‘Just made up?’ The problem of fairy physicality

hutton lear glimpse

Charles Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies, 

There is a body of opinion that fairies have no fixed, physical form and that when they appear to us they shape themselves to our expectations.  This notion first seems to be mentioned in a fairy context by W B Yeats in his introduction to Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).  Many generations of mystics and occult writers have acknowledged the existence of spiritual beings, he wrote- beings “who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.”

Thought forms

Yeats did not originate this idea.  Early on, Theosophists had formulated the concept of ‘thought forms.’  Mahatma Koot Humi, one of Madame Blavatsky’s mentors and inspirations, wrote that “thoughts are things… they are real entities.”  This idea was elaborated by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant in a book, Thought forms, in 1905; they asserted that thoughts produced a radiating vibration conveying their emotion and also had a floating form.  The idea was then transferred nature spirits and elementals.  To become visible, they assume etheric bodies, which are shaped by folklore stories and human imaginations.  Robert Ogilvie Crombie of Findhorn explained that, although its natural form is a swirl of light, an elemental “can put on any of these thought forms and then appear personified as that particular being … elf, gnome, faun, fairy and so on.”[1]  Edward Gardner had a related but different conception.  He believed that Elsie and Frances at Cottingley had abilities akin to mediums.  They could materialist the fairies they photographed through ectoplasm, which was the explanation for their contemporary appearance.

The idea of the thought form was developed in relation to fairies by Geoffrey Hodson in Angels and the new race (1929)He asserted that fairies have no physical body but are formed of light, albeit along the ‘same model’ as humans.  In The kingdom of the gods in 1952 Hodson elaborated on these ideas: the archetype for the fairy form was the human body and their appearance was further determined by our expectations as to what we might see.

These ideas still prevail.  In Signe Pike’s 2009 book Faery tale she interviewed artist Brian Froud who told her (p.91):

“It’s often thought that faeries use our own thought patterns to manifest themselves.  For example, when a faery appears to a person, it will typically look quite similar to the creatures you see in storybooks.  This is because if you were to see a ball of energy, would you really know it was a faery?  No.  So they try to ‘speak’ our visual language.  We see wings, and flowing dresses, and heads and eyes.  The problem is, we think we’re just making it up.”

Likewise in The faery faith by Serena Roney-Dougal, she discusses how our psyche may create some of the things we see (pp.67-71).

Solid- or see-through illusions?

I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with this idea, for several reasons:

  • It seems to introduce an insurmountable circularity into the situation.  If it is argued that fairies look like we expect them to look, it’s hard to establish a point at which our ‘preconceptions’ were first conceived, as no-one will ever see an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ fairy;
  • There are compelling reports of ‘fairies’ that look nothing like our expectations: see for example some of the experiences in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies or some of the pixies described in Jon Dathen’s Somerset faeries and pixies;
  • The argument may seem to operate as a legitimate cover for those who claim to have seen fays when all they are describing are the products of their own over-active imaginations.  Their alleged visions are just repetitions of images they have derived from Enid Blyton’s stories,  from J. M. Barrie’s play script and from their nursery books.

Lastly, and most importantly, the theory is hard to square with cases which appear to be accounts of genuine encounters with solid and physical fays.  If fairies are solely balls of energy it’s difficult to reconcile this with the cases where their physical presence was either central to the plot or appeared already to be established before the human encountered them.  I am thinking here of the cases where humans and fays have entered into sexual relationships and where children have been borne of these pairings- children who often must be physically delivered by human midwives attending a faery knoll.  I also am thinking of cases where fairy celebrations have been stumbled upon accidentally by people- the many cases where the fairies have been found dancing and then lured in human partners, or the stories of fairy feasts discovered under fairy hills. In one story told by William of Newburgh, readers may recall, the man who discovered the celebration also managed to make off with a gold cup.  Elsewhere I have discussed the transmission of fairy powers by the medium of touch.  As a last example, I note Morgan Daimler’s discussion of fairy familiars on p.162 of her Fairy faithshe stresses that these familiars were “clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not dreams or see-through illusions…  they were real-world manifestations that were seen, heard, and spoken to, in the waking world.”

These are all very solid incidents where the human form of the fairies was central to the incident and also, as I’ve suggested, already established independent of any Schrödinger like observation.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

Frederick McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904

Summary

Our forebears definitely conceived of the fays as real and tangible- and so consistent in their appearance that classification into standard groups was possible and remained applicable over hundreds of years.  Any mutability in their appearance was purely of their own making- the result of their magic and glamour.

There were , of course, many who dismissed faeries as entirely illusory and imaginary, but this was for quite different reasons.  Rationalists challenged fairy belief on the grounds that it was self-delusion:

“Rainbow castles in the air/ Fit enough for fays and elves/ But not for mortals like ourselves.” (Martin Farquhar Tuppe, Liberty- Equality- Fraternity); or,

“That which belongs to neither heaven nor hell./ A wreath of mist, a bubble of the stream;/ Twixt a waking thought and dream…” (Sir Walter Scott, The kelpy).

All of that said, if fairies are but mutable forms responding to our own thoughts, it would explain their evolution in recent centuries, whereby they have acquired wands and wings and come to look like the leprechauns and flower fairies of contemporary culture.

This is a very difficult area and I can’t offer any definitive metaphysical solutions.  What do readers feel?  In short, do fairies look like fairies because they have a consistent and identifiable appearance or because they match themselves to whatever they find in our heads- be that Cicely Mary Barker or Henry Fuseli?

Further reading

I look at the question of fairy weight again in another posting whilst my posting on the question of who believes in fairies touches on related questions of belief and reality.  Whether or not fairy form changes according to our expectations, it’s certain that some fairies can shape-shift themselves.

“A fay of colour”- diversity in faery?

Pathfinder Artwork

Recently (belatedly) I bought a copy of Seeing fairies by Marjorie Johnson.  It’s a loosely sorted catalogue of over four hundred twentieth century sightings of supernatural beings, fascinating for the data it provides on fairies and those who see them.

One thing that struck me was how the British and Irish conception of the fairy had spread worldwide.  Most of the recorded experiences came from British residents, but there were also reports from Australia, the USA and New Zealand.  Some strange things were seen from time to time, both in Britain as well as across the globe, but it was notable too how consistently a twofold division into gnomes and fairies was imposed.

The vast majority of the sightings in Seeing fairies predate the 1970s; far more recently, of course, cinema, television, the inter-web and the international availability of books through Amazon and Google Books have further exerted the English-speaking, Anglo-American cultural hegemony.  Faerie has become very white, very Western European.  There is a worrying trend for British fairies to become world fairies.

Very few writers envisage non-white fairies.  I quote John Keats in the title of this posting, but even in his faery city “in midmost Ind” the “fay of colour” is unhappily presented as an exception to the ruling population, being “slave from top to toe/ Sent as a present…” (The cap and bells, XXI).  I guess we must forgive Keats as a young man living in London in 1819.

In the older folklore there are very, very few mentions of ‘fays of colour.’  William of Newburgh, writing about England in the late 1100s, tells about a man called Ketell from Farnham in North Yorkshire who was accosted on the road by two little black men.  Although often in fairy accounts the colour mentioned relates to the fairies’ clothes, not their complexion, the Latin reads “duos quasi Ethiopes parvulos.”  Even if you can’t read Latin, I’m sure you can spot ‘Ethiopian.’  These men looked like black Africans, in other words.  Much more recently, some men “with black faces and wee green coaties” were seen by Jenny Rogers, wife of the coachman on the Yair Estate at Ashestiel in the Scottish Borders.  Once again they seem to be diminutive- judging by the coats anyway- and they don’t have a Caucasian skin tone.

Contemporary writers on the fairy faith often include lists of fairy types in their books, as a guide to those readers who hope to encounter fays themselves.  These can be comprehensive in their coverage, including fays from all over Europe and, sometimes, all over the world.  For example, Edain McCoy in her books The witch’s guide and Magick of fairies lists beings from Israel, Mexico, the Middle East and Australia.  At the same time, though, she asserts that certain types, like elves, are found worldwide.  Similarly, in her Complete guide to faeries and magical beings (2001), Cassandra Eason provides a very comprehensive ‘A-Z of world fairies’ but includes within it a statement that “elves have been recorded worldwide.”  This is nothing to do with folk tradition but everything to do with colonialism.  Whilst local fay types are recognised, the tendency of most writers in Australia is not to see bunyips; instead, they identify fairies, elves and leprechauns.  In the same way, in North America most visions are not of kachinas, abatwas or pukwudgies (for the latter, see Magical folk, Simon Young, 2017) but of imported fairy types.

One of the fundamental motivations of this blog has been to preserve local distinctions.  This is a site interested in the fairies of the British Isles– not of Ireland, nor Brittany, nor any other European or other country.  This is not chauvinism, but it is about celebrating and preserving local varieties and differences.  The tendency of mass (social) media is to confuse or erase these distinctions, reducing the fairy races to just a handful and (worst of all) ethnically cleansing our folklore of all except the frankly rather Aryan looking tall, blond elves of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  Faerie is richer and more interesting than that.

deutsche lego

Further reading

For some more ideas on fairy colouring and possible ethnicity, see my postings on fairy faces and the colour of fairies.