Fairy Armies: A Medical Explanation? January 5, 2017Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
We have literally hundreds of British and Irish fairy sightings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and it is striking how often fairies are seen in battle garb: the fairy armies. Yes, there are important folklore traditions about fairies fighting each other: the hosts of Ulster against the host of Connaught, the host of Ireland against that of Scotland… But there are many references, too, to fairies just ‘being’ soldiers: marching, drilling and the like. Just a few from many possible examples.
On the Isle of Man a witness: ‘saw come in twos and threes a great crowd of little beings smaller than Tom Thumb and his wife. All of them, who appeared like soldiers, were dressed in red. They moved back and forth amid the circle of light, as they formed into order like troops drilling’.
A ‘car driver’ in the west of Ireland saw fairies ‘walking like soldiers through [a] hollow’.
‘In the year 1797’ in Ireland, ‘a great number of fairies were observed at midday marching in military array across a bog between Maryborough and Stradbally’.
‘On other occasions the fairies [in Lancashire, UK] are supposed to exhibit themselves in military array on the mountain sides; their evolutions conforming in every respect to the movements of modern troops’
In the late 1800s a boy witnessed fairies in his bedroom: ‘I saw column after column of tiny soldiers marching up from the right of my bed over my eiderdown…’
Beach would guess that about ten percent of modern fairy sightings conform to fairy armies. Why are fairies so often seen marching and drilling? Here is an extract from a 2012 book, Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations. Sacks is writing here about Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
CBS hallucinations are often described as having dazzling, intense color or a fineness and richness of detail far beyond anything one sees with the eyes. There are strong tendencies to repetition and multiplication, so that one may see rows or phalanxes of people, all dressed similarly and making similar motions (some early observers referred to this as ‘numerosity’). And there is a strong tendency to elaboration: hallucinatory figures often seem to be wearing ‘exotic dress,’ rich robes, and strange headgear. Bizarre incongruities often appear, so that a flower may protrude not from someone’s hat but from the middle of their face. Hallucinatory figures may be cartoonlike. Faces, in particular, may show grotesque distortions of the teeth or eyes.
Beach wonders whether this phalanx effect, or numerosity might explain the persistent habit of fairies to appear marching in step with each other as fairy armies. What we are seeing is the brain’s attempt to create a background: here the same limitations apply as when Pixar show us blades of grass blowing in the wind behind one of their jackass heroes, the brain or the cartoon designer has to create convincing wallpaper. Note also the reference to the hallucinatory figures dressing the same. This comes up again and again in fairy descriptions. Probably the only figure in medieval or modern Europe that walked around in similar clothes were monks or soldiers: it would be interesting to see if fairy armies are ever seen with the clothes of the religious orders… Here is a quotation from a CBS site:
Little people – or also known as Lilliputian visions – are not uncommon in the land of Charles Bonnet syndrome. Many living with CBS report ‘seeing’ miniature people who are about the size of a finger. Such tiny people can be ‘seen’ directing a miniature horse-drawn carriage or driving a matchbox-sized vehicle. Sometimes, they are reported as being brightly costumed. Commonly, they comprise a mass procession like rows of a marching musical band or a phalanx of soldiers. These scenes tend to move across the person’s visual field of view. Another common occurrence (of a more personalised form) is where a little person is ‘witnessed’ from close range looking mischievously or curiously at them. Some living with CBS refer to their visions of little people as reminiscent of elves or Lilliputian… Hence, it is important to note that Lilliputian visions are not restricted to the CBS experience but can occur in a range of medical conditions including delirium, Parkinson’s disease, Dementia with Lewy Bodies and migraine attacks with visual aura. Therefore, one needs a thorough physical, neurological and psychiatric examination to establish its probable origin.
Beach gathers that Charles Bonnet Syndrome is a much questioned phenomenon. It sounds like a macro category into which many medical conditions have fallen: are we dealing with something general enough to explain these strange phenomenon (see the quoted passage above)? Is it instead just poor reasoning: ‘shamanic’ visions have these features and so doctors have decided to single them out as features of madness or degraded vision? Do any modern Fortean phenomenon have similar structures: do we have aliens marching in jack boots through the back-woods of New York? Drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com Beach is about to publish academically on this (an article is in peer review) and so would be extremely interested to know more.
Chris from Haunted Ohio Books, 8 Jan 2017: Regarding fairy armies and Charles Bonnet Syndrome, I remember James Thurber’s essay “The Admiral on the Wheel.” The military uniform and small stature of the vision in the passage below suggest your fairy armies.
Sometimes at night, even with my glasses on, I see strange and unbelievable sights, mainly when I am riding in an automobile which somebody else is driving (I never drive myself at night out of fear that I might turn up at the portals of some mystical monastery and never return). Only last summer I was riding with someone along a country road when suddenly I cried at him to look out. He slowed down and asked me sharply what was the matter. There is no worse experience than to have someone shout at you to look out for something you don’t see.
What this driver didn’t see and I did see (two-fifths vision works a kind of magic in the night) was a little old admiral in full-dress uniform riding a bicycle at right angles to the car I was in. He might have been starlight behind a tree, or a billboard advertising Moxie; I don’t know—we were quickly past the place he rode out of; but I would recognize him if I saw him again. His beard was blowing in the breeze and his hat was set at a rakish angle, like Admiral Beatty’s. He was having a swell time. The gentleman who was driving the car has been, since that night, a trifle stiff and distant with me. I suppose you can hardly blame him.
James Thurber: Writings & Drawings.
According to the Wikipedia entry on Thurber, V.S. Ramachandran suggested that Thurber’s hallucinations were partly explained by Charles Bonnet syndrome.
Filip, 8 Jan 2017: You’ll find a great take on CBS in “Disturbances of the Mind” by Douwe Draaisma
Bruce T, 8 Jan 2017: Late in his life I heard an lecture and interview of Sacks talking about the nature of hallucinations. He mentioned a little nugget that has stayed with me. People with vision disorders that occlude large segments of their visual field often report seeing little creatures flitting around in the periphery of what vision they have left. As my first cousin had recently been diagnosed with macular degeneration just before I heard Sacks on the radio, it stuck with me. No little people reported from her, but plenty of rabbits spotted. She lives on a farm, so they may not be dreaded Baum rabbits…. yet. The infamous psychedelic advocate Terrence McKenna saw large numbers little gnome like creatures in his more intense experiences, regardless of substance he was taking. He didn’t consider them to be hallucinations like his other visions, he considered them representatives of a higher intelligence that could be contacted and communicated with. I think Terry was nuts, but the universality of the things seems to point to a reaction of the brain to certain stimuli. There’s a neurologist in Canada who has been experimenting with what has been called a “God-Helmet” for a couple of decades, a modified motorcycle helmet with electrodes that stimulates various parts of the brain. He’s isolated the section that seems to be responsible for religious experiences and can reproduce many similar states in the lab. When he stimulates the area the subjects often claim to sense of the presence of little humanoid creatures. Sometimes they’re grey, which has had the abductee types going through the roof. It usually goes like this, “They come from space you damned egg heads! Not from inside our own brains when you goose them with your electrified football helmets!” I wish I could recall the fellow’s name. I think he teaches at Laval U. in Quebec, but I’m not entirely certain? There should be statues to the man in both Roswell, New Mexico and Quebec City.