A Fairy Common Confusion: Fairyism and Neopaganism in the Modern World

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“Fairies and the Peasant Girl” by Yuliya Litvinova

If Fairy folklorists agree on anything, it’s that the origins of the conception of the fairy draw upon many pre-Christian strands of cultural belief. In the fairy of folklore, we see the shadowy remnants of the human dead, of ancestors, of some old Pagan Gods, of some nature spirits, and so forth. There isn’t a single category or “species” of beings called fairies with their own unique origin, their own uniform appearance, fairy laws, fairy customs, fairy rulers, and fairy natures. You only get such ideas in very late, localized stories belonging to distinctive cultural regions, and only because of the creative needs (and cultural assumptions and limitations) of certain storytellers.

Anthropology and History, however, reveal a deeper perspective on the complex reality of fairies that we can’t ignore.

By the time you believe in Pagan Gods, Ancestors, and nature spirits and worship them (as most Neopagans do), you don’t need to add fairies to that mix because you already technically have them; you are already reaching out to the very beings and forces that fairies are later cultural descendants and memories of. Sticking “fairies” next to your Gods, Ancestors, and nature spirits is redundant. And blending Pagan and post-Pagan cultural lore, absent of historical context, is a recipe for disaster (or at the least metaphysical confusion.)

People in later times weren’t often consciously aware of the origins of the “fairies” they heard cultural tales about. Some places in Britain or Ireland storied the fairies one way; others storied them other ways. In some places, they are given a distinctive character: the fairies are X in appearance, X in character and temperament, and so forth. For those people, in those times and places, that’s what the fairies were. That’s what they believed.

But that’s not the whole story of “fairies”, and that can’t be taken as an authoritative pronouncement of what “fairies” are by us today. The folk tradition isn’t making theological pronouncements nor revealing a singular, orderly cosmology meant to be taken as fully-shaped and authoritative. That’s not what folk tradition does.

A rural kid in 1770 who believed in fairies, due to hearing stories about them all his life, and who maybe left a cup of milk out for them by a special stone somewhere in the countryside, was encountering a very old form of spiritual ecology embedded in his land and culture. The spirits of that locale would receive the foyson of that milk, and those spirits are the same spirits that had been there since the land was shaped. They are the same genii loci spirits that pagans would have given offerings to. Some of them are the merged free souls of dead humans and other-than-humans who died there. Others will be other forms of spirit-entities, but in that kids’s mind, completely unaware of what Pagans many centuries before were doing, those are the Fairies

A local lady might have told him that the fairies were “small little people” who dressed in green. In other parts of the same country, another little kid believing in fairies just as much may have been told by a local storyteller that the fairies were “tall, taller than humans, dressed in red and majestic.” Neither is “correct” in some objective manner. They are both sharing expressions of local folk culture which represent the human mind’s meeting with deeper, underlying forces attached to those places. This highlights the ambiguous, protean, and varied nature of the Unseen matrix of living communities that overlap (in places and at times) with human communities. This entire reality was collectively called Fairy in places, as in a “Fairy Land” or realm- but it wasn’t called this in Pagan times. This is a medieval and Early Modern designation.

Fairies aren’t “one thing”, but a complex of things emerging in different regions under different conceptions, all of them easily traceable to much earlier times. “Fairy” is a very late term, a medieval term, the equivalent of a storage warehouse for all kinds of blends of remnant or degenerated paganism, old interanimistic beliefs, local spirit-related customs, and the like.

* * *

People with a practice of Neopagan spirituality which includes a modern worship of ancient Gods, or Ancestral veneration, or land-spirit offerings should release themselves from any worry or duty they feel to include “fairies” alongside those things. They don’t need to be “doubled up” in the same occassion of worship or offering, and indeed, metaphysically, it would seem odd to do so.

It would be like saying “Here are my offerings for you, as my Ancestors in 200 BC might have given you in their daily lives, and here are my offerings for you as my Ancestors in 1770 AD might have given to you, under quite different circumstances.” 

I don’t guess doubling up on offerings ever hurt anyone trying to maintain relationships with spiritual beings, but giving them these offerings while believing you’re giving offerings to two completely different groups of beings might be thought an issue. At the very least, it is a relic of our historical and cultural confusion which some may want to avoid or be free from.

What we’re running into here is the collision of the recent Neopagan world with the older presence of Fairy Folklore– a thing that was destined to happen, as Fairyism and Fairy-folklore stands large in the literary and cultural traditions of the West. The sorts of people who would be attracted to Neopaganism in the first place are very likely to be people who loved Fairy tales when growing up, and even clear into adulthood. The Fairy aesthetic is deeply implanted in Western culture, as it well should be: it reflects (in many ways) not only remnant, largely unconscious pre-Christian beliefs and practices, but also the timeless presence of localized forms of Western place-centered interanimism which might easily be older than the historical Pagan world as a whole.

If a Neopagan spiritual practitioner wishes to connect with these two historically distinctive aesthetic streams- the formal Pagan stream, and the much later Fairy stream (and as mentioned before, the Fairy aesthetic will be highly attractive to many modern people), the logical thing to do would be to connect with them on different occassions. Separate the two practices in time and, if possible, in space. Both aesthetics should be given their own room or focus, even if they are ultimately calling upon the same powers.

The idea that people can openly and regularly worship Pagan Gods and Goddesses (like the Earth Mother, the Queen of the Underworld, various Ancestral “Fatherly” Gods, Gods of Nature or Wildness, the King of the Underworld, and so forth) and integrate these entities into their lives quite publicly, and also worship land spirits, nature spirits of various sorts, and Ancestors, while simultaneously telling other people in serious hushed tones “You better be careful about those Fairies. Don’t mess around with that stuff. If you do something wrong, or anger them, you will regret it“, is a little embarassing. Neopagans are already “messing around” with what their Ancestors in the 17th century would have called “Fairies” in nearly every regard.

* * *

I think there’s an understandable backlash to the worst strains of Neopaganism and New-Agery that leads to depictions of Fairies as tinsel-winged little positivity sprites, and lumps them in with the mish-mash of ‘feel good’ shallowness and childish models of “Nature” as a peaceful, pink-hued void of beauty. Seeing that happen, some people who feel protective of the dignity, nuance, and depth of the Fairy tradition in culture and folklore might want to try to scare or shoo away those people (and I can hardly blame them). They may dip into the warnings found in Fairy folklore regarding dealings with fairies as their authority or inspiration for doing so, but even that has pitfalls.

Some of the “Fairy Dread” found in folklore is spot-on, wise, and needs to be understood for what it is. The Unseen and its beings are ambiguous and can be dangerous. Spiritual ecology itself is ambiguous, reflecting the strange world we all live within. But the Fairy Dread of folklore is also a product of Christian culture, of an intentional desire to frighten people away from the remnants of the Old Ways, away from spirit-of-place connection, and away from older strains of culture that were still active in the deep backgrounds of the minds of men and women.

The new culture of Christianity had a lot of work to do as it tried to replace older cultural tendencies and conditioning. The Fairy Dread has to be understood in that light as well. Fairies- or Spirits- are not merely dangerous things. They aren’t one-dimensional from any angle of approach. But they do represent a portal of direct personal experience or connection between a human and the Unseen, unmediated by Church authorities. This is threatening to Christian culture, which insists that all people deal with the Unseen only through the mediation, protection, and approval of the Church and its moral and cosmological worldview.

Those attempting to warn off new agers from besmirching the dignity of the historical Fairy traditions also have to be certain that they have their own metaphysics and historical understandings straight. Modern Neopagans treating fairies as though they are a distinctive class of specific, unique entities that can be simply added to their pantheons or spiritual practices aren’t comprehending history very well.

Any conversation about Fairies is ultimately a conversation, using later cultural language, about Fateful, mysterious beings that inhabit the Unseen dimension of life, and whose origins are in many different places. Any conversation about Fairies is a conversation (again using a specific historical language) about spiritual ecology, and any warning about dealing with Fairies is a warning about dealing with spirits, with the strange realm, with the Unseen aspect of this world. Saying “be careful about your dealings with Fairies” is another way of saying “Be careful messing around with spirits or sorcery or weird stuff.”

This sort of caution reflects an actual maturity, again so long as we balance it with an understanding of why Christian cultures would necessarily express more fear or paranoia than they reasonably should. This is simply how Christian cultures react to older cultural materials and practices and soul-level impulses that they cannot successfully integrate into Christianity.

As I discussed in An Carow Gwyn, it is very clear that Fairyism (in all of its many localized forms) was never successfully integrated into Christianity, not even down to the grittiest, simplest folk form of Christianity. Fairies were always banished to ambiguity in the face of Christian cosmologies, branded as entities that were stranded “between heaven and hell”, or the souls of the unforgiven Pagan dead unable to rest or find their way to heaven. Fairy land remains an inscrutable (yet dangerous) place that stands apart from purgatory, paradise, heaven, and hell.

Fairyism could not be resolved to Christianity because ultimately, it was the repository of what remained of Paganism in the more intimate, localized sense. It was what remained after the larger, official public cults of popular Gods and Goddesses were banished through the destruction of their sacred places and the closing down of public rituals and sacrifices done for them. Fairyism was also based on the deeper impulses of place-spirit centered interanimism, and that can never be truly resolved with Christianity, a religion whose sacred places and myths come from a place far distant from Europe’s dark forests, mountains, green fields and hills.

4 thoughts on “A Fairy Common Confusion: Fairyism and Neopaganism in the Modern World

  1. I am just finishing up An Carow Gwyn, and this article has capped it beautifully. I wish it had been a part of the book. Thanks for illuminating something I had felt but just couldn’t grasp, couldn’t identify. I always knew the Victorian/New Age perspective was “manufactured” yet there was no other cosmology that put it into perspective for me. The book, and this article in some strange way makes me feel free. Knowing that I can pour a Trickle Road without trying to visualize flying sprites is an enormous relief. Thank you.

    Like

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