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What Religion did Fairies Follow? January 22, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Modern , trackback

Beach’s endless reading in the literature of fairies has led him to a couple of unusual passages. He honestly doesn’t know that to make of them. In truth, they frighten him.

The first is from a south-western fairy tale where a man is reunited with his ‘dead’ fiancé who is actually trapped in fairy land. While there she explains the lifestyle, beliefs and manners of the fairy folk.

‘For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’ of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.’

This rather ghastly half life is bad enough, but what Beachcombing finds most intriguing is the reference to ‘star-worshipping’. What on earth does this mean in this context? Is it an erudite nineteenth-century reference to astrology? Or is it, if we want to be almost absurdly ambitious, a memory of Neolithic religion in  Cornwall in the 1800s? There has long, of course, been the idea that the fairies are the memory of an earlier civilisation.

Beach would plump for astrology and sleep well the night after. But every so often other sources have curious details about fairy religion that are rather more difficult to explain away. This is Robert Kirk on the fairies in his Secret Commonwealth, written in 1691 describing fairy beliefs.

They live much longer than we yet die at last, or least vanish from that state. For ‘tis one of their tenets that nothing perisheth, but (as the sun and year) everything goes in a circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its revolutions, as ‘tis another that every body in the creation moves (which is a sort of life), and that nothing moves, but has another animal moving on it, and so on, to the utmost minutest corpuscule that’s capable to be a receptacle of life.

We have here a slightly intellectualised version of village Hinduism. But what the hell is it doing in late seventeenth-century Scotland? There are two explanations that jump to Beachcombing’s mind.

First, a wild one: the ancients compared druidic belief to Pythagoras. Is it possible that this transmigration of souls comes from authentic druidic customs that have somehow survived to be represented as fairy beliefs? There was long the idea that fairy belief stemmed from druidic belief.

Second, a contorted version of the same. Is it possible that knowing that transmigration was connected with the druids the seventeenth century had connected these beliefs with the fairies as an act of antiquarianism?

For the record, Beach suspects that both explanations are wrong. And this paragraph remains like a great beached whale flapping its tail and daring us to explain it.

So what is going on here? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


22/1/2012: Phil P writes in to say ‘One other possibility comes to mind. The Rom as presumed to have originally come from India. (Romany is related closely to Sanskrit) Is it possible that they brought a bit of Hindu cosmology to Scotland? I don’t know how far back their presence in the isles goes.’ Thanks Phil! Several correspondents wrote in afterwards with a fifteenth/sixteenth century date for the arrival of fairies.

24/1/2012: Invisible is next: ‘The first excerpt you quote—it seems very “literary” rather than coming from genuine folk/fairy tales. What is the location and date? Who “collected” the tale? [Beach: Robert Hunt, 1865] I’d almost suspect some Theosophist/Yeats-ian interpolation. [Beach: about ten years too early?] As for the second 1671 quote, I’d see it as more of a reflection on the rising interest in science/molecular theory and microscopy. Here are a few tidbits on the subject: In Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas p. 725 One sixteenth-century wizard stated that the fairies had power only over those lacking religious faith. p. 729 Most of those who remained sympathetic to fairy-beliefs admitted the Roman Catholic character of the fairy kingdom. ‘Theirs is a mixt religion,’ wrote Robert Herrick, ‘part pagan, part papistical.’ [The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, ed. L.C. Martin ( Oxford 1956), p. 91] Goodwin Wharton, who was tricked by Mrs Parish into believing that he had extensive relations with the fairies, or ‘low-landers’, as she sometimes called them, was told that they were ‘Christians, serving…God that way, much in the manner of the Roman Catholics, believing [in] transubstantiation, and having a Pop who resides here in England.’ [ British Museum , London Add. MS 20,006, f. 36v.] Although I cannot quickly find the source, the Elves of Iceland (huldufólk/hidden people) are believed to come in both Christian and pagan varieties. Here is the info from the Huldufolk FB page. Note the tiny churches: Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people from huldu- “pertaining to secrecy” and fólk “people”, “folk”) are elves in Icelandic folklore. Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk. In 1982, 150 Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for “elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets and AWACS reconnaissance planes.” In 2004, Alcoa had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminum smelter in Iceland . In 2011, elves/huldufólk were believed by some to be responsible for an incident in Bolungarvík where rocks rained down on residential streets. Icelandic gardens often feature tiny wooden álfhól (elf houses) for elves/hidden people to live in. Some Icelanders have also built tiny churches to convert elves to Christianity. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has explained the existence of huldufólk tales by saying: “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.” Hidden people often appear in the significant or prophetic dreams of Icelanders. They are usually described as wearing 19th-century Icelandic clothing, and are often described as wearing green. I remembered reading Icelandic tales [repeated in Ireland again and again] that told of elves despondent over their salvation. Here’s a site that gives some of those tales.   The Count writes in: ‘Concerning the intriguing though staggeringly pointless question of which religion is adhered to by creatures who don’t exist in the first place, I found myself, very surprisingly, stimulated to give the matter some serious thought, since, as you say, this is an extraordinarily intriguing subject, even if it has no bearing on anything that matters in any way whatsoever… Here are my conclusions, which unexpectedly turn out to have some possible bearing on reality. Since this missive has turned out to be quite long, I am not suggesting that you publish the whole thing on your blog – it is merely food for thought. But do with it as you will. Anyway… You don’t give a source or a date for your curious quote about fairies being “star-worshippers” [1865 Robert Hunt, Cornwall UK], but assuming this is a genuinely old folk-tale as opposed to a bit of random nonsense made up for the kiddies, this whole paragraph could be read as a garbled description of the beliefs of the Cathars. The Cathar élite, the Perfecti, led extraordinarily ascetic lives and actively tried to belong less and less to this horrible sinful world, longing for the time when they would die and rejoin the Godhead. Catharism was one of the few religions that encouraged ritual suicide when you reached what you considered to be your condition of peak holiness! Since this ferocious level of holier-than-thou-ness was very hard to maintain for one’s whole life, most of the Perfecti were old men, and many Cathars only took the final vows on their deathbeds. The Perfecti may very well have been scarily fanatical ultra-pessimists whom everybody else was in awe of. And the “star-worshipping” thing could easily refer to a misunderstanding of their belief that humans – and to some extent every living creature – contained tiny bright specks of the actual substance of God, the entire point of their religion being to render themselves so far removed from this horrible wicked world created by the Devil masquerading as God that these little pieces of God (which surpasseth all understanding – ha ha! – theological joke!) would be able to return to the Divine Light, which existed unreachably far above us, instead of being recycled to continue their miserable existence in this vale of tears, which actually constituted torture of God. It all fits rather well, does it not? You say this tale is from the “south-west”, which I take to mean Britain. Since prior to the Albigensian Crusade the Cathars had no significant presence in Britain, it would have been a logical place for small bands of them to flee to. Even if they were officially heretics there just like everywhere else, the average peasant wouldn’t have heard of them and wouldn’t automatically get worked up about them being in the neighborhood. Living in forests would not be a problem for people who embraced asceticism in all its forms, and the very fact that they were deliberately poor and humble to a downright excessive degree struck a chord with poor people who had come to associate the Catholic Church with greed and oppression (which was why there was a crusade against them in the first place, of course). So we’re talking about mysterious people who are obviously from somewhere else who live in the forest and aren’t Christians, and are therefore actively persecuted by the church. And since they regarded getting their message across as more important than life itself, they wouldn’t have been shy about attempting to explain their weird beliefs to an uncomprehending farmer who could probably barely understand their accent. Note also that since the Cathars believed that creating more life was a sin (for the reasons stated above), sex was heavily discouraged even within marriage, and was utterly out of the question for Perfecti. Thus a small group of Cathars devout enough to hold out to the bitter end in a forest would presumably have a birth-rate somewhere between “very low” and “non-existent”. This would tend to doom them to fairly speedy extinction, but it would also explain the belief that fairies have trouble reproducing in the usual way. Of course, fairies supposedly existed long before the Albigensian Crusade. However, existing beliefs could have been modified by subsequent events. Especially if the original fairy stories were based on a similar but longer-lasting situation where tiny pockets of Druids continued to dwell in forests, which is known to have been the case well into the early Christian era, mostly in Brittany and to some extent in Wales, but quite possibly elsewhere too. Note that the Druids had an all-male priesthood and lived in all-male communities so that women wouldn’t find out their holy secrets, whatever they were. For a dying religion with a dwindling trickle of recruits, this must have been a problem, and may well have given rise to that whole thing about fairies having trouble reproducing and being forced to steal babies – which desperate Druids may actually have done a few times. On a related note, the official Christian position on fairies was that, not being humans or angels, they had to be devils, because there were no other alternatives. However, the common people had strong beliefs in these creatures who, though scary and sometimes malicious, were nowhere near relentlessly evil enough to be proper demons, and could sometimes actually be nice. Therefore a totally unofficial belief grew up that fairies were angels who had refused to take sides in the original war in Heaven, and as a punishment for fence-sitting, didn’t fall as far as the really bad guys, but instead were condemned to wander the Earth forever as a morally ambiguous and totally irrelevant third party mainly preoccupied with apathetically wishing Doomsday would come around so it would all be over. Not unlike the Liberal Democrats. This idea does fit in quite well with some of what your sources say about fairy religion, but it also states quite categorically that fairies are failed angels. If you know for an absolute fact that there are no gods but God because you used to live with Him, it’s a bit silly to waste your time worshipping stars! Interestingly, Islam incorporated a lot of untidy Middle Eastern popular beliefs by officially embracing this idea from the start. The djinn are neither divine nor infernal, just an irresponsible bunch of random supernatural beings who mostly just do their own thing. The famous variety who usually seem to end up imprisoned in lamps for some reason are the most powerful djinn, but there are dozens of other varieties, ranging all the way down to trivially unpleasant monsters that are basically supernatural animals. Djinn are more strongly inclined towards evil than fairies, perhaps because they were never angels in the first place and therefore don’t sit around all day moping, so they’re much more energetically amoral, and that sort of thing tends to end badly for somebody. Also, the most powerful djinn are so terrifying that they don’t really have counterparts in Fairyland. But other than that, djinn and fairies are basically identical. Since Islam and Christianity partially agree, certainly on the entire monotheism issue, I would have to say that as far as the official position of the world’s major religions goes, fairies are lapsed Muslims. KMH writes ‘Contrary to popular opinion, none of man’s or fairy’s religions in the beginning worshipped physical objects such as the stars, the sun, or animals. What was actually worshipped was the spirit, or higher entity, intrinsically associated with these objects. Unfortunately as cultures and religions decline their own adherents may not truly understand what they are doing. So we are given these simplistic explanations of religious beliefs from sources not understanding their real basis. Before astrology there was an ancient tradition of star gazing to obtain inspiration from these higher entities which Christians would say are no more than angels.  See. Rev. 1:20 for an example of the identification of stars with angels. Today we have the UFO-alien connection with stars (or their planets) which seemingly corroborates the ancient beliefs, except that the angels have been  replaced with beings deviating enough from the human form for the ancients to classify them as demonic. There is a lot of literature today from star-beings which has been channelled by mediums or obtained by direct contact.’ Thanks KMH, Invisible and the Count!

28/1/12: Precious stuff from PJ: ‘I was very interested in your post on the religion of fairies.  I’ve been reading Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar by Robert Lebling.  Throughout it I haven’t been able to help comparing/contrasting the way Islam views their versions of fairies and the way fairies are often regarded in such books as Eddie Lenihan’s collection, Meeting with the Other Crowd.  Often the priests in those Irish stories tell of fairies being a rather sad lot, knowing they’ll never gain salvation (because they aren’t human).  This makes them inimicable to good Christians everywhere.  One of your other correspondents mentioned a similar theme in the Icelandic tradition.  I must say, if I knew that the accident of my birth (as a fairy) would mean I’d be condemned at the End of Time, I might feel rather peeved myself and tend to act out in unpleasant ways against ‘the lucky ones’. I know someone else already brought up the djinn/Islam connection, but I wanted to share an interesting passage from Legends of the Fire Spirits:The earliest Muslim interpretations of jinn regard them as having free will, like humans, able to choose between good and evil.  The Qur’an itself has a chapter devoted to these spirit beings: Sura 72, Al-Jinn.  This sura begins by mentioning a group of jinn who listened to the recitation of the Qur’an and decided to accept Islam… An ancient mosque in Mecca is dedicated to the jinn who accepted the Prophet’s message.  Masjid al-Jinn (Mosque of the Jinn) is either the locale where the jinn actually listened to the Prophet recite the Qur’an, or the place where he received revelation of the sura called Al-Jinn… [Richard Burton visited this mosque and wrote of it in Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah.] Legends of the Fire Spirits again: These jinn made a commitment to monotheism, the core of Islam.  Other Qur’anic passages indicate that jinn had heard of earlier revelations, such as that of Moses and the Trinitarian doctrine of Christianity. For Muslims, the beings we call jinn—however they may be conceptualised—are an integral and ever-present part of the language and theology of their faith. The existence of these creatures is assumed and reiterated numerous places in the Qur’an.  The book, at its very outset, calls Allah rabb al’-alamin, ‘lord of the worlds,’ understood from the earliest days of Islam to mean all possible worlds that could exist, including the worlds of humans, of jinn and of heaven. The Qur’an often mentions mankind and jinn together as the two types of creatures capable of receiving—and accepting or rejecting—the divine message.’ RPJ meanwhile connects fairy religion with other things: ‘Your article about the vague notions of ‘star worshiping’ among the faerie folk remind not about astrology, but about the concept of ‘psychic channeling’ of messages coming from intelligences that ‘dwell’ out in the Cosmos. Like Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, and his speculations that he was receiving messages coming from Orion. Similar ideas can be found elsewhere in the counter-culture —e.g. Philip K. Dick’s ‘Valis’. And about ‘soul transmigration’, this resonates with that encounter Facius Cardan had with 2 sylphs, and how one of them told him that nothing of the person survives after death. Might this arcane passage be related to the others you wrote about?’ Then we have the legendary Da-da. ‘Hey, Beachminster. Be careful when you apply that crusty word, ‘religion’, for things like elementals and beings who may be ABOVE us spiritually. A religion is merely a set of theories based on what some people believe about another person who had the actual experience — and they’re usually not the same people who had the original experience that brought about the ‘religion’. (Indeed, when that does occasionally happen, Da-da smells a rat.) The key word here is EXPERIENCE that leads to real KNOWLEDGE (forgive the capitals, Da-da’s weak). Take Buddha and Jesus, for example, two guys who would have done anything while alive to keep us from making them the centers of religions. Da-da for one has a few key mystical experiences which led to knowledge of what is really going on in the universe and beyond. These  were rather startling and challenging events, so Da-da typically keeps them to himself (Da-da has seen the angry villagers at the end of ‘FRANKENSTEIN’). However, if he told some people about an experience and they started to congregate and talk about said experience with actual eyewitnesses to Da-da *having* the experience, and that group banded together to group-remember what Da-da said and created rituals to commemorate it… well, that’s religion: a rather severe celebration of someone else’s experience that has very little to do with the experience at all, and certainly doesn’t lead to real knowledge. So, in terms of The Good Folk, they may not necessarily have a religion per se, as much as they have something that hinges on knowledge based on direct experience of something we have no inkling of. The point is really moot, as we won’t know what’s going on until we recognize and absorb all our various macules into what we once were, reaching that certain point where the carousel of time stops, as it will no longer be needed, and it’s last call at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. AND it needs be said that enquiries into Good Folk subject matter are fraught with peril (again, more direct experience), as the beings we’re talking about are, well… INHUMAN about their privacy. Any of that make sense? Da-da can say that, given his own knowledge of the near- and far-ancients, that they themselves were intractable and adamantine fanatics about the sky and stars, and about astronomical observation and calculation and the numbers describing same. We as a hominid group used to be soooo much smarter – and yet just as foolish – but we’re learning. Now all we need do is drop the savagery. A Man Called Da-da. P.S. In terms of the KNOWLEDGE Da-da possesses, suffice to say that we are non-local beings having a local experience. –AMCD’. This post has probably produced the most unusual comments Beach has yet read on this site and that is saying something. It is a privilege to host PJ, Da-da and RPJ! Thanks guys!

News stories: thanks to correspondents.