Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Why Do We View Fairies As Nature Spirits?

It's a widespread idea at this point particularly in modern paganism and popular Western culture that fairies are nature spirits, that is that they are intrinsically bound to our natural world in some way. This idea is often simply stated as fact, implied to have always been true, or even argued as the older or more legitimate belief. In paganism its one aspect of a current trend I'm seeing to homogenize and simplify fairies by defining them as easily as possible, erasing all the nuances and complexity that we find in the actual folklore and beliefs. It's so pervasive that I felt it necessary awhile ago to make a Youtube video addressing the confusion between fairies and nature spirits but I thought it might also be good to write a bit about it.

Waterhouse, 'The Mystic Wood', public domain


I'm not telling anyone what to believe but what does bother me is seeing people claiming that the idea of fairies as spirits of nature is ancient, from a Celtic culture, or in line with folklore. Of course there are examples of beings that we might now classify as fairies from various cultures - I'm looking at you Greece and Rome - that are heavily tied into nature and might fit the description of a nature spirit. Dryads and Naiads are often mentioned, whether they should properly be considered nature spirits or not I don't know (I don't know enough about how they were understood in classical thought) and Genii Locorum [spirits of places] get tossed in there as well. The Norse landvaettir may also be considered nature spirits by some reckoning, although again whether they fit the more modern concepts of a nature spirit the way that popular culture envisions flower fairies or modern pagans muddle elementals into it is an open question.

So what then is a nature spirit? I don't think there is any one agreed on definition of this term which is used rather nebulously by different groups. The most basic view of course is that a nature spirit is a spirit of nature, that is a spirit which inhabits or ensouls any natural object or phenomena. The world around us then is full of spirits, large and small, which most humans are simply oblivious to. Nature spirits are sometimes confused with the Indian concept of a Deva (literally divine being) or with the early Renaissance idea of Elementals (beings existing within specific alchemical elements), but again both of these terms are not directly synonymous to nature spirits anymore than fairies would be.

What is a fairy? At its most basic a fairy is an Otherworldly being, although the term is often applied more to such beings from the Celtic cultural milieu than elsewhere. The word is also often used as an adjective, hence 'fairy woman' (bean sidhe), fairy godmother, or fairy hound to describe a more specific type of being that is from Fairy/the Otherworld. While the term in modern contexts has started to take on a very specific application in some areas thanks to mass media of a small winged female sprite its wider use is still inline with the older definition which can be seen across the last 700 hundred years or so. Many, many different kinds of Otherworldly beings that are known in folklore and anecdotes under specific names from Brownies to Urisgs, from Bean Sidhe to Each Uisce, would fall under the wider term of fairy.

While many modern pagans and some non-pagan academics may view fairies, in toto, now as nature spirits that is definitely not how they have been understood across history, although as noted some nature spirits do fall into the wider definition of 'fairy'. Rather from its inception in the 12th and 13th centuries the word fairy was applied to beings from the Otherworld (i.e. the world of Fairy) that is beings who were inherently not from the human world. Fairies could pass between the human world and their own world as they chose to, could be seen or be invisible, could - in fact were known to - change their habitations regularly. They were even known to emigrate across oceans with populations or individuals something nature spirits cannot do being bioregion specific. While they may defend natural locations or things like a tree or boulder this is never done because its a tree or boulder but because it belongs to the fairies, or put another way it isn't based on a desire to protect the environment generally but out of territoriality (the same as humans fighting over territory will defend what they perceive to be theirs). As often as we see stories of fairies defending a fairy tree we see stories of them striking a person down for building on a fairy road or fouling a fairy well; its the violation of their possession of a space not the natural world they are angry over.

So, how did this current Westernized view comes about? It was a confluence of different factors rooted in upper and later middle class media and occultism, which explains why the viewpoint is predominantly found today in popculture and modern paganism, but is less common in cultures that still hold older views and understandings of fairies. A concise timeline of the shift in how mainstream Western culture viewed fairies in relation to nature:

  • Victorian Era - The Victorian era ran from roughly 1837 to 1901, encompassing the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria. It marked a period that included the end of the Industrial Revolution and many social changes including the growth of the middle class in both the United States and Britain. This period is notable for its romanticism of nature and the natural world, poetic appreciation of paganism and pagan themes, and its radical re-envisioning of fairies in art and literature. Victorian culture, divorced from actual belief in fairies, instead made them the fodder of entertainment infantilizing them, diminishing them, and gentling them in character and appearance, among many other things*.
  • Theosophy - beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century Theosophy was the precursor for the 20th century New Age movement and drew on concepts from Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Rosicrucianism. It forwarded an understanding of fairies drawn from a blend if contemporary cultural romanticism of nature (see previous point) and the 15th century alchemical classification of fairies as elemental beings. Combining these two concepts resulted in a view of fairies as tied to natural elements and strongly connected to the natural world. 
  • Edwardians - following the Victorian era we move into the Edwardian, and we see a continuation of the shift in fairies in mainstream culture. JM Barrie's Peter Pan play and book are released during this time and the infamous Cottingley fairy pictures begin at the end of this era; both typify the way that modern popular culture has come to view fairies as small, fairly harmless**, and connected to the natural world in dress, home, and appearance. Immediately following this period we see Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairy books emerging which crystalize all of the previous influences into a single form: the fairy as small nature spirit.
  • 20th Century Pagans - moving into the later 20th century we find these previous influences taken into different corners of paganism and appearing in diverse books. Fairies are defined as spirits of nature, often directly conflated to elementals using the classical alchemical system, and sometimes further seen as guardians of nature and guides to human evolution and right relationship with the earthly world. 
This modern view of fairies as nature spirits then is one that has been woven across the last 150 years or so initially coming from groups who did not necessarily believe in fairies but were indulging in a need for entertainment using fairies as the players on the stage, taken from there back into belief, then out again, then back in. This process has largely divorced the fairy-as-nature-spirit from the folkloric fairy, and even perhaps the actual nature spirits from the popular culture ideas of nature-fairies. 

Ultimately we can perhaps argue that some fairies are nature spirits, given how loose the definitions of both terms are, but it's an egregious oversimplification to say that all fairies are spirits of nature. We can also say that people who are seeking nature spirits and calling them fairies are getting nature spirits and this undoubtedly adds to the current muddy waters on the subject. But we must be very careful not to generalize out and assume that all fairies are nature spirits because some may be, or even because the ones that a certain author writes about or a certain person connects to are. The bulk of fairylore and modern anecdotal accounts from living cultures with active fairy beliefs show that these Otherworldly beings are not directly tied to the natural world but are travellers who come and go here.

The best way to understand fairies is to look to the living cultures the beliefs come from. Much of what we have as mainstream or popculture beliefs, while not necessarily useless, must be understood in context to really be understood. If you want to understand nature spirits, look to the world around you and work to connect to it; if you want to understand fairies look to generations of gathered knowledge, experience, and be very careful. One of these things is not like the other.


*Entire books have been written on this subject alone so I can only touch on it here but I suggest Purkiss's 'At The Bottom Of The Garden' or Silver's 'Strange and Secret Peoples' if the subject interests you. Suffice to say that some Victorian fairies did still have teeth and dangerous sexuality but the period saw a major shift in how the middle and upper class of America and Britain saw and understood fairies that has and still is effecting mainstream culture today.
** Tinkerbell was undeniably homicidal in the older source material but also unable to harm Wendy herself - she needed to trick others into doing it for her. Folkloric fairies would not have been so impotent in the same situation. There's also the famous scene where she needs the human audience to believe in fairies to bring her back to life.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Miscellaneous Q & A

It's been a while since I've done an open question and answer blog so I thought I'd start off 2019 with one. I opened my social media to questions and have gathered both the questions and my responses below.



Dana asks: How much does your fairy faith inform your fantasy fiction?
My answer: A lot, although fiction does carve its own course in places by necessity.

Aleja asks: Where does the name NicNevin come from? Is there another name for that Fairy Queen? Any relation to Nemhain (which I think is pronounced similar to Nevin, correct me if I'm wrong)?
My answer: There's no agreement on it, but the current leading theory is that it's from Scots 'nic naohim' meaning daughter of the little saint. Alternate theories do include nic neamhain daughter of Neamhain and nic cnàmhain daughter of the bones if I remember correctly. She is sometimes simply called the Queen of Elfame but doesn't have another proper name that I know of.

Bryan asks: [Tell me about] leannan sidhe?
My answer: Basically there are two sorts of Leannan Sidhe - there are the predatory kind which Yeats wrote about (and who have Manx equivalents) that inspire creative people but feed on their life force, and there are also the ones who are just 'fairy lovers' (which is what leannan sidhe means more or less). Even the non predatory ones aren't exactly safe as they generally at some point will want to take their human lover with them into their own world. When a human has a leannan sidhe of either variety it is very, very difficult to break that connection if you want to, although ironically it can be easily broken involuntarily as there are many accounts of people who loved their fairy sweetheart but broke a fairy prohibition around them, usually relating to speaking to others about their existence, and lost them forever. The human usually goes mad.

Robert asks: More a about the results of unions with Fairy Lovers.
Some of the families and clans that have that in their family history. There is a famous family of physicians that resulted from this sort of event.
And some good lines of fishermen from Selkies.
My answer: the physicians of Myddfai, yes. Descended from a Gwraig Annwn who then taught them knowledge of healing.
Generally unions of humans and fairy lovers can result in all sorts of things from death to babies. There's a lot of material in folklore that gets into this because its actually not at all uncommon - we see it Norse and Icelandic stories, we see it in German stories, we see it across the Celtic language speaking countries. the MacLeod's by some versions of the story have a fairy ancestress, as do many Irish families - off the top of my head including the O'Keefe's, McCarthy's, FitzGerald's, descendants of the Eóganachta, and O'Leary. Kelpies are known sometimes to have children with human women, as do selkies, and maran, and elves, and of course Daoine Sidhe.

Kris asks: Although I believe in, and have experienced the reality of deities often, I have never had an experience where I thought "hmmm that's the good folk/elves/brownies/etc". I DO have an open mind about it, but maybe not subconsciously, I don't know. So what about people like me? Am I missing out? Am I in more danger because I can't sense them? Should I not worry about it unless they make themselves known to me?
My answer: generally if there's no reason for you to reach out to them then its always better to leave well enough alone. I'd say its a good idea to have some general familiarity with them in case you ever find yourself in a situation where you need it, because you never know, but you don't need to worry about missing out if they aren't readily apparent to you. Some pagan traditions have actively incorporated the Good People, under various guises, into their worship and some people don't have a lot of choice about whether they interact or not, and for those people it is really important to know what they are and how to do what needs doing safely. But the best analogy I can make is that its like keeping bees, there are reasons people should do it, there are reasons people will do it, and there are perfectly good reasons never to do it at all, but its good to have some basic knowledge for safety around a hive no matter what because it has its dangers along with its positives. If that makes sense?

Patricia asks: Do you think when you work out in nature a lot (many hours per week) , and pay more attention to what goes on in the woods and gardens that it gets noticed by the Other Crowd?
My answer: I think that when you attune yourself to things that matter to the Other Crowd, they may take notice although that will vary (in other words there's no guarantee). It's also complicated because of the sheer diversity of the Fair Folk. But in general, yes, I think that its possible especially if you are making places for them in some sense.

Lucya asks: What are the similarities and differences between fairy belief in Cornwall and Ireland?
My answer: Overall very similar as I understand it, although Cornish belief is more focused on pixies and sees fairies as very small beings who are perpetually shrinking (also a Manx belief) where Irish lore sees at least some of them as the size of an average adult human. Both have stories of changelings, people led astray, fairy ointment, berries spoiled after Samhain, and fairies bringing either luck or bane.

Lesley asks: I would love to know more about living with the Good Neighbours, likes/dislikes, how often to leave food offerings, how to approach leaving offerings, how to keep them happy.
My answer: I generally make an offering once a week, although I may leave something out spontaneously more often. the biggest thing with that is to keep in mind that if you start a regular schedule they will expect you to keep it so I usually encourage people to ease into that, maybe start with holidays and special occasions. I generally leave them cream or baked goods, sometimes milk, butter, or fruit. I've found that they will express their likes and dislikes in less than subtle ways. there's no big ritual to it for me I just put it in a specific place each time for them and take a minute to focus on what I'm doing.

Mat asks: This one is based on the interview you did on weird Web Radio. Can you elaborate more on the idea that the fae don't like being referred to as the fae? I've never heard that but find it fascinating.
Also, I would love your take on the idea that the fae find the words "thank you" highly offensive.
Also, what's the primary difference between faery, goblin, ogre, troll, etc?
My answer: 1. There's a belief that the Good People don't like being called fairies which goes back at least several hundred years. Its tied into the idea of using euphemisms, although there's no real clarity on why calling them fairies specifically annoys them, just that it does, as illustrated in this poem from 1842 (its in Scots so I'll give it in english after):
""Gin ye ca' me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I'll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca' me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca' me seelie wicht
I'll be your freend baith day and nicht."
- Chambers, 1842
[If you call me imp or elf
I counsel you, look well to yourself;
If you call me fairy
I'll work you great misery;
If good neighbor you call me
Then good neighbor I will be;
But if you call me seelie wight
I'll be your friend both day and night].
the idea is pretty strongly ingrained even today. If you are going to get their attention by discussing them its better to do so using a name they prefer.
2. I think some of them find it offensive for the same reason some of them abhor the gift of clothing, because it implies they did a service for a human, even if they did. I'd also note though the bigger reason I generally recommend avoiding saying thank you is that semantically in english 'thank you' is an implicit acknowledgement of a debt owed, saying 'I'll remember this', and that's dangerous ground with fairies who may collect on that debt when you don't expect it.
3. Complicated. Many terms that we tend to assume are specifics are actually generics, including fairy, elf, and goblin. Fairy as I mention in another answer basically means 'Otherworldly being'; elf *probably* comes from a root word meaning white and also is used for a class of beings rather than one specific type; goblin's meaning is ultimately unknown but again is applied to various troublesome dangerous fairies. And to complicate matters further as you can see from the poem above the same being might be called imp, elf, or fairy in a single source (and we do see this even in anecdotal accounts). Trolls are a bit like this in that they have regional variants, but their folklore is a bit more cohesive; large, generally grumpy, turns to stone in sunlight. Ogres are man-eating giants.

Uailo asks: Do you think Yunnwi Tsundi(for others reading they are the "little people" of the Cherokee lore) classify as Fairies or more Nature Spirits? Or just "Other"? They seem to have some similar antics and qualities.
My answer: I tend to see the Yundwi Tsundi and the Nunnehi, as along the lines of a kind of fairy type being, much like the Jinn might be. I think cross-culturally there are a lot of similarities.

Donald asks: Could some cryptid encounters actually be fae?
My answer: I think some of what are called cryptids now would have been called fairies historically.

Shannon asks: How do you protect and support kids who are sensitive to this stuff?
My answer: I think listening and believing them when they talk about their experiences is very important. Also not blowing off their concerns or fears when they are expressed. You can start teaching children young how to ground and center, shield, focus, cleanse, all the basic good psychic hygiene things.

Melissa asks: What would America look like if we took the idea of faeries seriously?What is a faery, anyway? And should I be worried?
Help! My teenager lives in the Otherworld! How do I get her back to (my) reality?
what are shadow people and how can I defend myself and my family against them?
My answers: 1. Probably a lot better to be honest
2. A fairy, or faery (spelling has always varied widely), is a general term for a being of the Otherworld. The word has been in use since about the 13th century in English, originally as a term for the place and an adjective for things with the nature of that place.
3. Should you be worried about fairies? Possibly
4. Have you tried turning her socks inside out or burning mugwort around her?
5. Opinions on this will vary.For my own part I think that shadow people are more a category than a single thing. I think we can find human ghosts that interact in this form, negative entities that appear this way, and also some fairies that can present as shadow people. Because they inspire fear one way I have found to effectively deal with them is to stand up to them. Many spirits that feed on fear, again ime, will leave if you don't give them what they want. I've also used some traditional Icelandic runestaves against ghosts that have proved effective against shadow people as well, and iron seems to work well against negative entities in general in many cases. Unfortunately because they are so diverse sometimes it takes some experimentation to find what will work in a specific situation with them