Fairies and Vegetation March 16, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Yes, sorry, Beach has not respected his only one-fairy-post a week rule. But this just proved too interesting to let go AND it was keeping him awake while Mrs B was gently snoring besides him.
First the facts. In many modern works fairies are portrayed as ‘nature spirits’ actively working for trees, flowers, gorse bushes or whatever else is green and tickles your fancy. Sometimes they are allies of nature, sometimes they are the personification of nature and sometimes things get all very Gaia and the two points mesh. For example, in an astute modern essay: ‘If fairies are some hidden aspect of natural processes, the personification of rotting or photo-synthesis in a parallel reality, then – yes, maybe I can believe in them.’
Modern instances of this let’s-all-vote-green tendency are countless though there are some particularly striking descriptions associated with the New Age commune at Findhorn in Scotland. For example, a nature spirit there explained to Robert Ogilvie Crombie ‘that he lived in the Garden, and that his work was to help the growth of trees. He went on to say that the Nature Spirits had lost interest in humans, since they have been made to feel that they are neither believed in nor wanted. He thought that men were foolish to think that they could do without the Nature spirits.’
It would be interesting to see if this concern over nature and humanity’s ‘broken relationship with the planet’ can also be traced in post-war UFO reports as environmental angst and anxiety grow in the 1950s and 1960s.
Beach has found many references to fairies as nature drones in theosophical works. For example, take this from Edward Gardner’s Fairies: A Book of Real Fairies (1945).
The life of the nature spirit, nearly the lowest or outermost of all, is active in woodland, meadow and garden, in fact with vegetation everywhere, for its function is to furnish the vital connecting link between the stimulating energy of the sun and the raw material of the form-to-be. The growth of a plant from a seed, which we regard as the ‘natural’ result of its being placed in a warm and moist soil, could not happen unless nature’s builders [i.e. the fairies] played their part.
Similar sentiments can be traced back through theosophical works to, at least, 1900, when they become rarer but when they are still kicking around. However, Beach has had enormous problems finding any traditional texts crediting fairies with this special relationship with vegetation. The closest – though this is really quite different – are Brownies who help around the house and the farm: until, of course, the ignorant farmer offers to buy them some clothes and they skedaddle.
The one text that did seem to anticipate this dates to 1870 and, at least claims, to be telling the story of an experience from some years (decades?) before: it has no trace of links with theosophy or proto-theosophy.
A Yorkshire man sees some fairies hoeing turnips and, though he is disbelieved, ‘… he stuck steadily to his story; and never went hoeing turnips again without a full conviction that, if he got up early enough, he should be sure to see the fairy farm-labourers. And when he never did see them, he still persisted – if the turnips were particularly green or well grown – that the little men, with their little hoes, must have been there in the night.’
Beach would be inclined to put all the nature spirit stuff down to zeitgeist and the changing way that humans process ‘fairies’ in their imagination. But this one Yorkshire text suggests that such a belief might date back to traditional modern or even early modern beliefs: anything earlier or similar? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
And while we are speaking fairies: a potential new fairy fake with thanks to Mike! ‘It’ looks suspiciously like the Virgin to Beach.
16 March 2012: Invisible very kindly sends in fragments from a chapter of Katherine Briggs entitled ‘Forgotten Gods and Nature Spirits’. Beach is not particularly struck by any connection between these nature spirits and vegetation. They seem more the personification of certain forces in nature: particularly unpleasant and dangerous ones. However the Gwyllion and the goats come close to the idea of assistance in livestock terms and the final tale, dating from 1900 (?), might fit into the idea of a connection between a fairy and growth? ‘The nature spirits are the rarest of all the fairies in these islands and yet traces of them can be found in many places. The Calleach Bheur, the Blue Hag of the Highlands, appears to be the personified spirit of Winter. She herds the deer, and fights Spring with her staff, with which she freezes the ground. When at length Spring comes, she throws her staff under a holly tree under which green grass never grows. It is the Cally Berry in Ulster who is in perpetual conflict with Fionn and his followers. Black Annis of the Dane Hills of Leicestershire is a hag-like creature of the same kind. Her name is said to be derived from Anu or Danu, the Celtic goddess, mother of the Tuatha de Danu. In Wales, the Old Woman of the Mountain leads travellers astray. She is one of the Gwyllion, the hill fairies of Wales. They are friends of the goats, as the Cailleach Bheur is of the deer. Occasionally they come down from the mountain and enter human houses, where they must be hospitably entertained. A gentler and more benevolent mountain spirit is the Ghille Dubh of the Gairloch district. He was seen in the second half of the eighteenth century dressed in leaves and moss. He looked after lost children and led them home. In spite of his kindness five lairds of the Mackenzies set out to shoot him. Fortunately, they found no trace of him. A more excusable attempt was to poison the Each Uisge, who lived in Loch na Beiste in the Gairloch district by putting hot lime into the water. In this they did not seem to succeed as he was seen again in 1884…. In Germany there are spirits which guard the cornfields; the only trace of such a belief which I have found in Britain is in a tale told to me in 1959 by Jeannie Tobertson, the folk-singer who is one of the travelling people of Aberdeenshire. It was told her by her grandmother as a personal experience. Mrs Robertson’s grandmother, when she was a girl of fifteen, had, like the other girls of her family, a pony of her own. Hers was a little beauty, of whom she was very fond, and she looked after it very carefully. This particular year there was a poor harvest, and the farmers were unwilling to part with their grain, even for money. The girl was determined that her pony should not want, even if she had to steal for it. One night they camped near a fine field. Where the corn was standing in shocks, ready to be led. That night, after the rest of the camp was asleep, she stole out and went to the field. It was a bright moonlight night, as clear as day. She stooped to pick up a sheaf, and something moved beside her. She glanced aside, and saw a wee, wee woman, as big a year-old child. The little creature did not seem to notice her, but jumped on to one of the sheaves, and leapt from shock to shock. The girl drew back. Though her horse starved, she felt she could not steal from that field. Step by step she crept away, and still the little woman leapt from sheaf to sheaf. So they girl went back empty handed.’ Thanks Invisible!
29 March 2012: Pam adds ‘Also, I’ve been poking around (in a rather distracted manner, I admit) regarding the subject of nature spirits, as discussed in your blog of March 16. If Evan-Wentz is to be believed, the idea that fairies help in the growth of plants is a Neo-Platonic one and goes back to at least the 16th century (if I’m remembering correctly!). Which suggests to me that it was probably a belief amongst the scholarly occultists rather than something the local cunning man or woman might adhere to. (Then again, who knows?) (I believe there was also some reference to this Neo-Platonic idea in Paul Devereux’s Fairy Paths, but he may have gotten it from Evan-Wentz as well.) I’ve been meaning to copy out the passage(s) from Celtic Faith (& etc.) for a week and a half, but things are rather chaotic on my home front as well. I’ll try to get to it soonish. (Any excuse to comb through the fairy lore, et al., is welcome.)’ Thanks Pam!!
Pam writes back with the promised passage: I couldn’t find much in the Paul Devereux book, so my memory was faulty there, but here are the relevant passages from Evans Wentz. W. Y. Evans Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries: In the positive doctrines of mediaeval alchemists and mystics, e.g. Paracelsus and the Rosicrucians, as well as their modern followers, the ancient metaphysical ideas of Egypt, Greece, and Rome find a new expression; and these doctrines raise the final problem—if there are any scientific grounds for believing in such pygmy nature-spirits as these remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages claim to have studied as being actually existing in nature…. These mediaeval metaphysicians, inheritors of pre-Platonic, Platonic, and neo-Platonic teachings, purposely obscured their doctrines under a covering of alchemical terms, so as to safeguard themselves against persecution, open discussion of occultism not being safe during the Middle Ages, as it was among the ancients and happily is now again in our own generation…. All these Elementals, who procreate after the manner of men, are said to have bodies of an elastic half-material essence, which is sufficiently ethereal not to be visible to the physical sight, and probably comparable to matter in the form of invisible gases. Mr. W. B. Yeats has given this explanation:—’Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of earth, who have no inherent form, but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes. The visible world is merely their skin….’ [From Yeats’ Irish Fairy Tales and Folk-Tales] Wentz again three paragraphs on: And independently of the Celtic peoples there is available very much testimony of the most reliable character from modern disciples of the mediaeval occultists, e.g. the Rosicrucians, and the Theosophists, that there exist in nature invisible spiritual beings of pygmy stature and of various forms and characters, comparable in all respects to the little people of Celtic folk-lore. Yeats’s words do somewhat remind me of the famous opening of the Reverend Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth,wherein he says these beings are said to be of a midle Nature betuixt Man and Angel, as were Dæmons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidious Spirits, and light changable Bodies, (lyke those called Astral,) somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight. Thes Bodies be so plyable thorough the Subtilty of the Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear att Pleasure. Some have Bodies or Vehicles so spungious, thin, and delecat, that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous Liquors, that peirce lyke pure Air and Oyl…’ Thanks a million Pam!