Faeries have been an important part of the folkloric repertoire for hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of years, and while they are portrayed in the popular imagination through faerie tales, and have become disneyfied through the 20th century, their main presence is in the myriad of folklore from every part of the globe. They usually (though not always) take a humanoid form, and interact with human societies as amorphous supernatural entities, appearing in our world to both co-operate with people and as general arbiters of discord, while also living in their own Otherworld, sometimes accessible to humans either through accident or design. While the phenomenon is ancient, the belief in these metaphysical beings continues, and there are thousands of encounter reports from all over the world every year, as demonstrated in the recent survey by The Fairy Investigation Society, which includes c.500 testimonies.i
But folklorists are often ambivalent about the faeries; they are likely to keep their distance from them, so to speak. While happy to record and discuss the beliefs of people who tell stories and anecdotes about them, most folklorists speak the language (at least in official publications) of the reductionist, materialist worldview, and they’ll often be reticent about assessing the potential actual reality of supernatural beings. In the materialist’s world, faeries simply cannot exist. They must be reduced into a categorised cultural belief system, and any discussion of them will usually be couched in the accepted language of scientific rationalism. This creates a problem for any folklorist (or anybody else) who wants to look behind the stories and investigate the possibility that the faeries can be incorporated into our consensus reality as a genuine phenomenon.
But the reductionist scientific orthodoxy has been challenged recently by a range of philosophical hypotheses such as Panpsychism and Idealism, backed up by quantum theory and experiment, which reinstates consciousness (not matter) as the primary mover and creator of reality.ii When this is done, entities such as faeries are allowed back into the universe as a potentially authentic phenomenon.
The Origins of the Faeries in Altered States of Consciousness
Our earliest known artistic portrayals of the world, and how human consciousness interacted with it, come in the form of cave paintings from all parts of the globe, starting c.40,000 BCE.iii Many of these cave paintings include humanoids and therianthropes; otherworldly entities that have been recorded alongside geometric imagery, stylised animals and landscapes. The paintings are in effect our earliest known folklore. But what state of mind were our Palaeolithic ancestors in when they were painting these strange entities in often difficult to access caves and shelters?
The anthropologist David Lewis-Williams has made the convincing argument that these cave and rock-shelter paintings were produced by shamanic cultures to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness.iv Thirty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of Lewis-Williams, and many others, the theory has tipped over to become more orthodox. There are hundreds of motifs in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these Palaeolithic cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences on the walls of caves and rock shelters — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings and supernatural humanoids that correlate in many ways with later faerie types.
In his 2005 book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, Graham Hancock vividly utilises Lewis-Williams’ work to discuss the continuity through time of entities experienced in altered states of consciousness, coming to the conclusion that the faeries of our historic period are perhaps one and the same as those portrayed in prehistoric caves.v And writers such as Carlo Ginzburg and Emma Wilby have argued that there is a direct link between prehistoric shamanic storytelling and the folklore embodied in classical, medieval and later periods, that often incorporate entities such as nymphs and faeries; supernatural beings that interact with humanity when the conditions are right.vi Those conditions may well be reliant on the human participants undergoing an altered state of consciousness as a result of the ingestion of psychotropic compounds. There is certainly a preponderance of mushroom imagery associated to historic depictions of faeries, most especially the highly psychedelic red and white Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom, and the psilocybin mushroom, both prevalent in Europe and Asia. If these historic folkloric manifestations of interactions with supernatural entities can be linked to the cave art of prehistory and preliterate societies, then we have a continuation of relationship with an alternative reality, accessed through altered states of consciousness, over a very long period of time.
Many of the European faerie motifs repeated in stories and anecdotes through the centuries to the present day were already in place during the medieval period. When folklorists began to collect these stories in earnest from the 19th century onwards, they found a belief in faeries amongst rural populations that was probably very close to the medieval belief and understanding of what faeries were and how they interacted with humanity. Many of the stories include situations where the protagonist(s) interacts with the faeries in what seems an altered state of consciousness; consistently inhabited by strange humanoids and therianthropes (the faeries), and there are lots of recurring story motifs that are highly suggestive of an autonomous reality being described. But this is not consensus reality, this is the folklore recording stories from people operating outside consensus reality. The folklore about faeries has been overlain with much allegorical storytelling, but at their root the realities they describe are of people in altered states of consciousness (facilitated by a range of agents), perhaps not too far from the realities experienced by the Palaeolithic cave painters and shamanic practitioners.
Clairvoyance and the Memory of Nature
When the folklorist WY Evans-Wentz travelled around the Celtic world at the beginning of the 20th century, collecting stories and anecdotal experiences about the faeries, it was clear that many of his interviewees rated clairvoyance as the best way of altering the conscious state to a position where it could interact with the faeries.vii Seership or second-sight was the method of entering, or at least viewing, an alternative reality inhabited by a relatively consistent cast of characters, usually recognised as the faeries. He met one such (un-named) Irish clairvoyant in Rosses Point, County Sligo. This seer talked about various types of faeries that inhabited the landscape of Sligo, ‘making them sound like a cross between nature spirits and mystical visions.’ But Evans-Wentz was just as interested in the mechanics of interacting with the faeries as he was with the stories themselves. How did the seer interface with them?
‘I have always made a distinction between pictures seen in the memory of nature and visions of actual beings now existing in the inner world. We can make the same distinction in our world: I may close my eyes and see you as a vivid picture in memory, or I may look at you with my physical eyes and see your actual image. In seeing these beings of which I speak, the physical eyes may be open or closed: mystical beings in their own world and nature are never seen with the physical eyes.’viii
The rural people interviewed by Evans-Wentz consistently affirmed that clairvoyant alteration of consciousness was the best sure-fire way to see the faeries. By the time Evans-Wentz visited these communities, there was a sense that the number of people gifted with second-sight was dwindling; cutting down on communication with the faeries. But at the same time as these rural communities were feeling the increasing pressures of modernism there was a reaction by organisations such as The Theosophical Society (first founded in 1875), which attempted to incorporate supernatural entities into an understanding of reality.ix And their prime metaphysical technology was clairvoyance. The Austrian Theosophist Rudolf Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness, thoughts:
‘… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.’x
Steiner described the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world, when perceived clairvoyantly, in what he calls the Supersensible World. For Steiner the elementals in the Supersensible World existed as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of vegetation. Steiner (basing his epistemology on that originally developed by the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus)xi divides these entities into four main types corresponding to earth (Gnomic), water (Undines), air (Sylphs) and heat/light (Salamanders). This is the faerie realm, existing as a non-material autonomous reality that crosses over with ours, and which can be accessed via a clairvoyant altered state of consciousness. Steiner thought everyone has this innate ability, but they had to be taught how to use it; it had somehow become almost forgotten amongst humanity.
This idea finds common ground with the recent work of biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who proposes that morphogenetic fields are the formative causation allowing life on earth.xii Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are as essential in ordering life on earth as accepted non-material forces such as gravity. Sheldrake calls these morphogenetic fields ‘the memory of nature’ (echoing Evans-Wentz’s Irish seer). In effect, Steiner saw nature spirits as anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly.
The Faeries and DMT
But what allows this access to otherworldly realms and the entities that seem to exist there? What causes clairvoyance, or second-sight? Many of Evans-Wentz’s respondents and Theosophists such as Steiner seem to suggest it is a natural attribute — a gift of consciousness. However, there may well also be a chemical component: N, N-dimethyltryptamine – DMT. This molecule is one of the main active ingredients utilised by Amazonian shamans: the Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana plants, containing DMT, are used in conjunction with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine to produce the brew usually known as Ayahuasca, which invokes radically transformed states of consciousness, and often entity encounters.xiii But DMT is also produced endogenously in everyone’s brain, potentially in either the lungs or the pineal gland.xiv It seems that under certain circumstances, it can be released in higher quantities, causing an altered state of consciousness. This would require the DMT to be released in conjunction with Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOI), which inhibit naturally occurring enzymes in the human body. This may allow a surge of DMT production to have full effect and create radically transformed states of consciousness.
While there remains a lack of definitive evidence that endogenously produced DMT might be responsible for altering states of consciousness and potentially allowing experiences with non-human intelligence, there is no doubt that when DMT is insufflated or injected the results often invoke entry into non-physical realities inhabited by a range of entities, many of which adhere to a faerie taxonomy. The late Terence McKenna was an enthusiastic user of the synthesised form of DMT to access different realities, and coined the term ‘self-transforming machine elves’ for the creatures he regularly found there. As if to confirm Terence’s assertions, a research study conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness.xv This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent metaphysical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she called ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’; not an hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction and often telepathy with the resident entities.
The experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. There is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants.
There are over a hundred recorded experiences from the study, where the participants all engage in a non-physical reality directly with their consciousness, seemingly separated from their physical selfs. There have been several more surveys (although no further clinical research) delineating the faerie-type entities experienced through DMT, most recently by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, where 2561 testimonies were assessed.xvi Many of the experience reports do correlate closely to the folkloric faerie phenomenology. But what the research demonstrates is that under the right conditions, human consciousness can operate within a distinct and separate universe inhabited by a range of apparently autonomous entities. These entities may be one and the same as those recorded in prehistoric cave art and historic folklore, by people who were describing the beings encountered during various types of altered states of consciousness, brought on either actively or passively. The faeries may change superficially through time, adapting to the expectations of the culture they are part of, but if it is human consciousness they are interacting with, this is no surprise. Underneath the cultural masks, the faeries begin to reveal their true selfs.
Certain medical conditions also seem responsible for periodically transporting people into a non-material environment inhabited by entities. This is certainly the case with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. This condition may be the root of the unusually well-documented 17th-century Cornish story of Anne Jefferies’ abduction by diminutive faeries when she suffered a ‘convulsion fit’ and was transported (at least in her mind) to a numinous world inhabited by the faeries.xvii The author Eve LaPlante has used historic and contemporary examples to demonstrate that Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can provide access to an altered state of consciousness where the human mind participates in a reality several steps removed from the consensus material world.xviii This often includes full immersion in alternative landscapes and contact with non-human intelligence.