as we grew nearer,

That the flowers so blue and golden

Were but little men and women,

Who amongst the green did shine.

But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance

Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”

Symons, Mark Lancelot, 1887-1935; Jorinda and Jorindal

Mark Symons, Jorinda and Joringel, Reading art gallery

‘Planes, trains and automobiles’- fairies and transport


“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”

(‘From a railway carriage‘ by Robert Louis Stevenson)

This posting may seem bizarre to many readers.  Industrialisation and modern technology are normally assumed to be entirely at odds with the rural world of the fairies as we generally conceive them.  To a large extent, of course, this is perfectly true- and yet, we know they are craftspeople and they have their industries: they are metal workers, they are builders, there are fairy spinners and weavers.  There isn’t a complete contradiction between Faery and mechanics and production.

Our folklore evidence as well as more recent sightings suggest that fairies have a variety of ways of getting around.  We may assume that they fly or use magic all the time, but it seems not.  They have also been spotted in horse-drawn coaches, traps, caravans and carts as well as riding ponies and even deer (see for example Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies pp.35, 55, 64 & 251 or Fairy Census, numbers 29, 38 & 177).

Railways, though? What need have they of the speed of trains when the fays can fly?  These are perfectly valid points.  Equally, we have heard of them fleeing the noise and clamour of the human world, whether that is church bells (for which stories come from Exmoor and Worcestershire) and the noise of a factory- from the Isle of Man there is an account of the island fairies seen fleeing the new steam mill built at Colby for the continued solitude and silence of the glens and mountains.  A ploughman heard a “low, pathetic, forlorn moaning” and saw waves of the little folk heading up the hillside with their possessions on their backs.

Likewise, the railways: describing the island for his Practical guide of 1874, Henry Irwin Jenkinson admitted that belief in the Manx fairies was dying out under the assault of the education and rationalism of the younger generation.  Worse still, he wrote:

“Now there are railways and the island is overrun with tourists every summer, the last haunts of the good people will be invaded and they will have to move elsewhere.” (p.75).

The fear of modern mechanised transport expelling the supernatural residents was in fact expressed as early as the 1840s, when a correspondent of Notes and Queries had worried that railway engines would drive fairies far away from “Merry England.” (vol.9, 1860, p.259)

Yet, we also have this bizarre story: in the south of the island, a man reported sighting fairies operating a railway- before the first track had even been laid on Man, which was as late as 1873.

“There was a man from Santon told me last night that an uncle of his used to see the fairies very often, while he was alive, and knew a great deal about them. He was often telling the people about the railway line, more than 20 years before anyone thought about it. He was seeing the fairies very often practising on it in the moonlight, and he could point out where the line was to be, as he was seeing fairy trains going along so often… The man said the railway line was made on the very spot he told them, more than 20 years before it was proposed.”

In isolation, this story seems to make no sense at all.  However, the same man went on to say that his uncle was able to predict how good the fishing season would be according to the types of fairy he saw in and around his home.  Now, this link between seeing fairies and predicting the future is not new.  Other examples from the Isle of Man include mock funeral processions, which would foretell a death, and fairy baptisms, which will indicate the sex of an expected baby.  In this context, although the apparition was a long time in advance of the event portrayed, it was completely not out of the ordinary for fairy behaviour.

Further, the involvement of the fays with mechanical transport is a trend that has begun to emerge in the more recent reports of sightings.  Obviously, fairies need neither planes, nor trains, nor automobiles to be able to fly or to travel around, but they seem to have some partiality to showing themselves to us with our modern technology.  Most famous is the ‘Wollaton incident’ in Nottingham in 1979 when a number of little men were seen driving around a park in hovering cars.  Unique as it is in many respects, the sighting is not alone.  A small girl and her sisters in Cornwall in the 1940s were woken one night by a buzzing sound.  Looking out of her bedroom window, they  saw a small gnome-like man driving a tiny red car in circles.  In 1929 two children under ten living in Hertford witnessed a fairy flying a biplane over their garden (see Janet Bord, Fairies, pp.73-76).

As well as motor vehicles, there appears to be a developing fairy fascination with machinery.  Marjorie Johnson records cases of fairies drawn to type-writers and sewing machines, as well as an incident when some ‘leprechauns’ diagnosed a fault in a bus engine (Seeing fairies pp.101 & 322-2).  Fairies have also been seen by train passengers, on the platform or keeping pace with the train itself (Census numbers 169 & 456), and by those in cars, when again the fays fly alongside the vehicle (Census numbers 105 & 213).

All this suggests that, just as fairy magic can be fascinating for us, the wonder of humans’ technical marvels may be just as intriguing for them.

Further reading

Simon Young, editor of the Fairy census and of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, has also discussed this subject in a paper available online through Academia.


A glimpse of modernity in the background of Edward Hopley’s Puck and the moth (c.1853)


Anti-Paracelsus- the man who messed up Faery?


Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer.  He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541.  He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.

What’s in a name?

Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man.  There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition.  Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus.  Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’  In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs.  Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies.  To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’

I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man.  He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless.  In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books.  Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books).  I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.


Katharine Mary Briggs

If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue.  It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material.  She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had.  In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.

The four elementals

Back to the great Paracelsus.  In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.

Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’  Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that.  The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain.  In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.

According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental .  He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis.  There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins).  Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus.  The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling).  Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”

Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits.  They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve.  They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither.  They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.

The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects.  Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us.  They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die.  The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds.  Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative.  They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws.  They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons.  They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls.  Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.

Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail.  The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools.  The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit.  They are shy and fugitive.  Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean.  They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.

Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect.  We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money.  They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans.  The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them.  They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element.  Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.

The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature.  Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.”   They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.

That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances.  Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom.  Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus.  What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.


Pixies and pygmies

Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him.  Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.

Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold.  Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome.  He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them.  Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.

Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore.  Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.

undine 1909

Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909

Paracelsus and folk tradition

Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends.  British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:

“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,

“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)

Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.

There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote.  He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure.  His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).

As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes.  This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there.  Gnomes are one example of this.  As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar.  The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrickdenoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.

The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them.  As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore.  The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.


Charles M Russell, Wood nymph

Paracelsus’ legacy

The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously.  It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief.  In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material.  Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.

Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this.  He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy).  He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing.  In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.

Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals.  They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology).  It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited).  Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them.  I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.

Praise for Paracelsus?

Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis?  It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.

One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature.  As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted.  For many writers, it is close to being their principle function.  As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.”  This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.

However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem.  This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas.  He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.

Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this.  The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.

Further Reading

I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerieon Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.

Dances with elves

walter jenks morgan, where rural fays and fairies dwell

Walter Jenks Morgan, Where rural elves and fairies dwell

“Following the footsteps
Of a rag doll dance
We are entranced

Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1981

We all know that fairies love dancing.  They have regularly been seen, dancing in meadows, glades, buildings and at wells.  Literary authority Minor White Latham even goes so far as to say that dancing “amounted almost to a natural means of locomotion” for them (Elizabethan fairies, p.100).  Fairy dances are known too as a primary way in which humans are enticed into fairyland and become lost to the mortal world.  In this posting, I want to examine why humans seem to fall again and again for the trick and what the consequences of this gullibility may be for them.

All reports agree that fairies are enthusiastic and talented dancers.  That being the case, people were often drawn inexorably to watch them.  There are several accounts from Wales indicating that a recognised community pastime was to go to see the tylwyth teg dancing.  For example, after Sunday evening service at the church at Corwrion, near Bethesda, members of the congregation would go to a place called Pen y Bonc to mingle with the fairies as they danced.  The same was the case around Llanberis, Penmachno and Beddgelert, although it was acknowledged that getting too close was risky.

The peril to be guarded against was being drawn into the dancing circle.  We know that fairy music in itself can be bewitching; combined with dancing in which you can also participate, it can be nigh on irresistible- and the sensation was addictive.  Edward Jones of Pencwm, Llanrhystid, one night saw a fairy dance on Trichrug Hill.  He described how “he felt his feet lifted up and his body light.”  A farmer living at Llwyn On in Nant y Bettws came across the tylwyth teg dancing in a meadow at Cwellyn Lake.  He found that

“little by little he was led on by the enchanting sweetness of their music, and the liveliness of their playing, until he had got with their circle.  Soon, some kind of spell passed over him so that he lost his knowledge of the place and found himself in a country, the most beautiful he’d ever seen, where everybody spent their time in mirth and rejoicing.  He had been there seven years, but it seemed but a night’s dream…”

Little wonder then that dancers can be seduced away and never return.

These are the joys of elvish dancing.  Given what we know about faerie, we must expect there to be woes- and there are.  As the previous passage has already implied, the differential passage of time in Faerie and the mortal world can be one of the most serious problems for the dancer.  Here are just a handful of examples of a very widely reported issue.

  • A Scottish man taken into a dance under a hill was rescued a year and a day later, but he thought he was still dancing his first dance. He was only convinced of the length of his absence by seeing how his clothes had been rubbed to rags by the barrel of whisky he’d been carrying on his shoulder.  In a comparable story from Bruan near Wick the man was only convinced of the duration of his absence by seeing how his baby had grown into a toddler.  Likewise, a Welsh dancer was baffled how his brand-new shoes had been worn away;
  • Two brothers from Strathspey heard fairy music from a sithean, a fairy hill. One wanted to enter, the other did not.  The one who joined the dance was lost and his brother was only able to rescue him a year and day later, protected by a rowan cross on his clothes.  The dancer thought he’d stayed only half an hour or a single reel;
  • two men on the Isle of Man joined a fairy dance in a house.  After a while one went outside to relieve himself against the wall of the cottage; it instantly disappeared- along with his companion inside- and he was only rescued seven years later, at which point he complained about having to go home so soon;
  • A man from Haven near Pembridge in Herefordshire was lost for twenty-three years in a fairy ring- but thought it just minutes; and,
  • A Perthshire man rescued after a year and a day declared he’d only had a single dance and was not yet tired. When he got outside the fairy hill, he collapsed with exhaustion.  A Welsh man who was rescued was reduced to a mere skeleton, but immediately asked after the lost cow he’d set out to find a year before.

As will also be apparent from these accounts, getting away is no simple matter either.  Friends and relatives will need determination and patience to recover the lost dancer.  Precise timing is essential; often the rescue must be effected a year and a day exactly after the disappearance and the rescuer must be protected so that he isn’t also taken: iron or some other magical material will be needed to stop the fairies seizing the person or sealing them within the fairy hill.  Other precautions include pages from the Bible sewn into the clothes and the ensuring that only one foot is put into the circle of the dance.  The fairies will resist strongly, so more than one helper may be needed to pull the victim out of the circle.

For many of those who return from the dance, there is a double disappointment of resumption of their everyday life after the heady pleasure of fairyland and, quite often, the shock of losses that have occurred whilst they have been away: parents may have died, loved ones may have married someone else.  Thus Scottish writer James Cririe captured the allure and the terror in his 1803 book, Scottish scenery:

“At times, around and on that verdant hill,/ If common fame in ought can be believed,/ What fairy forms illusive mock the eye,/ In airy rings alternate lost and seen./ All robed in green, they mix and sportive weave,/ The mazy dance to music’s melting sound;/ Their tiny forms seen by the silent moon/ With wonder fill the gazing swain aghast/ While fear with sweat his shaking limbs bedews,/ Lest chang’d his form and carried far away to distant climes or to fairy halls.”

yorinda and yoringel in the witch's wood, duncan

John Duncan, Yorinda and Yoringel in the witches’ wood

“Ray of light”- Tinkerbell and luminous fairies

dame-autumn-hath-a-mournful-face-1871 grimshaw

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Dame Autumn hath a mournful face, 1871

Ever since Peter Pan appeared on the stage in 1904, the idea of fairies as flitting points of light has been fixed in the popular imagination.  This post looks at the facts and the fiction of these perceptions of faery.


In contrast to her theatrical representation, in his book of the story of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie imagined Tinkerbell as a full physical creature. For example, she is described as being-

“exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.

Tink is very evidently not just solid- she’s sexy, she’s sexual and she’s possessive.

However, in the stage-play the fairy was reduced to a flickering light and a tinkle of bells.  The light “darts about” using language that is variously furious, acerbic, shrill and impudent- we are told.  But it all sounds the same to us; Tinkerbell is a presence that can hardly be seen and barely understood except through the mediation of Peter.

This image of a flickering light caught hold though, despite its insubstantial nature, and is noticeably strong in the evidence of contemporary witnesses.

Grimshaw iris

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Iris.

Traditional fays

Is this all Barrie’s fault and invention, though?  By and large, traditional sightings don’t have much to say about glowing lights- except for the will o’the wisp, who was nothing but a flitting light.  These fairy apparitions have only one purpose, though, to lure travellers out of their way into bogs and mires; they are not fully rounded characters like Tink and most faeries.  Nevertheless, despite the paucity of evidence, there is an interesting report from Dartmoor published in 1876 which describes the pixies.

“The pixies are never really seen, but in some cases white spots are seen moving about in the dark and then they are heard- although you can’t understand their words.” (Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol.8, 1876, p.57)

Secondly, from Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries, there comes a sighting on the Isle of Man dating from about the 1860s.  The witness, a member of the island’s legislature at the time of recording his experience, had been walking home at night with a friend when he saw across a small brook:

“a circle of supernatural light… The spot where the light appeared was a flat space surrounded on the sides away from the river by banks formed by low hills; and into this space and the circle of light, from the surrounding sides apparently, I saw come in twos and threes a great crowd of little beings smaller than Tom Thumb and his wife.  All of them, who appeared like soldiers, were dressed in red.  They moved back and forth amid the circle of light as they formed into order like troops drilling.” (Wentz p.133)

The witness’ companion declined to get any nearer and, after a while, struck a wall with his walking stick, thereby causing the fairies and their ‘aura’ to vanish instantaneously.

Lastly, Walter Gill recorded in his Second Manx Scrapbook of 1932 that fairies might be seen far off at night on the Isle of Man, as sparks or little flames dancing on hilltops.

These three are  intriguing, if rather isolated, reports.

grimshaw midsummer eve

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Midsummer Eve.

Contemporary fays

In the more recent witness reports of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and, even more so, in the Fairy Census 2017, the luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, so it’s worth analysing the figures a little.

Movement is the most noticeable feature of the sightings in the modern period.  In the Census there’s total of 69 cases of luminous fays (14% of the total); Johnson meanwhile has 34 instances.  Whilst 15% of the Census lights were stationary, 73% were in motion.  Sometimes a fairy body will be seen with the light, or the fairy is said to have ‘an aura’ but they can too be simple points of light: 28% of the Census witnesses described the fairy as a ball of light.  We may very well suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.  This seems to be confirmed by a woman from Michigan describing an experience during the 1990s.  She wrote that:

“They were like little lights. Like Tinker Bell while she’s flying. A little pixie light. Several of them.”

Another witness told Johnson about “a Tinker Bell light.”

There’s more to say though.  A variety of effects have been associated with the bright fairies.  Some give off flashes of light, others sparkle (“as though speckled with stardust”). Some  produce a noise (for example, a high pitched buzz or humming) and some also wax and wane in their brilliance:

“the whole area of trees seemed to glow as though there were a lot of lights in that area of the woods. The light seemed to pulsate, growing brighter and growing dimmer again. I watched closely and saw the light changing colour. There were several different colours, blue, red and orange and they all seemed to blend together.  ” (Census no.6, England, 2014)

“a ball of energy that looked like a sparkler.” (Census no.349)

“a light appeared on or from within a half dead pecan tree. It swirled around the trunk from ground level to about twenty five feet or so high. At its highest point the light appeared to come from within the tree … It then swirled around the trunk again losing brightness until it faded.” (Census no.414, US, 1990s)

A variety of colours are seen.  Blue, white and multi-coloured are most common, but a full spectrum of hues from pink and violet through green to silver and gold have been reported.

In Johnson’s reports 25% of the fairies had an aura.  For example, one was “a lovely little fairy dressed in silver and green and it floated before her, lighting the way.”  (p.37)  A woman and her child in Cornwall saw a patch of mist in the garden, which-

“gradually cleared to light like neon-lighting, but ball-shaped and then, fascinated, she watched what she called the ‘glitter of the fairies’, mauve, blue, green, orange, yellow, red and white lights brighter than any gems, going round in a little circle and then darting backwards and forwards.” (p.168)

Another witness on the Scottish island of Iona in 1954 saw a mass of light shaped into small clouds and another being with a ‘halo’ of spring green and sunset pink around the head (p.226)

As already seen in some of the quotations, 20% of the Census cases the fairy lights are associated with trees, bushes and other foliage.  Today, of course, we very much conceive of greenery as the natural abode of the fays but nonetheless it is an interesting association.

People may of course see lights for a variety of reasons.  Their eyes may be dazzled; there may be some physiological problem that has yet to be diagnosed.  Even so, many of the experiences on the Census don’t seem capable of explanation by such means and the witnesses themselves are frequently critical and cautious of ascribing supernatural origins.  For example, they will often consider other explanations, such as insects.  The comparison may be made to a firefly, but there will be something to make it clear that it is not an insect that has been seen- generally the size of the being.  One of Johnson’s correspondents described seeing in Spain in the mid-1950s “quantities of small lights- which were too big for glow worms- flitting about.” (p.313)

Final thoughts

The experience of bright, flitting fairies is now so common that we may have to regard it as one of the features of the species.  Despite the paucity of older sources recounting similar effects, darting lights now seem to be a determining element for deciding what a witness has seen.  These sightings may be very puzzling, but they are persistent and consistent, so we may need to revise our preconceptions about the supernatural and how it appears to us.