Lost in faery Elisabeth Oakland


Lost in faery Wandering in the magical thorn thickets of the mind

Lost in faery Wandering in the magical thorn thickets of the mind Elisabeth Oakland

If you had unintentionally wandered into Faery, got lost there, subsequently found the way out and wanted to provide some kind of guide for other travellers, where would you start? Such was my dilemma when I was asked to write this article. Would it be wiser to start with the folklore and disentangle the historical reality behind various fairy beliefs, or take a more modern and trendy approach and try to make a connection between Jungian psychology, modern ‘reconstructionist’ mystics, earthlights and ‘ufo abduction’ phenomena? It soon became clear that, whatever starting point I chose, all I could hope to achieve was an American-style, whistle-stop ‘impressions of faery’ tour, given the vast amount of material available on the subject. So I decided to take a very personal approach and see where my feet took me ...

It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive (probably at a hawthorn thicket, I rather suspect), so I went about my business for a few weeks, waiting for inspiration. Then, one day in Aberystwyth, I noticed a housing estate called, in Welsh, ‘Afallon,’ which had been translated (rather creatively, I thought) as ‘Elysium.’ This highlighted the question of whether it is possible to identify all otherworld locations as fairyland, and thus all otherworld beings (such as gods and monsters) as denizens of faery. Conversely, Robert Graves (1961) would have us believe that the case often cited as a classical faery encounter, Thomas of Ercildoune’s journey into faery with the woman he hailed as the Virgin Mary and who called herself the ‘Queene of Fair Elfland’ (if we can believe the witness!) was really a witch queen and that he was in fact initiated into an ancient cult. Clearly, there was wide scope for interpretation and I felt that the more wide-ranging the approach, the more satisfactory the resulting overview would be. Ironically, later the same day, my companions and I found a ram that had got his horns caught in . . . a hawthorn bush. Stand aside Thomas the Rhymer!

Synchronicity did indeed seem to be in favour of fairies, as the trend continued; an item on BBC TV's Blue Peter reported recent sightings. It was a surprise to find that, contrary to my preconceptions, ‘ordinary people’ are still seeing fairies! The story which most impressed me was about a mother and daughter who both saw a small, classic Victorian-style fairy in their garden. She danced on a stone briefly and then vanished into thin air. This is a lovely story to tell children, but what were the witnesses actually seeing? Current theory seems to favour the view that any unusual phenomena will be interpreted by the individual according to their own and the cultural psyche. A more esoteric view would be that the fairy takes the form we find easiest to interpret. The fairy the witnesses saw could also have been some kind of Jungian expression of their happy relationship. In other words, what they saw need not necessarily have had any independent existence at all. This provoked the reflection that, if we accept that we can and should doubt what we see with our own eyes, is there any material evidence that fairies are ‘real’?

If we turn to photography in the hope that it will provide us with concrete evidence of fairies, we encounter the infamous Cottingley hoax associated with no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a researcher into the paranormal who fell prey to the common trap of accepting evidence supporting his theories rather too readily). Only many years later did one of the ‘girls’, now an old lady, reveal that the whole effect - including the appearance of motion - was achieved simply by cutting out some fairies from a picture book and sticking them on wire in the ground. However, one of the Cottingley girls also maintained until she died that she was trying to reproduce what she had actually seen, making it a sort of ‘honest hoax’; it was obviously difficult to reveal the truth once so much attention had been attracted to the affair. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does quote many other first-hand accounts of fairies in his book The Coming of the Fairies, all in line with the prevailing national perception (largely a medieval paradigm) of what pixies, fairies and leprechauns were. As for more modern fairy photographs, it should come as no real surprise that the fairies also mirror the appearance (or expectations?) of the humans. We can only conclude from this that the case is not proven and learn a few salutary lessons about fakery and self-delusion and move on . . .

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was collecting stories about the ‘little people’ from witnesses, the Theosophist view was that these small, so-called ‘elementals’ were part of Nature and played a vital, spiritual role in the process of photosynthesis. Interestingly, the Theosophists described them as being capable of taking on various forms, but that their essential nature was a glowing ball with a pinpoint of light at the centre. This sounds very like an earthlight. The only person I know to have seen one reported to me that it was about the size of a football and appeared to demonstrate intelligence i.e. it appeared one night and, when ignored, reappeared the following night and seemed to be trying to attract his attention. Fairy or earthlight? The ‘Findhorn settlers’ followed on in this tradition in the hippy era and their initial success (in the form of growing unfeasibly large vegetables) bore witness that, as usual, there was something going on - but what was it? Modern psychologists might be tempted to posit a theory along the lines that a shared belief (or group delusion) and the resulting faith that help was being offered by supernatural beings could have produced a group psychic effect, which in turn produced tangible results. This can be labelled the power of prayer or, indeed, magic. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Ultimately, if it works, it works. It is only our orderly human minds which seek to impose a structure on the intangible workings of the Great Unseen. I think.

To move on to some slightly more solid ground, Jenny Randles’ comments about UFO /UAP (‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’) investigations at the 1997 Leyhunters’ Moot spring to mind here: ‘All experiences of the unknown are filtered through the perceptions and preconceptions of the witness’: in other words, ‘something is out there, but nothing else can be determined by visual / witness evidence alone.’ In this vein, I make no excuses for my creative approach to the phenomenon we choose to label ‘Faery’; this overview will, inevitably, be a product of my own particular perspective and experience, which according to your own perspective and experience, you may or may not consider balanced. Do we understand each other? Then come with me, and I shall show you many wondrous things . . .

Mystic portals to Faery

May we embark upon these wanderings in the realm ‘faery’ on the assumption that, for the purposes of a short article such as this, we can concur with the Welsh translator and agree that any otherworld location, in the British tradition at least, (Avalon, Elysium, fairyland, Annwn, the Fortunate Isles . . .) can be seen as an aspect of fairyland? The denizens of faery have always appeared to humans in many different guises and there are as many ways open to us to approach their domain. I shall explore as many of them as I can in the space available, hoping to leave the reader with a good overview, and not lost in a thorn thicket! It so happens that Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s picturebook on Faeries (Pan 1979) is on my bookshelf so I shall use that as the gateway to an otherworld full of creatures manifesting the national psyche in all its beauty and horror. A swift reconnoiss-ance of the territory reveals the following: there are various beasts (e.g. kelpies, selkies) and phenomena (e.g. corpse candles) associated with the otherworld, and a variety of ‘little people’ (e.g. knockers, cobbolds, urisks, dwarves, undines . . .) but the underlying ideas of faery encounters are as follows:

1: faery folk are often attracted by / bring about human ‘peak experiences,’ and will often attempt to steal humans away to serve in Faery as lovers, musicians or poets.
2: Faery presents a dichotomy of threat to person coupled with benefits to be gained.
3: If treated with respect, the faeries will bestow gifts such as healing, prophecy and the creative arts. If these gifts are not valued or abused, they will be lost.
4: It is possible to escape from Faery, usually through being good and true-hearted, or the offices of a loved-one (e.g. Tam Lin). Sometimes the abductee returns home years or decades after disappearing into Faery (e.g. Rip Van Winkle). Others are happy to stay there.

The Shepherd of Myddfai

Welsh fairies (y tylwyth têg - the fair people) also frequented our world, and even married mortals and had children. A classic example of this kind of story is the Lady of Llyn y Fan. It is a perfect example of the genre and I make no excuses for quoting it at some length.

A young man tending sheep sees a faery woman bathing in Llyn y Fan. He fails to tempt her with hard or unbaked bread, but, at the third attempt, he lures her closer and woos her. She agrees to marry him and goes to fetch her father, the King of Faery, from the city in the lake. The suitor has to distinguish her from her identical sisters to win her, and does so when she thrusts one foot forward to reveal a particular way she has of tying her shoe. He may marry her on condition that he does not:

variant 1: strike her unjustly three times
variant 2: expect her to go into a church, strike her with iron and ask her name.

They live happily together for many years, prosper and have many sons. Eventually, the husband taps her with a horseshoe, stirrup or other iron object to gently encourage her to fetch a horse so they can ride to a funeral. She laughs at the funeral ‘because now the dead man is out of care’ and is hit gently to shut her up. She cries at a wedding ‘because now their troubles begin’ and is hit again / the husband asks her name so he can curse her for disgracing him. Whichever variant or variants one encounters, the three blows / conditions come to pass and she has to return to the lake, very reluctantly in this case. However, she does return to this world to bestow the gift of healing on her sons, who become the famous Physicians of Myddfai, healers to the Welsh kings.

This story has it all; the threads are easy to disentangle for anyone vaguely conversant with folklore and psychology: the ‘faery’ woman might have been a woman from another / indigenous tribe whom the men of one / invading tribe viewed as being possessed of some magical powers. If an adventuring newcomer wanted a wife, perhaps the best way of obtaining one was by persuasion and where better to approach a prospective wife than when she is bathing? The father in the story could be seen as showing some form of xenophobia in his requirements, but then again there is nothing wrong with a man having to prove himself either in feats of battle or intelligence and the suitor in question shows he has his wits about him by picking the right woman. As to the ‘magical’ obligation to return to her own people should her husband ‘abuse’ her, this can be explained by the importance in primitive society of truth-telling and keeping promises. Quite simply, both parties could no longer live together once certain promises had been broken. Alternatively, this could also be seen as a demonstration of how difficult it was for different peoples with different moralities to co-exist. The motif of iron is a common one (e.g. lucky horseshoes), whose origin is usually seen as lying in the conflict between tribes, some using bronze and others using iron; the former would have seen the latter as dangerous and invincible, the latter would have learned that their iron weapons ‘warded off’ the people they came to see as ‘faeries.’ We are left with the elements of the Lady’s unusual perspective of mortality and the documented fact that members of the same family were gifted herbal physicians. If we dismiss the otherworld origin of these skills, it is easy to posit a feminist theory to the effect that the story was concocted to justify male usurpation of the healing arts in the sixteenth century. In short, it is possible to deconstruct it and all substance disappears like a will’o the wisp! The Lady of the Lake The Myddfai story appears to share its origins with the Arthurian ‘Lady of the Lake’ story. In this case, of course, the gift of a magic sword from faery, whose magic sheath safeguards its owner (Freudians, don’t get too excited please!), which must be returned to the lake upon the death / incapacity for office of the human owner. It is an established fact that the Celts and other similar tribes sacrificed treasure - not to mention people - to lakes / lake spirits and, by applying the ‘archaeology of the sources’ guidebook, it is not hard to identify the underlying idea that divine kingship was magically bestowed by a female faery figure (another gift, in other words). I shall refrain from describing in any detail the ‘myth archaeology’ angle (king symbolically marries Ban Sidhe / Gwraig Annwn = patriarchy allies with matriarchy), but I should like to point out that in druid practice, this mystical marriage could take the form of the king symbolically marrying / being reborn of a white mare, which was often then sacrificed and the king and / or druids feasted on its flesh / slept on its hide to ‘travel to faeryland’ to gain wisdom from the experience. This ties in with the rivers of blood through which the Queen of Elfland travels with Thomas the Rhymer, and the symbol of the white horse is immortalised in the western psyche in the depiction of conquering heroes e.g. King Arthur and William of Orange to name but two.

Entrances to the Entranced Land

This reference to the druids brings us to the boundaries between esoteric ground and Paul Devereux and Jenny Randles territory. Where, asks the enquiring mind, would one be expected to enter the land of Faery? Lakes are prime contenders, as are burial mounds (which invader / newcomers no doubt saw, at some stage of the proceedings, as mysterious ‘homes’ of ‘little men’ so small they could fit in pots! - I thank Ron Fletcher for this contribution) and standing stones and circles, not to mention hawthorn thickets . . . In other words, we are clearly dealing with areas of ‘earth power’; whether they are technically on ‘spirit paths’ or at ‘nodes’, these sites were used in the past as gateways to the otherworld, places where ‘anoeth’ (‘not was’, the timeless land) meets ‘oeth’ (‘was’, our reality). (‘Anoeth bid bet y arthur’, that much-quoted and furiously debated clue to the final resting place of Arthur becomes clear: Arthur has gone to faeryland, whence he came, at least in the mystical sense.) Here we also find earthlights, cases of ‘pixilation’ (now on the whole updated in the national psyche as encounters with aliens and space ships) and the phenomenon of special knowledge being imparted. Sometimes abductees feel threatened and think they have been subjected to operations or experiments. In films at least, abductees are returned home perhaps fifty years after their disappearance (the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind springs to mind). The parallels are quite clear and do not need to be laboured; obviously, we are still in danger of being caught in the trap of viewing a phenomenon that has always existed through the eyes of our current culture, like our ancestors before us.

And here we are at the Jungian signpost! Shall we follow this path for a while? Of course, the lady (anima) with the gifts (insight, self-awareness, ‘feminine’ talents and attributes) naturally comes from the lake, a classic substitute for a mirror, the symbol of introspection. (‘Psyche’ = ‘mirror’. In legend, sometimes the treasure the hero seeks is revealed to be - apparently - a mirror: i.e. he has found his true self during his quest.) ‘She’ returns whence she came if abused, of course. This Jungian path wanders along more or less parallel to the pleasant, middle path leading neither to heaven nor hell where R.J. Stewart acts as the guide; here, otherworld figures are seen as supernatural beings from whom valuable insight can be gained. They are sometimes encountered at significant sites but more often sought out by the use of creative visualisation (Matthews 1989; Stewart 1992). Similarly, Caitlin and John Matthews (1994) present these entities or archetypes as useful in meditation or they can be sought out as keepers of wisdom during shamanistic experiences. The central thicket we arrive at remains the same: great benefits can be gained from risky otherworldly encounters.

Blundering about in Faery

Here I must stress that I am not adept at this ‘revivalist Celtic’ technique, but certain cataclysmic personal experiences of a Celtic kind have taught me the virtue of the kind of structure which the Matthews and Mr Stewart inter alia provide. I imagine they would disapprove of how I blundered about in Faery to begin with, following my feet wherever my psyche led them. You see, when I started out on this road, I was ignorant of the Celtic spiritual revival, a logical human being who viewed all New-Ageyness with a mixture of bemusement and cynicism. That is why I feel qualified to report, as an independent witness, that the Faery experience is powerful and can be overwhelming. Where have I been? I have journeyed in the labyrinths, treacherous marshes and faery castles of my own mind, but I was sometimes most definitely not alone in there . . . the faeries / collective unconscious / spirit guides / ancestors (“The Them” as I affectionately call them) were in (?)/ there with me. In fact, I was frightened at times until I realised that my Celtic heritage provided a system for understanding what I was experiencing. Have I returned from Faery with any gifts? I believe I have, and that they will speak for themselves. Have I actually seen a faery yet? No. And I do not, unlike the Doubting Thomasina I used to be, need to see them to know they are there. Besides, you can’t always believe what your only five of your senses tell you, right? But I promise to let you know if I ever do - and never forget that a promise is a solemn bond to a Celt like me . . . Hwyl!


GRAVES, Robert, 1961, The White Goddess Faber & Faber.
MATTHEWS, Caitlín, 1989, Elements of the Celtic Tradition Element.
MATTHEWS, Caitlín and John, 1994, The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom, Element.
STEWART, R.J., 1992, Earth Light, Element.

Originally published in At the Edge No.10 1998.

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