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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mystic South 2018

This past weekend I flew down to attend the second Mystic South conference in Atlanta Georgia. As I understand it the conference is focused on an appreciation of uniquely southern magic and practices but also open to looking at the wider pagan community, and includes a special track for academic presentations. Quite frankly they had me at the idea of academic material because that isn't something you see a lot of at other pagan conferences.

I originally submitted two workshop ideas and one academic presentation; all three were accepted. Additionally I was asked to be on one panel and one live podcast. Then, life being what it is, an opening came up to do an additional class when scheduling had to be moved around, so a fourth class was added. On the one hand, this was a good thing (I think) because I definitely felt like the trip was worthwhile, always a worry for me when travelling like this isn't exactly inexpensive. On the other hand though I was basically going flat out from the time our plane landed at 6 am friday morning until we arrived back at the airport to head home at 5 sunday night. 4 classes, 1 panel, and 1 podcast appearance was a lot to try to do in 59 hours, considering I do need to sleep and eat as well and in retrospect a little less willingness to jump in to everything may have served me better. The biggest downside to things being so hectic was that I wasn't able to attend many other workshops or have much time to decompress, which is an introvert essential.

So, Mystic South.
First of all I think this was the most fun I've had at a bigger pagan conference, despite my interesting life choice to schedule so much. The organizers are amazing, the volunteers were amazing, and the overall feel of the conference is amazing. Did I mention that it was amazing? It wasn't perfect by any means, nothing is after all, but the feel of it was friendly and fun and the class line up was a great blend of more academic and more experiential.

I taught a class Friday called 'Trading on the Goblin Market' which was about dealing safely with the Good People - think of it like a crash course in fairy lawyering. Friday night I had a small spot on the Desperate Housewitches live broadcast along with several other presenters. That was super fun. Friday itself is a bit of a sleep deprived blur - my friend and I had to get up before 3 am to catch our plane - but I did reconnect with friends and meet some facebook friends in person.

Saturday began with a morning conversation with friends over hot chocolate (for me) before I taught a class on Celtic Fairies in America (kind of self explanatory). Afterwards I managed to catch one of the academic presentations 'The Effects of Muse Misuse in Popculture' by Clio Ajana which was fascinating. She talked about the way that a Hollywood movie and its later remake shaped our understanding of the muses and the problem of sexualization of the muses in popular culture. I'm looking forward to that presentation possibly being published as a paper.
After lunch I had my own academic presentation of my paper on the evolution of the Fairy Courts in popular culture. I was very nervous about this because I have never done a formal academic presentation before and I haven't done a presentation with a power point since college. I think it all went well though and I was really impressed with the questions and comments afterwards.
I also attended a panel on navigating paganism as a person of colour. I'm still processing that discussion, which I think was a lot to unpack. It probably is a topic that needs more than an hour to really get into, and I do wish there had been a woman on the panel itself, although in fairness the moderator was a woman. As someone who is white-passing mixed race I think conversations like that panel are essential and I was really glad to see it as part of the conference.
Dinner was a large social affair replete with both casual conversation and deeper philosophical discussion on the future of paganism and witchcraft. Saturday night ended with a really fun 'swamp witch' themed party which I dubbed 'pagan prom'; it was a blast and I actually danced although not as enthusiastically as my travel companion. Costumes had been encouraged so I dressed up as a swamp fairy because that seemed close enough to swamp witch. Plus I hardly ever have a reason to where my horns in public.

Sunday I had a panel first thing in the morning about Reconstructionism. I was surprised to see how well attended that one was for something so early on the third day of the conference, but it seemed to go well. I thought the moderator asked good questions and I felt like the flow on the panel was good, although at a few points I felt like I was talking too much. That might just be my own issue though. After that (and with a side trip to get checked out of our room) I had a class on Wodan and the Wild Hunt. It's always fun to start out a class by warning people that I have publicly called Odin a *ahem* shifty bastard before - yeah I didn't use the word shifty. Close though. But the class itself I think went well and it was interesting to discuss Odin, Wodan, and the fluidity of who and what the Hunt is.

Beyond that recap - I had several good conversations with friends, old and new, and was able to connect in person with people I'd previously only known online. I met some wonderful people whose knowledge and passion for their subjects was beyond impressive.
And I did something I almost never do at these things - I had fun.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Remembering Uaimh na gCat

The entrance is in a field, beneath a hawthorn.
It is an unassuming opening into the earth, but there is something intimidating about it. The darkness beyond the stone and grass is deep and full. It invites you in at the same time that it warns you away. But this is why you have come to this place, seeking this cave, seeking this darkness, and you won't be deterred now.
You move into the liminal space of the entrance, pausing and turning to look back at the light you are leaving behind. Above you there is a stone lintel, carved with ogham. Reaching up you trace the lines, the stone cool beneath your fingers. Then, resolved, you turn away from the world above and begin descending into a different world.
The stone path is not easy but clearly bears the marks of human hands. At first. Your feet feel for steps carved into the passageway, your hands sliding along the walls.
In this place you can't rely on sight so your other senses lead you. You touch the walls and feel with your feet. You smell the fullness of the air. You hear taste moisture and earth on your tongue as you breath. You hear your own movements but also the dripping of water, and the stillness which is its own sound.
Everything is damp and slick and there is a sense of subtle peril. As you move downwards the man-made steps give way to rough rock and you feel the pattern of the path changing beneath your feet, even through thick soled boots. The darkness is different here, thicker, heavier, alive.
The downward journey levels out and you are walking flat now, the space expanding out around you as you enter the cave itself. It is cool here, and damp; the walls are wet and the air you breath in feels like some greater being's exhalation. The floor is inches of clay mud that grab at you and try to hold you in place, making every step forward a battle. Nonetheless you move forward, crossing the main section of the cave until you reach the far side where it begins to climb again before leveling off and disappearing into stone. The mud is like a living thing, moving with you, around you, on you.
You are still now, hands and legs muddy, leaning into the stone wall, feeling the darkness as it encompasses you. It has its own pulse, its own rhythm, and standing there you become part of it, enveloped by it. There is a voice in that darkness that speaks to you, and you listen.
You listen.
When you finally re-emerge into the world above you are not the same.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fairies and Aliens: an Opinion Piece

To begin, nothing I am going to say here is groundbreakingly original. But this is a topic that comes up from time to time and I want to address my own opinions on it, as within the community of people who believe in the Good Neighbours there tend to be a couple schools of thought. Suffice to say that the people who hold the opposite opinion to mine use the exact same evidence but argue the other angle.

So, a question that comes up for those who study fairies and/or folklore is what if any connection might exist between fairies and extra-terrestrials?

Here's my personal opinion on it, given as a personal opinion (so no reams of citations).
I believe that modern stories of aliens and alien abductions are actually fairies and fairy abductions re-framed to fit within 20th and 21st century human expectations. Fairies have been a part of belief and folklore as long as we have written stories from the various cultures we find them in*. However as we have moved, culturally, into the modern and post-modern period fairies have largely in the dominant culture of America become relegated to children's stories and nostalgia. This left a contextual void for people having experiences to use to explain what they were experiencing. This void was filled by fiction and film as popculture embraced the idea of extraterrestrials and our cultural consciousness became saturated by these new stories.
The first aliens appear in fiction as early as 1887 (in a short story titled Les Xipehuz) and in Hollywood in the silent films of the early 1900's; the idea however really bloomed post world war II in both speculative fiction and film. The first UFO sighting in the US is thought to have occured in 1947; the first reported abduction in 1961.

When we compare fairylore and alien and UFO lore we see some striking similarities:

In traditional fairylore fairies are well known to steal people, sometimes permanently sometime temporarily. In cases where people are returned they may have terrifying stories of their experience and may have physical marks. In turn alien abduction stories also feature aliens stealing people sometimes for benign purposes, or obscure ones, sometimes for cruel reasons. The people are returned with nightmarish memories and sometimes physical marks. The Slua Sidhe are noted to lift people up into the sky and they as well as some other types of fairies were said to carry people across the sky or fly with them, returning them later; modern UFO encounters sometimes include people being taken up into alien crafts and carried away only to be returned to earth. The reason for taking people, including forced reproduction, are also consistent between both fairy stories and alien abductions although how the two play out historically versus currently vary.

Time is often noted to move differently in the world of Fairy; so too those who describe alien abductions often talk about weird issues with time. Particularly in Fairy it has been said that what feels like a day there will be much longer amounts of time here and similarly in alien abductions people describe being gone for minutes that were really hours or hours that were really days.

Some fairy encounters, including those with beings like the Mâran, include sleep paralysis and overwhelming fear that occur to a person in their bed. In the same way alien encounters are sometimes described as happening to a person who is sleeping and wakes to find themselves unable to move and terrified. The descriptions of both types of encounters look almost identical when the type of being isn't mentioned, although the modern alien encounters usually involve abduction as well which the Mâran do not. 

Food can play a role in both fairy encounters and alien encounters. In traditional fairy encounters fairies would often offer food to people, usually with the intent of trapping the person in Fairy so that they could not leave. In some alien encounters the person is offered food of various sorts as well although the intention is unclear. In fairylore when the food was refused there are stories of the fairies trying to force the person to eat the food or drink the liquid, or physically punishing them for refusing; in the same way in some alien abduction stories there have been accounts of people forced to eat or drink substances, in some cases violently.

Fairies were noted to dance in circles and to leave behind fairy rings in their wake. These could be rings of mushrooms or of darker or lighter grass. UFOs have also been noted to leave circular marks in places they have been seen landing , sometimes flattened grass sometimes burned areas. Similarly the idea of strange lights being attributed to fairies has a long history in folklore, often associated with danger, while UFOs are described as both lights in the sky as well as strange lights seen through trees. These sites afterwards, of both types, are noted to have strange properties and effects on people.

Appearance is an issue that is also brought up but given that fairylore tells us that the Good People can use glamour to appear however they want - and to make our surroundings appear to us however they want - I find this particular angle the weakest. If we expect them to look like what science fiction has taught us aliens will look like, I have no doubt that is exactly what we see during an abduction experience.

There are people who will say that we see far fewer fairy encounters today and fewer fairy abductions, yet now we have this phenomena of alien encounters and abductions, which have many of the same hallmarks. To my mind it seems that the fairies are no less active but have simply switched how people are perceiving their activity so that those who believe in or are open to believing in aliens get aliens, while those who believe in fairies continue to have experiences more in line with older folklore. Fairies used to be feared and that fear had power; aliens still are feared as an unknown and technologically superior factor.

So ,short answer, I think alien encounters and abductions are just fairies dressed up in modern guise. Which is a pretty effective method of both misdirection and control, if you happen to be Them.

For further on this subject I suggest reading 'Passport to Magonia" and "Trojan Feast" both of which discuss fairies and aliens as an interwoven subject.

*there is of course no way to know how long they have existed in oral cultures

Monday, July 2, 2018

Why Fairy Doctor Shouldn't Be the New Trendy Title

I'm seeing an upswing in ads online for fairy doctor courses. It's a simple premise and one that we see in other practices and spiritualities as well: pay your money and get certified as a fairy doctor.
I have some problems with this, and it bothers me enough that I feel that I should probably say something about it here.

My usual caveats stand: I am not telling anyone what to do or what terms to use but I am urging people to give some serious thought to the appropriateness and appropriation that may be going on here. I would also point out that whenever Irish cultural terms are being used it should be Irish cultural context and Irish people who ultimately act as the litmus test for use. It is not for us, as people outside that living culture, to take that term and redefine it in ways that suit us. 

I don't want to get excessively ranty, here, so let me just say a few things. 

Firstly as far as I know traditionally, like bean feasa, being a fairy doctor wasn't something you necessarily decided you were but something your community decided you were. Certainly there were, and still may be, people who were known in their communities and even further afield as fairy doctors. People got reputations for being able to tell when it was fairies that had caused an illness or injury and to handle harm caused by them. And there may well have been those who intentionally set themselves up that way - but the key is the community had to accept and respect that the person actually had the knowledge and skill to back it up. It wasn't a matter of having paid x amount of money and receiving a nice diploma saying you passed a course; it was a matter of actually doing the work and earning the reputation. 

You also darn sure better have the skills to back up the claim because if people are coming to you with Otherworldly problems its not just going to be little stuff like 'my keys keep disappearing' it's going to be 'I think I'm going mad, I can't stop dreaming of fairies, and I wake up covered in bruises'. It's worth remembering that fairy doctors were only called in when everything else, from common folk remedies to grandmother's secret cures, had failed. A fairy doctor is an expert, and I am beyond skeptical that any online or in-person course can teach this unless we are talking PhD levels of time and effort.

Both Yeats and Wilde discuss fairy doctors in their books, and while those sources have their issues, they are consistent in how the describe the fairy doctors of the 19th century: people known to have a connection to the Good People; thought to have learned their skill from that connection; able to discern the cause of supernatural afflictions be it witchcraft or fairies; able to cure with charms, chants, or herbs (Yeats, 1888, Wilde 1991). Most were said to have the Second Sight and used it so they could deal with the Good People and also tell where fairy paths were (Yeats, 1888). Wilde mentions that fairy doctors would not accept any payment for their services but only take barter or gifts in exchange, although such exchanges were expected; we see this illustrated in stories of Biddy Early who was called witch, bean feasa, and fairy doctor.  

Becoming a fairy doctor was not a matter of human tutelage, although Wilde suggests that they did teach their skills to their own children and Yeats says they would teach a single successor before they died. Instead becoming a fairy doctor was usually seen as something they learned directly from the Daoine Maithe usually through abduction by the fairies for a time, regular visiting with them, or a near death illness (Locke, 2013; O Crualaoich, 2003; Wilby, 2005). Unlike other practices then fairy doctors are somewhat unique in that the connection they had and knowledge they gained from the Otherworld was pivotal and not something by most accounts that could simply be taught, anymore than the Second Sight could be.

There are also indications from the source material on the 19th century fairy doctors that they were always people who, perhaps because of their strong connection to the Fair Folk, were considered odd. They were prone to going off - being away with the fairies - and to knowing more than they should about what had and would happen. They had peculiar personal habits, such as one man from Innis Sark who Lady Wilde described thus: "He never touched beer, spirits, or meat in all his life, but has lived entirely on bread, fruit. and vegetables...He will pay his share at a feast, but neither eats nor drinks of the food and drink set before him...Though well off, he never, even in his youth, thought of taking a wife; nor was he ever known to love a woman. He stands quite apart from life, and by this means holds his power over the mysteries. No money will tempt him to impart his knowledge to another, for if he did he would be struck dead--so he believes." (Wilde, 1991).

To summarize. Fairy doctors were/are people whose communities declare them such, not individuals who self label. Fairy doctors must be absolute experts at discerning and dealing with dangerous fairies and harm caused by them (and witches). Fairy doctors usually have the Sight, are taught directly by the fairies (are often referred to as friends of the fairies), and are skilled with magic and herbs. Fairy doctors don't accept money for their skill or knowledge relating to their craft. Fairy doctors don't choose to be fairy doctors; the job chooses them. Fairy doctors don't blend in to human society very well. 

I'm honestly not sure why anyone would want to be a fairy doctor given what it entails, but honestly unless you feel like the majority of that description legitimately applies to you I would suggest not calling yourself by the term. And if you really aspire to fairy doctorhood then I wish you luck and fortitude. You will need it.


Yeats, W., (1888) Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry 

Locke, T., (2013). The Fairy Doctor. Retrieved from Crualaoich, G., (2003) The Book of The Cailleach
Wilde, L., (1991). Irish Cures and Mystic Superstitions

Wilby, E., (2005) Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits

Friday, June 29, 2018

Book Release - Desire and Ashes

I'm excited to announce that the 7th book in my Between the Worlds series 'Desire and Ashes' is out today in paperback and on ebook.

From the back cover:
Bookshop owner Allie McCarthy is settling into life as a new mother along with her two spouses. She's got her hands full with an infant and a business to run, trying to walk a fine line between the human world she considers her home and the world of Fairy which is becoming more and more of a presence in her life. The last thing she wants is another complication in an already complicated life.
Then leaving work one night she finds a man collapsed on the sidewalk near her store, who has somehow been left an emotional blank. She has no idea how or by who but when she calls emergency services for help Detective Riordan, Allie's friend on the town's police force, shows up and tells her this isn't the first person they've found like this. The police mage has no idea what's happening to these people because they show no signs of magical trauma, but the police are hoping that Allie might have some ideas. Detective Riordan asks for her help investigating the case. She wants to say no; she's had her fill of being dragged into dangerous situations trying to do the right thing. But it quickly becomes clear that she is going to have to get involved whether she wants to or not because the town is in a lot more trouble than anyone has realized – and if the true cause comes to light before Allie and her family can stop them she’ll be the prime suspect in a crime the Elven Guard punishes by death.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Good Fairy Fiction

I often talk about my concerns with modern fiction and its portrayal of fairies, particularly the way they end up being humanized. While I understand why this happens and I can even appreciate it when reading it I see a lot of material from fiction that is clearly purely from an author's imagination making its way into modern pagan belief as if it were genuine folklore. Obviously that's a concern to me on multiple levels. Because of this I was recently asked for a list of books I would recommend for people looking for good fairy-themed fiction.

Top Recommendations
These are the main books that I suggest people look for if they want good folkloric depictions of fairies in modern stories. No books is going to be 100% perfect but these are as close as I can think of, and they are also good stories.

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett - a book in Pratchett's Disc World series I chose Lords and Ladies specifically because his view of the elves here is pretty spot on for how inhuman and inhumane they can be. To quote the book: “… people didn't seem to be able to remember what it was like with the elves around. Life was certainly more interesting then, but usually because it was shorter. And it was more colorful, if you liked the color of blood.”

Faery Sworn by Ron C Neito - a very creative story but overall fairly true to the folklore. Some variance on what the Seelie and Unseelie courts are called, but does a great job of including things like aversion to iron, viciousness, time slip between Fairy and earth, and etiquette. My only critique would be at the idea that there are only single beings in some of the categories we know from folklore, ie 'the kelpie' 'the nucklevee', but that's a fairly minor quibble.

The Knowing by Kevin Manwaring - hard to find at the moment, an excellent blend of older fairylore and the modern world. Based on the story of rev. Robert Kirk but imagining his descendants into our time, very accurate to older fairylore.

Secret of the Kelpie by Lari Don - a children's book, beautifully illustrated, and extremely true to folklore. A nice and necessary balance to many modern urban fantasy and young adult books that try to paint kelpies and other unseelie fairies as the good guys.

Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar - a unique look at urban fairies, although I usually try to avoid stories of small winged fae this one is worth the read. I particularly liked the multicultural aspects the author brought into the city fairies.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark - complicated story about magicians in 19th century England but has a great deal of fairylore in it as well as accurate depictions of the Good People

Spiritwalk by Charles de Lint - set in Canada, focused around a building, great mix of Celtic and North American fairylore.

Secondary Recommendations
These are also good books, however they do venture further from the folklore and need to be read with a grain of salt.

Modern Faery Tale series by Holly Black - gets points for portraying fairies along mostly traditional lines, and as ruthless and often cruel; loses points for tons of YA tropes and some major plot holes.

The SERRAted Edge series and Bedlam Bard series by Mercedes Lackey - Primarily written in the 90's the SERRAted Edge series* looks at the aos sidhe in modern America and includes a lot of folklore as well as some creative innovation, like the elves reacting to caffeine as if it were an addictive drug. The series is a bit dated at this point. The related Bedlam Bard series, which is set in the same universe and has some crossover, is also decent.

Toby Daye series by Seanan McGuire - modern fairies in America, reasonably close to folklore in many respects especially as regards politics in Fairy.

The Elfhome series by Wen Spencer - really interesting and creative look at an alternate reality where science has created an interdimensional gate that has accidentally shifted modern Pittsburgh into elfhome. Mixes tech with magic in fun ways, and uses Japanese folklore as a base, however it does take some creative liberties with that folklore that a Western audience may not fully recognize.

So there you have it. That covers my main recommendations and some secondary recommendations. Generally speaking I think most urban fantasy, while my favorite genre, tends to fall into the secondary recommendations (I'd even include my own in that by the way) because in order to create the story liberties with the folklore have to be taken, especially where there are romantic themes or subthemes which is almost the entire genre. It's often a safe bet to say if the fairies or a fairy in the book are main characters and even slightly relatable or sympathetic then liberties are being taken with the folklore (Faery Sworn is a notable and unusual exception).

*caveat I do not recommend the newest book in the series, Silence, which is co-written by Cody Martin. It ventures far from the rest of the series, and while the folklore isn't entirely inaccurate the book is not well written.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fairy Donuts are Off Limits

Recently I had written a blog about viewing Fairyland as modern and reassessing our conceptions of it and its inhabitants. Following on that I saw a post by Chas Clifton on his blog at Letters from Hardscrabble Creek 'In the Land of Fairy Don't Eat the Pentagram Pizza' which touched on my blog as well the post by John Beckett that had inspired mine, but Clifton also went further to talk about modern human food in Fairy and suggested "there might be some tempting restaurants".

And that has me thinking, because he makes an excellent point that definitely needs to be brought up. Just as we tend to have an anachronistic view of Fairy itself and those within it, seeing medieval towns and tunic clad, hose wearing people, we may also anachronize the food. Or at least have a very specific idea of what food we'd be offered. And like so many other instances where there can be danger when we let our guard down if we are watching out for the ubiquitous fairy apple to be offered to us by a cloak-clad crone as we walk a dusty road we may unthinkingly take the lemonade offered by the friendly child or the biscotti offered as a free sample in front of a cafe.
And we'll forget that all of these are the exact same delicious trap. 

When we look at folklore it's very clear - and I've discussed before - that eating the food of Fairy is dangerous. It binds a person to the place, either through obligation or transmutation. But when we think of what food we'd be offered what do we imagine? 

Probably not donuts and milkshakes.

I can understand why people tend to have a set idea of what food they'd be offered in Fairy. In the folklore it's often simply called food and that's not helpful. When it is specified, in the Adventures of Connla or the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, we see apples being mentioned. Not for any Christian symbolism in my opinion, at least not originally, but for older mythic themes of youth and immortality. Apples and the Otherworld have very old connections afterall, to the point that Manannán's realm there is named 'region of apple-trees' [Emain Abhlac]. In Rosetti's poem 'the Goblin Market' the fairy food was fruit of various kinds. It's easy to go with the idea of fruit, and because we have an ingrained view of Fairyland as primitive and existing in our past people tend to naturally picture historic dishes or simple foods. And in fairness you may encounter or hear stories of people being offered that sort of thing; In Cutchin's book 'Trojan Feast' he mentions modern encounters where people were offered berries, pancakes, and milk to name a few. So that does still happen and I don't want to imply it doesn't. 

But just as there are cities to be found in Fairy and modern encounters of fairy beings that look very much like humans but are not* we may also encounter or be offered fairy food that is not what we expect. Personally I find baked goods to be pretty common, especially sweet breads, rather like bread-shaped cakes, and little cakes. I think though that if they were trying to lure a person in they would offer whatever seemed most alluring and innocuous to that person. If you happen to run into a group of the Good People who are trying to trap you they may offer you the prerequisite apple, but they may also offer you chocolate chip cookies just like you loved as a child or invite you to sit down to that aforementioned pizza, which just happens to be your favorite. There was a post on Tumblr that mentioned the Good People using a coffee shop to trap the unwary, where you were fine if you stuck to what you paid for but you were doomed if you accepted anything offered for free - because in Fairy nothing is ever free. 

So always remember my friends, no matter how much you want that donut in Fairy just say no and keep walking on. 

* see Fairy Census entry #22 for one example