The Mythogenetic Grove

Folklore & Fairytales

Hybrid Enigmas: An Exploration into Faerie

by on Jul.13, 2014, under Essays, Articles, Lists, Folklore & Fairytales

(c) Nin Harris 2001-2007

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

-Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5-

The idea that we share this planet with otherworldly beings exists in more than one culture and belief-system. It is a part of the cultural makeup of most ethnic groups. As such, these beliefs are as diverse as the human race itself.

One of the more popular names for these entities stem from the same root-word for “Fairies” or Faeries. What are these creatures, and what is the origin of this belief? Keightley, in The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People comments that the word “Fairy” most probably originated from the “Persian Peri”. He makes this fascinating observation:

“It is said that the Paynim foe, whom the warriors of the Cross encountered in Palestine, spoke only Arabic; the alphabet of which language, it is well known, possesses no p, and therefore organically substitutes an f in such foreign words as contain the former letter; consequently Peri became, in the mouth of an Arab, Feri, whence the crusaders and pilgrims, who carried back to Europe the marvellous tales of Asia, introduced ito the West the Arabo-Persian word Fairy. It is further added, that the Morgain or Morgana, so celebrated in old romance, is Merjan Peri, equally celebrated all over the East.”

While the source may well have been Middle-Eastern, the term itself has been associated with the denizens of more than one country, the origins of which are as diverse as the people who tell these tales. What seems apparent is that they seem to defy all human attempts to classify them, and a linear interpretation would claim them to be either one of the following classifications or the other.

Fallen Angels and Spirits of the Dead

There are those who consider “fairies” fallen angels, those of the host who were `cast out of heaven for their sinful pride’. This was also quoted in Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland. Noted folklorist Katherine Briggs cites this following passage from volume I of Lady Wilde’s work as an explicit explanation of this belief in Ireland which seems to go hand in hand with the more pagan belief of Diminished Deities.

“The islanders, like all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals.” [Wilde:169]

Faeries are also associated with the spirits of the dead. As a matter of fact, there are a fair number of folktales that seem to associate faeries with the spirits of those who have passed on. Briggs has cited some of these sources in The Vanishing People. However, she also notes that there is a variant where the faeries are captors and guardians of the dead rather than the dead itself (31). A rather striking parallel between Faerie and Hades emerges. (see the next section for more).

Diminished Deities and Subterranean Dwellers

In Ireland, faeries are also associated with the `Tuatha De Danaan’ (Folk of the Goddess Danu/Don) and who believe that many of the names of the faery chiefs are in fact the names of old Danaan heroes (see Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland). The pantheon of the `Tuatha De Danaan’ include the likes of Duada son of Dana, Dagda, Birgit, wife of Dagda, Angus, Mider, Ethain, Blathnat, Ogma and Camullus. They were said to have retired temporarily beneath the earth after the coming of the Milesians, some of them later venturing to lands beyond the sea, following the people of Lir. Others were said to have sought out new homes in the hills and were henceforth known as the Aes Sidhe, the People of the Hills. In The Vanishing People, Katherine Briggs talks about these folk of the Goddess Don:

“There seems no doubt that the children of the Goddess Don were the Dana O`Sidh and there, conquered by the invading Milesians, took to the hollow hills and became the Daoine Sidh or ‘Deeny Shee’. The Fianna Finn and their contemporaries fought, loved and mated with these Daoine Sidh. Originally of human or more than human size, they dwindled through successive generations from the small size of humans to the size of three-years children, and sometimes to midgets.”

W.B. Yeats explains the terminology of the sidhe as follows:

“The Irish word for fairy is sheehogue [sidheog] a diminutive of “shee” in banshee. Fairies are deenee shee [daoine sidhe] (fairy people).

Who are they? […] ‘The gods of the earth,” says the Book of Armagh. “The gods of pagan Ireland,” say the Irish antiquarians,” the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high.”

Which leads us to another idea concerning the Sidhe, that they are possibly indigenous, subterranean beings. Briggs notes that:

“One of the most clear-cut [theories] is the suggestion made by David MacRitchie that the fairy beliefs sprang from the memory of an earlier race of rather dwarfish people, pre-Neolithic dwellers in caves or earthworks, who used flints arrows, had much knowledge of the hidden paths in their country and were credited with power over weather and other magical skills. The chief works of David MacRitchie which uphold this thesis are The Testimony of Tradition(1890) and Fians, Fairies and Picts. In these he equates the Picts with the Fians and Fairies. Passages in J.F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands first suggested the theory to him, and some of Campbell’s tales could be plausibly ascribed to the existence of a conquered race, lurking in woods and mounds and hanging round farms, doing casual service for gifts of food, but distrustful of their conqueror’s clothing as a badge of service.”

W.Y. Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries makes the following observation:

“O’Curry says : ‘ The term (sidh, pron. shee), as far as we know it, is always applied in old writings to the palaces, courts, halls, or residences of those beings which in ancient Gaedhelic mythology held the place which ghosts, phantoms, and fairies hold in the superstitions of the present day.’ (1) In modern Irish tradition, ‘the People of the Sidhe,’ or simply the Sidhe, refer to the beings themselves rather than to their places of habitation. Partly perhaps on account of this popular opinion that the Sidhe are a subterranean race, they are sometimes described as gods of the earth or dei terreni, as in the Book of Armagh; and since it was believed that they, like the modern fairies, control the ripening of crops and the milk-giving of cows, the ancient Irish rendered to them regular worship and sacrifice, just as the Irish of to-day do by setting out food at night for the fairy-folk to eat.”

Within an archaelogical/anthropological context, there seems to be an interesting amount of evidence being amassed concerning the linkage between otherworldly beings, rocks and hollow hills. (See this page, and this page for instance). Nor are the British Isles and Ireland the only places on earth where this belief in subterranean beings exist. In the Malaysian Peninsular, for example, there is a very strong, active belief in Orang Bunian also known as “Voice-Folk”(See Porteous for this translation). They are also known as “Echo-People” and have been said to inhabit caves and stones. Their subterranean existence also mutates time. This seems to be a rather common thread between mythologies dealing with the Otherworld. Porteous gives a fascinating description of the Bunian:

“The latter invisible supernatural people inhabit the forest, and in one place there is a cave which is supposed to be their home. Their voice is said to be very similar to the human voice, and they are often heard calling to each other in the forest depths, which may easily be mistaken for the tones of a human voice in distress. Tales are often told of those who under this impression have answered the call and proceeded towards the voice, but having done so, they could not retrace their steps. The unfortunate one is lured ever farther on into the dark recesses, until at last the Voice-Folk become visible to him, and his doom is to become on of them and invisible to man, only his voice betokening his presence.”

I read a psychological link between this view of subterranean dwellers, with that of the Underworld of the Dead. Thomas Rolleston has commented that the tumulus of New Grange can be:

“regarded on the one hand as the dwelling-places of the Sidhe[…] and they are also, traditionally, the burial-places of the Celtic High Kings of pagan Ireland.”

The link between a burial mound with the dwellings of the Sidhe very clearly delineates a link between these entities and the Underworld. It should be noted that there are many parallels between the often subterranean land of Faerie and the Greek Underworld Hades. In fact, in a medieval poem “The Romance of King Orfeo”, the tale of Orpheus and his Eurydice is reset in the land of Faerie with Pluto (Hades) being cast as a Fairy King. (published in Ritson’s Fairy Tales, Legends and Romances illustrating Shakespeare).

On the other hand, Macleod Yearsley in The Folklore of Fairy-tale notes that:

“Universal superstition has postulated an underworld peopled by the dead, and this has resulted in the belief that death may be vanquished and the dead restored […] The entrance to fairy-land is to be found by penetrating into a sepulchral mound, by passing through a cave (since cave burial was practised), down a well, or through some deep cleft in a rock. […] In the early myths the lords of the underworld were gods; in late folk-tales they developed into trolls, erl-kings, monsters, or sea maidens;”

It would therefore be pertinent to close this section with an excerpt from James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld since that groundbreaking tome deals with the importance of this “Underworld” process within our psyche. The following quote segues rather interestingly with the next section:

” “Entering the underworld” refers to a transition from the material to the psychical point of view. Three dimensions become two as the perspective of nature, flesh, and matter fall away, leaving an existence of immaterial, mirrorlike images, eidola, We are in the land of soul.”

Elemental Spirits

The idea that faeries are elemental spirits can be seen most notably in Eastern cultures. The Persian peri, which I have mentioned previously is one such being. The Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary lists these peris as being

“representative of those classes of conscious, self-conscious, and quasi-conscious beings who range all the way from simple sprites in the lower ranges, up to and including the classes […]which are the psychological and even physical ancestors of the human race.”

This line of thought is in harmony with the idea that most, if not all, forms of life consists of energy.

Another form of elemental, or nature spirit is that of the deva. According to the Hindus, these devas, or “shining ones” belong to two categories, the higher and the lower and are involved in the shaping of the universe and the earth. The lower kinds, according to the Theosophist include the gnomes, fairies, sylphs and djinns. This parallels the Irish belief that the Sidhe are fallen gods- the Tuatha de Danaan. These “devas” (also known as “Dewas”) inhabit Malay mythologies (which are generally hybrids of animism, Hindu and Islamic/Middle-Eastern myths) and ancient epics, as demi-gods who cavort across the pages and narratives of these ancient penglipur lara. They are described as a kind of aerial nobility who hunt, live in palaces in the sky and transport themselves in flying vehicles (particularly in the Hikayat Raja Muda or “Annals of the Young Prince” where seven princesses utilize a strange “flying chamber” which bears a striking resemblance to a helicopter.)

Within the Malay mythos, creatures such as the penunggu, whose life is very much connected to the life of the host tree or animal, the different kinds of djinn which are connected either to the air or to the earth have connotations which fill one with superstitious dread even till today. These are obviously more sinister manifestations of these elementals, which, as with the rest of the Faerie pantheon, are not necessarily disposed towards goodwill to humankind. Whether things such as morality or good or evil would ever carry much currency with these elemental beings is, as always, open to speculation, based upon the different cultures of the world and very probably, the different types of entities which inhabit each region.


In the end it may be surmised that there have always been myths of entities which exist outside of the material world of each society/culture. They have been named different things and have had different characteristics. One theory behind this commonality hinges around the migratory patterns of the Faerie Folk. One might venture to add that although there are similarities in the characteristics of these entities from culture to culture, there are also marked differences. It is submitted that perhaps there should not be a unifying theory, because to place a blanket definition over the mythical denizens of this planet would be to whitewash them of the diversity of various definitions. Almost as self-defeating (and boring) as trying to convert humans everywhere to a single, hegemonic, cultural framework.

As to why these stories and beliefs exist, despite the attempts of literalists, hard-nose skeptics and other parties to stamp them out: my personal conviction is that like all mythic/folkloric dialectics, they fulfill an important psychological function. As such, belief in this hybrid enigma should not be under-rated, regardless of whether one is a believer or a skeptic.

Perhaps it is an act of reaching out. Perhaps it is an awareness that there is something gracing the liminalities dividing the realm of the dead and the living, material and immaterial existence. Whatever it is, the difference and similarities line that space of ambiguity which separates these beings from us. This then, is the Enigma, that feeling of alien-ness, or Otherness, that haunts the most ineluctable of moments which graces this drama of human existence.

Works Cited and Additional/Recommended Reading

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The Ugliest Princess, The Littlest Mermaid, Janet and the reader’s response

by on Jul.13, 2014, under Folklore & Fairytales, Runaway Words, The Escritoire

(c) Nin Harris 2006-2010

I have loved Tam Lin since I was 15. I loved it all the more because I could not find the full poems, instead piecing together scraps of verse from chapter headings of Diana Wynne-Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, dividing pages in a notebook between Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. That much has been stated before.

What has never been outlined: the thick feeling of doom behind breastbone when faerie queens with beguiling, seductive and mysterious powers of persuasion are considered.

The reader always screams inward, urging faithful handmaidens into the opposite direction from that which is prescribed by dictates of the tale.

Don’t do it, you fool, why give up the sea to have your tail split? Why give up the pleasures of the deep so you can dance all wordless, self-conscious with daggers of pain shooting up your calves and thighs?

Why save him a few milliseconds before the very vocal princess with sunlight in her hair will come with parasol and frilled frock to pull him up into the palace, her handmaidens fluttering and fussing over him?

Why must you sacrifice your tongue, your mersisters their curls for love, for a knife you will never use because you are ultimately giving? Why must you cling on when he is turned into an adder, a snake, a lion, a flaming brand that will char you alive? Why must you pull him down from a steed at Miles Cross when she has taken his heart, his eyes, his soul, his thoughts? He will not be made a teind to hell, Janet, but the threat of the rock and the tree remains.

Walk away, Janet, walk away.

The faerie queens of the world will always win.

Go back into the sea, littlest mermaid, go back to your games amidst the shipwrecks and the half-opened chests.

Walk away, ugliest princess, walk away

For there will be a place where you are not ugly, and not required to fight, not required to grapple with live lions and snakes and adders just for the lure and the promise of what is transformed at long last.

Walk away from what seems to be East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Walk away, false goose-girl, or true princess or true fool. Walk away from the true goose-girl or false princess or true love. Let not Falada’s words be in vain, yet again.

Listen, for there will be hallways lined with books, soft carpets for your feet, hot drinks with steam soft-curled upward. Listen, for if you walk away there will be schools of fish, universes of meditating manta-rays and benevolent whales with songs woven just for you. Listen, for there are galaxies of light and color and sound. Listen, because you know you are stronger, more beautiful, more prideful and more magical than this, than this self you have reduced yourself into.

Walk away, princess, walk away.

Here, let me untangle a knot here, a pattern there, a mystery in the loom. Let me worry at a tear in the yellow wallpaper until it opens, wide enough to let you through, let you walk out of the walls, into the garden, onto the path that leads you into the deep green and brown velvet of the woods.

Listen, always a bridesmaid, and never a bride is just a dialectic you can puncture. Don’t be a bridesmaid. Don’t dance at the wedding. Throw off the lace and frills. Run off into the woods, run off into the woods.

Splash into the sea, swim away.

(3 March 2006)

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Thomas the Rhymer: A Commentary, Notes and Annotated Links

by on Jul.13, 2014, under Essays, Articles, Lists, Folklore & Fairytales, Lists!

(c) Nin Harris 1999-2018

“Harp and carp, Thomas,” she said,
Harp and carp along with me;

And if ye dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be!”

“And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the green hillside?
That is the way to fair Elfland,
Where you and I this night must bide.”

~`True Thomas’~

One of the most intriguing story threads within the faerie folktales of the British Isles is that of Thomas the Rhymer. The tale of a brash young poet who is swept away by the Faerie Queen to become her lover is, doubtless, both romantic and exciting. However, there are other elements that make this tale a compelling one. The ballad, called either “Thomas the Rhymer” or “True Thomas” or Thomas and the Fairy Queen provides the narrator a way to detail the protocol of the Faerie court to his audience, and provides the audience with a human (hence familiar) glance into the world of Faerie. Secondly, the resolution of the tale, with the “fateful” gift that transfigures his life, serves as a rather colorful explanation for the powers of a very real personality in Scottish History, that of Thomas of Erceldoune. This gift, includes seeing the future; indeed, this Tom has been documented as making a lot of famous prophecies. You may find the full text of his prophecies here, for a better understanding of the legend.

The force of Thomas’s personality comes up in the many versions of the Thomas tale. He has been given many names – True Tom, True Thomas, Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas of Erceldoune as well as Thomas Learmont. His name has cropped up in many modern tellings of the Faerie Court, including those by Diana Wynne Jones, Raymond E Feist, Elizabeth Bear, and Ellen Kushner. In Wynne Jones’s version, a connection is made between the “Thomas the Rhymer” tale and another scottish “Tom” – the figure captured by the Faerie Queen in “Tam Lin”.

What follows is a little compilation of quotations and allusions to Thomas as well as a list of twentieth century fantasy/faerie fiction in which he makes an appearance.

This following entry was found in the Oxford Companion to English Literature:

Thomas of Erceldoune (fl.1220 ? -97 ?): “Seer and poet, is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Solfra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village. Said to have foretold the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, and is the traditional fountain of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI to the English throne. He is the reputed author of a poem on the Tristram story, which Sir Walter Scott considered genuine; it probably emanated from a French Source. The romance of ‘True Thomas’ and the ‘ladye gaye’, popularly attributed to him may be placed after 1401. (edited by Dr, J.A.H. Murray, 1875)”

This following excerpt was found in Fairy Tales, Legends and Romances Illustrating Shakespeare and Other Early English Writers (To Which Are Prefixed Two Preliminary Dissertations 1.On Pigmies 2. On Fairies) by Joseph Ritson.London (1875)

“The connection between the purgatory and paradise of the monks and the fairy lands of the people, observes Mr Wright, is perhaps nowhere so fully exhibited as in the following ballad. Which is besides no unfavourable specimen of early poetry. there is something exceedingly graceful in the commencement of it, and a taste displayed which we vainly look for in most contemporary pieces of the kind; and the wild and fanciful tale on which the prophecies are engrafted impart interest to the whole composition. Thomas of Erceldoune, whose adventures with the fairy queen are here narrated, was a legendary character, to whom were ascribed several prophecies,which passed for a long time under his name, similar to those of Merlin. Sir W. Scott and others have endeavoured to prove that the English romance of Tristrem was written by Thomas of Erceldoune; but the translator merely alludes to him at the commencement in a fanciful manner, and I think it, with Mr Wright, most probable that, finding the name Thomas in the French original and not understanding it, he was induced to take a character, then so famous, to add some popularity to the subject”. (pages 101-102 in the preface to the ballad Thomas and the Fairy Queen)”

The following excerpt was found in The Celtic Twilight in the anthology Mythologies by William Butler Yeats:

“The faeries in whom he believes have given him many subjects, notably Thomas of Ercildoune sitting motionless in the twilight while a young and beautiful creature leans softly out of the shadow and whispers in his ear.”

The following excerpt is from Alexander Porteous’s The Lore of the Forest which has other fascinating snippets of information with regards to Thomas the Rhymer:

“Thomas the Rhymer is credited with having uttered [this] prophecy:

While the mistletoe bats on Errol’s aik,

And that aik stands fast,
The Hays shall flourish, and their good grey hawk
Shall nocht flinch before the blast.

But when the root of the aik decays
And the mistletoe dwines on its withered breast,
The grass shall grow on Errol’s hearthstane,
And the corbie roup [croak] in the falcon’s nest.”

Thomas the Rhymer in Fiction

  • Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones : A contemporary fantasy that draws upon both “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Tam Lin” to create a composite figure called Thomas Lynne, also in thrall to the Faerie Court. The difference is that he struggles hard to break free. A character in the novel refers to the fact that Thomas is more like “Thomas the Rhymer” than “Tam Lin” even if the taking of him resembles more closely that of Tam Lin’s legend. This was the work of fiction that first introduced me to both Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and the one I keep returning to because it influenced me so much.
  • Beauty by Sherri S. TepperA long retelling of Sleeping Beauty which incorporates other
    legends. Beauty in this tale is part-faerie and during the course of her visits to the Faerie Realm meets Thomas, who is the only other human there. Tepper too, seems to have merged both Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin into one composite figure. This was the second piece of work I read in the `90s that had Thomas the Rhymer in it.
  • Faerie Tale by Raymond E. FeistThe eerie journey into the Faerie Realms by the two boy characters in this tale also unveils the character of Thomas the Rhymer, and he is given a more direct mention here, and in some cases is the spokesman for the Faeries to the human characters in this book. He also assumes his traditional place as a conduit for the narrator’s voice-to explain the quality of Strange-ness, or Other-ness of the Fey.
  • Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master by Raymond E. Feist: I added the first two books of the Rift War saga into this list because the elves in this case have a queen — Aglaranna who meets a young human boy named “Tomas”, and her intimate relationship with him does resonate of the ballad of “Thomas and the Fairy Queen”. The only difference is that he is basically a warrior.
  • Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear has another version of Thomas the Rhymer. There is a sequel I have not read yet. I enjoyed Bear’s version a lot and am looking forward to acquiring the entire series at some point.
  • Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner is a popular retelling of the legend and something of a cult favourite amongst the mythpunk crowd, although I read it rather late in the day and was already introduced/coloured by the renditions of Wynne Jones, Feist, Tepper and the various versions of ballads I’d read before I read this version (being a lit nerd I’d already been into the Oxford Book of Ballads extensively before I hit the age of 16).  It’s an interesting perspective on the legend and I can see why it’s popular with fans. Here’s a 2010 write-up about the book by Jo Walton.
  • Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Gordon Jarvie (compiler and editor) :There is a fairly straightforward prose retelling of the legend in this compilation, which includes details of his place of dwelling, the nature of his prophecies as well as a blow by blow account of the events in the ballad. Since it was listed under “Traditional” with no other name attached and Jarvie has been listed as the copyright owner of adaptations, I am assuming that he wrote this piece.


Related Websites for Further Reading


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