“On a mission from God”-do fairies have a divine purpose?

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani

Estella Canziani, Fairies bless the newborn child.

There is an identifiable strand of thought about modern fairies that wishes to see them as part of a wider divine plan.  I wrote a little while ago about the ideas of Paracelsus on fairies and I think his insistence upon his elementals being part of God’s creation and allotted a purpose within the universe have been a major contributor to this ‘mission from god’ idea.

Satanic servants?

This is quite a turn-around, because formerly, as I described in my jottings on fairy religion, the Christian church had spent most of its history attacking fairies and condemning fairy belief. Fairies were demons or, at the very best, delusions sent by the devil to lead us astray.  This had always been the orthodox belief of the Catholic church and, after the Reformation, the position was expressed with renewed vigour and venom by Protestant preachers.  Quite unfairly, post-Lutheran polemicists made out that one of the many superstitions fostered by Rome was the existence of fairies.

As these beings were nothing more or less than servants of Satan, there could be never be any accommodation with them and the Christian church was directly opposed to them.  This is very clearly shown in a story from Borgue in Kirkcudbright: a boy started to disappear for days at a time and it was realised that he was visiting the fairies underground.  To protect the child, he was taken to a local priest and was given a large crucifix to wear on a black ribbon around his neck (although, this being dour, Protestant Scotland, the local kirk then expelled the family for such Papist goings on).

Over the intervening centuries, there have been attempts to find some sort of accommodation between fairies and the Biblical view of the universe.  In A discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits, which was appended to the 1665 edition of Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, one of several such arguments was set out:

“God made the Fairies, Bugs, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow and other familiar domestical spirits and Devils on the Friday and, being prevented with the evening of the Sabbath, finished them not, but left them unperfect, and therefore ever since they use to flie the holiness of the Sabbath, seeking dark holes in Mountains and Woods, wherein they hide themselves til the end of the Sabbath and then come abroad to trouble and molest men.” (Book I c.XI)

This passage is an excellent compromise between divine omnipotence and the need to explain these anomalous spirits- not quite demons, not quite angels. We may compare the belief in Cornwall that the local pixies were either the souls of still-born children or of newborn babies who died before they could be baptised.

Despite these conflicting theories, the fairies’ position is clear in one sense: they are not godly beings and, as such, are averse to all things Christian.  This was very widely reflected in popular belief, in which a sure charm against fairy harm was anything in the least related to religion- whether it was the sign of the cross, the use of blessings or, even, the deployment of pages torn from a Bible or a prayer book as defence against elf attack.  Any item or turn of phrase with Christian connotations came to be seen as protection against fairy powers: for example, in William Bottrell’s story of An’ Pee Tregear, the old woman sees pixies threshing in a barn.  She hears a pixie sneeze and instinctively says ‘bless you’- causing them all to disappear (Traditions and hearthside stories, vol.2 p.154).

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Hester Margetson, Bluebell in fairyland.

Fays and angels

You wouldn’t necessarily know today that any of this very marked antipathy ever existed between mainstream Christianity and a belief in fairies.  For example, Doreen Virtue in Fairies 101 (2007) describes the fays as “God’s creatures with important missions” and as “angels who reside close to earth.”  In her Healing with fairies of 2001 she claims them as sparks of the divine light, part of God’s wondrous creation.  Their role is as guides and helpers to humans and as guardians of nature.

Other contemporary writers take a pagan approach, but still infuse their descriptions with a sacred vocabulary.  Alicen and Neil Geddes-Ward derive their Faeriecraft from modern Wicca and refer to the “sacred nature” of the fairies, with whom we can build a “divine relationship.”  Sirona Knight and Deanna Conway both associate the fairies with the God and Goddess; Rae Beth refers to the Great Mother.

Particularly in the accommodation of fairies with Christian belief, the danger seems to me to be to subordinate them to whatever divine purpose is perceived by the author and to reduce or eliminate the free will and the individuality of the fairies themselves.  Once they have their mission from God, they can lose their own motivations and agenda and come to be viewed solely through their relationship to us and to their holy duty.  Much as with the reconstitution of fairies as nature spirits and elementals, devoted to saving the planet, I think there’s a lot of projection of our own concerns and needs onto them and too little regard for the evidence of tradition.

Selfish supernaturals?

In her 2017 book Fairies Morgan Daimler states in no uncertain terms that the fairies

“have never cared about the things we do to the world around us so long as we leave their places alone.”

This encapsulates the traditional fairies’ selfishness perfectly: they are protective of their favoured spots- but that’s all.  Morgan also points out that the faes can always go back to the otherworld in any case (Fairies, pp.4 & 174).  She’s quite right; it might be nice to personify nature in order to give ourselves a bit of extra impetus to clear up the mess we’ve made, but the fairies and elves of folklore would probably take the view that it’s nothing to do with them.  We wrecked the place, so we should put it right- and, meanwhile, they’ve got better things to do.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but a lot of the British fairies are just that: they steal property, they kidnap children, they torment adults, they kill livestock and people.

Reading the posts I’ve made on this blog or reading any of the accounts contained in the folklore sources that I’ve depended upon, it is hard honestly to see anything about the national fairies that could entitle them to be seen as “divine sparks.”  Often, albeit for different reasons, you feel that the medieval and Reformation church men had made a better assessment.  Faerie can be mercenary and it can be cruel and its denizens can appear devoid of any hint of holy fervour.  A Victorian author said that the Devonshire pixies “had no religious rites or services.”  Most others similarly lacked any discernible faith or ceremonies.  How and when did the fairies get religion?

Pixies and Paradise?

Paracelsus sowed the seed, but I think it was only in the wake of Theosophy that we became convinced that the fays had to be part of a bigger plan.   For example, Manly P. Hall (1901-90) and the Reverend Flower A. Newhouse (1909-94) both wrote extensively on the angelic and fairy hierarchies.  Newhouse called the fairies ‘frakins’ and saw them as a lower order of earth elemental, responsible for flowering plants and grasses.  Above them were sylphs, gnomes and elves, leading successively to the angels.  Her books include Natives of eternity (1937), The kingdom of the shining ones (1955) and Rediscovering angels and natives (1966), the titles all being suggestive of her general approach.

Daphne Charters was author of The origin, life and evolution of fairies (1951) and A true fairy tale (1956).  She claimed to have daily conversations with the small workforce of fairies resident in her home and garden.  She saw the entire natural and human world as being run by these industrious creatures, beings who ‘covered every inch’ of the visible and invisible universe.  In many ways Charters’ theories built upon those of Geoffrey Hodson (as in his book The kingdom of God) , but she disagreed with his views in two ways.  Firstly, his belief was the fairies could not speak, whereas she was in constant, chatty dialogue with her good neighbours.  Secondly, her vision of a hierarchy of nature spirits was far more systematic and orderly than Hodson’s.  Charters discovered a scale of being from the microscopic, simple and short-lived rudines all the way up to God.  The intermediate stages included gnomes, elves and fairies, each longer-lived, larger and more mentally developed that the other.

Iris Ratsey was another Christian medium and mystic.  Her little 1966 book, Pioneering in conscious and co-operative mediumship, is a strange mix of prayers, meditations and visions. From an early age she had regularly seen fairies and, in the text, she describes a visit to “higher dimensional territory” where she witnessed the “sub-human or etheric nature species” responsible for the growth of wheat seeds and describes their ecstatic life cycle.  Ratsey stated that her visions of tiny elfin creatures gave her “a sense of divine presence” explicitly linking her contact with Faery with religious experience.

What do the fairies want?

Fairies have been promoted in recent decades into a force for good.  They are seen as having a role assisting us with our moral and/or spiritual development and are appealed to and worked with on this basis by several faery faiths.  My caution with this depiction of the fairy race is that it is very hard to square it with the traditional sources.  An honest assessment of those would be that the fairy race is, at best, amoral (and at worst immoral) in the sense that faes can be cruel, selfish and demonstrate little respect for property.  There is very little ‘divine’ about them.  They don’t want our prayers; they aren’t interested in petitioners; they are a separate race living in parallel to humans whose good will can’t be bought.  What they want from us is tribute, not worship; they’re interested in taxes or booty rather than sacrifice.

In many respects, the fairy attitude to human beings as delineated in the folklore accounts is one akin to a colonial or conquering state, which seeks to derive income and resources from a tributary people.  This fits very well with the fairies’ practices of abducting adults and children, of stealing food products and food sources and their general possessiveness in respect of human property.  This may seem harsh- yet it encapsulates some of the core dynamics of our relationship.  In light of this, it is harder to recast the fay character as benevolent and non-materialist, as some modern conceptions wish to do.

 

 

‘Hence to Hell or Faery’- the nature of fairy religion

huon

Huon meets King Oberon, by Henry Ford

What do fairies believe in?  This may seem like a nonsensical question for at least two reasons:

  • firstly, if you subscribe to the belief that our current fairies are the diminished remnants of former pagan gods and goddesses of nature, then it is illogical to propose that an erstwhile divinity should worship another deity; or,
  • secondly, because the fairy code of morality is so distinctive and so deliberately selfish (see my earlier post or chapters 2 and 18  of my British fairies): fairies are not concerned with good works; they are concerned with furthering their own interests.

These objections are quite valid, yet our predecessors (at least before the Reformation) almost unconsciously assumed that these creatures would be Christians just like them.  Our medieval ancestors had absolutely no hesitation in accepting fairies as just another god-fearing creation of the Christian deity.  This is revealed, in passing, in many of the earlier stories.  The fairy king in King Herla’s tale exclaims “God be my witness;” the Green Children of Woolpit came from a place called St Martin’s Land and professed themselves to be good Christians. Oberon, the king of faery in Huon of Bordeaux, for example exclaims “God keepe you all! I desire you to speake with mee, and I conjure you thereto by God Almightie and by the Christendome that you have received and by all that God hath made” (chapter 21).  In several Scottish ballads, including that of Thomas the Rhymer, the fairy queen points out to the hero the roads leading to heaven and hell, which lead from faery.

Thomas-the-rhymer-Thomas Canty

Thomas the Rhymer, by Thomas Canty

Reformation

This uniform certainty in the orthodoxy of fairy kind received severe blows during the sixteenth century.  Two events undermined the formerly unshakeable conviction in their godliness.  One was the Reformation, which, as we shall see, initiated attacks upon all forms of superstition.  The second key factor was the settlement of the Americas.  Christians were confronted with continents and civilisations unheard of by the Bible and who knew nothing of the church or Christ.  The question arose how these peoples were to be accommodated in the existing world view and whether they had souls capable of salvation.  These debates must in turn have given rise to doubts over the position of fairies in the Christian creation.

Some people persisted in the older beliefs and still simply accepted fairies as another Christian race.  In a spell to conjure the fairy Elaby Gathen, Elias Ashmole reminded the spirit that “thou doest feare the heavy wrath and judgment” and demanded that the being “should be obedient or judged to eternal damnation with the demons in hell.”  As a magi, Ashmole very likely believed fairies to be a form of spiritual being closely related to angels, so their godly nature was something he took for granted.  More surprising are the recorded beliefs of Scottish minister Robert Kirk, who felt that the elves and fairies were less sinful than men, “but yet are in ane imperfect State, and some of them making better Essays for heroic Actions than others; having the same Measure of Vertue and Vice as wee, and still expecting an advancement to a higher and more splendid State of Lyfe.”

Salvation?

The Reverend Kirk believed that the fairies had the same prospect of judgment and salvation as any Christian man or woman. In fact, a number of related theories emerged as to the place of the fairies in the Christian universe.  One name for the fairies was ‘the Hidden Folk;’ the origin of this is explained in a Carmarthenshire story told to Evans-Wentz:

“Our Lord, in the days when He walked the earth, chanced one day to approach a cottage in which lived a woman with twenty children. Feeling ashamed of the size of her family, she hid half of them from the sight of her divine visitor. On His departure she sought for the hidden children in vain; they had become fairies and had disappeared.” (Evans-Wentz, p.153)

Another widespread belief was that the fairies were fallen angels who had followed Satan in his rebellion but who had not yet reached hell when God commanded that the gates of haven and hell be closed.  They were left stranded between and hid in holes in the earth (Evans-Wentz, pp.85, 105, 109, 116, 129-30 & 205).  They will finally be released from this intermediate status on the day of judgment.  Lastly, there are Europe wide stories telling of incidents in which anxious fairies approach humans begging for reassurance that they too will be saved.  Generally, the answer is no, to the fairies’ great dismay (see Spence, British fairy origins, p.165 & the story of the ‘Minister and the Fairy‘ printed in Folk-lore and legends: Scotland, 1898).

Fairies and devils

At the same time, in some quarters there was a clear conviction that fairies could never be good Christians, because they were either demonic delusions wrought by the devil or they were deceits of the Roman Catholic church (which to many godly Puritans amounted to the same thing anyway).  Certainly, fairies, elves and the like were hard to accommodate within the strict terms of the Bible.  Whether they were genuine malign entities or just an invention of the Papist clergy- and thus a minor distraction to reformers- was never fully resolved, but the different positions are very well evidenced.

For Thomas Heyrick, fairies were nothing but vain stories:

“Dotage, the Vice of ancient years …

Listens to each Fabulous Legend, every story

of Relicks, Exorcisms and Purgatory,

of Fairy Elves and Goblins, wakeful Sprights

That rouze the drowsie Monks to Beads at Nights!”

(The new Atlantis, 1687, p.15)

Likewise, for George Chapman, they were a product of a more credulous past: “Fairies were but in times of ignorance, not since the true light hath been revealed, and that they come from heaven I scarce believe.” (A humorous day’s mirth, 1591).  Fairies and witches were nothing but conceits “whereby the Papists kept the ignorant in awe” (T. Cooper, The mystery of witchcraft, 1617, p.123), they were the worthless recipients of reverence from “silly people” (John Penry, The aequity of a humble supplication, 1587).

In contrast, others saw real harm and spiritual peril in the fays.  For Thomas Jackson, there was no question of distinguishing good and bad fairies because “it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both” (A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, p.178).  Fairies and elves were nothing more or less than “infernal deities” (Henry Smith, Christian religion’s appeal, 1675, p.45); they brought disease and madness (Mirror for magistrates, 1575, line 215; William Vaughan, The soul’s exercise, 1641, p.113) and they had to be cast out in the same manner an any evil spirit: “Gang hence to Hell or to the Farie” (Philotus- a comedy, 1568). One common explanation of the taking of children as changelings was that the fairies had to pay a tithe to the devil every seven years and, understandably, preferred to do so with a human life instead of one of their own kind.  Ironically, the truth is that the Catholic church had much the same opinion as the Puritans: the fourteenth century Fasciculus morum, for example, condemned all belief in fairies and elves as “only phantoms displayed by an evil spirit.”  As I have described in discussing  witchcraft and fairies, the result of this kind of thinking was to mix up belief in fairies and in witches, with serious consequences for those professing a faith in our ‘good neighbours.’

It must the penetration of popular culture by such ideas that led to accounts describing the fairies’ strong aversion to bells and churches.  I have mentioned these before in a my postings on the departure of the fairies and on fairy building, but the stories are common: for example, in Dorset at Portland, Cadbury and Withycombe church bells drove off the local pixies, whilst at East Chelborough the resident sprites objected to the site chosen for a new church and removed it bodily.

“But the king who sits on your high church steeple/ Has nothing to do with us fairy people!” (Charlotte Mew, The changeling)

One definite effect of the post-Reformation debates was to create the widespread popular belief that fairies were repelled by anything Christian.  Possession of a copy of the Bible or some pages from it alone could be efficacious, as could saying grace, making the sign of the cross and a number of other actions.  This is the aspect of fairy nature we recall today- not the earlier views.

All of this brings us full circle.  It came to be said that fairy belief was on the wane in Britain because the fairies were less and less frequently seen and the reason for this was that they were Catholics and had deserted British shores since the break with Rome.  See, for example, Richard Corbet’s Farewell, rewards and fairies:

“Lament, lament, old Abbeys,

The Fairies’ lost command…

But now alas, they are all dead,

Or gone beyond the seas,

Or farther from Religion fled,

Or else they take their ease.”

(see too my British fairies chapter 6 and appendix)

Corbet’s allegation is that with the fairies’ went ceremony and dancing, and, more seriously, justice and equity too.

Pagan pixies

Much of this discussion has been concerned with whether the fays were Catholic or Protestant, or whether they were pure evil incarnate- demons and servants of Satan.

There is, though, a hint of another view, one that may appeal more to many contemporary readers.  In William Bottrell’s story of The house on Selena Moor fairy abductee Grace makes this remarkable statement about her pixie captors:

“For you must remember they are not of our religion,” said she, in answer to his surprised look, “but star-worshippers.”

If this truly represents Cornish belief of the late nineteenth century, it might be a relic of older ideas about the fays and- perhaps- a connection that was made between them and ‘The Druids.’  This need not necessarily be a much older idea- it might have emerged in the previous century or so- yet it may be a tantalising hint of theories relating the pixies to worship at Cornwall’s many ancient monuments.

Further reading

See too my postings on the relationship between fairies and the dead and on the process of laying, or exorcising, fairies.  As my postings on the fairies’ preferred days and times of the year suggest, there is some antipathy towards the church and some inclination towards older, ‘pagan’ feasts.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.