(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.”
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
- Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture (re: cultural hybridity)
- Blavatsky,Helena. Petrovna, Elementals, (an article found here) 1893
- Bord, Janet, Fairies:Real Encounters with Little People
- Briggs, Katherine, The Fairy Encyclopedia
- Briggs, Katherine, Fairies in Tradition and Literature
- Briggs, Katherine, The Vanishing People: a study of traditional fairy beliefs
- Evans-Wentz W.Y., The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries
- Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld
- Keightley, Thomas. The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People (A Compendium of International Fairy Folklore).
- Porteous, Alexander, The Lore of the Forest
- Ritson, Joseph, Fairy Tales, Legends and Romances illustrating Shakespeare
- Rolleston, Thomas, The Celts.
- Spiritweb, Elementals and Devas(an article found here) 1893
- Yearsley, Macleod, The Folklore of Fairy-tale
- Yeats, William Butler, Mythologies
- Yeats, William Butler,Folk and Fairy Tales of Ireland
- Hikayat Hang Tuah
- Hikayat Raja Muda
- Sejarah Melayu