A mushroom ring creating a circle on the grass. These rings were believed to be portals to the fairy realm, and areas of danger.

Do you dare enter a fairy ring? The mythical mushroom portals of the supernatural


For thousands of years, the sudden appearance of a ring of mushrooms was a sure sign of otherworldly presences. These rings would seemingly appear overnight, or travel from one location to another, with no clear rhyme or reason. Warnings of the dark forces that must create these abnormalities were passed down between generations, and the folklore of fairy rings was established.

These fairy rings (fairy circles, elf circles or pixie rings) are a naturally occurring phenomenon. A fungi creates a ring or arc shape within the soil, affecting the grass in the area, and grows up through the greenery forming a circle of mushrooms. These rings—a lovely surprise and good luck to some, or a dark omen and nasty lawn problem to others—can spread from a very few inches or feet to 164 feet (50 meters) or more.  The ring found in Belfort, France, is thought to be the largest ring ever found. It is approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) in diameter, and an astonishing 700 years old.

Fairy rings in moss in Iceland.

Fairy rings in moss in Iceland. (Chmee2/Valtameri / CC BY 3.0)

Sometimes there can be more than one ring in an area, and they will overlap, creating strange, winding patterns in the grass. Often the grass inside the ring is dead and withered, and has a clearly different coloring than the grass outside.

Supernatural Creatures with Mysterious Powers

Fairy rings have an historical, mythical reputation, as revealed by the folklore and warnings surrounding them around the globe, but especially in Western Europe.

A mushroom ring in the woods.

A mushroom ring in the woods. (Alison Chaiken, Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Various places have their own superstitions surrounding the fairy rings, but for the most part the myths involve fairies or supernatural creatures either dancing around the ring, or have the ring serving as a portal between the fairy realm and our world. It was also believed that the circles were formed by shooting stars, lightning strikes, or were the work of witches. These beliefs persisted into the 19th century, as did the warnings to not stray into a fairy circle, lest you be transported to the fairy realm, and certain doom.

The rings are known throughout Europe. In tradition, they were called “sorcerers’ rings” in France, and “witches rings” in Germany, where they’re supposedly most active on Walpurgisnacht, the eve of April 30, when witches were believed to meet and hold large celebrations coinciding with the arrival of Spring.

Beautiful fairy ring, or profuse circle of Clitocybe nebularis fungus.

Beautiful fairy ring, or profuse circle of Clitocybe nebularis fungus. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In English, Scandinavian and Celtic and many other traditional European beliefs the rings were caused by fairies or elves dancing. Such events were associated especially with moonlit nights, and the sudden appearance of the rings in the morning were evidence of a dance the evening before.

Images of nude and semi-nude fairies dancing in rings became popular during the Victorian era.

Images of nude and semi-nude fairies dancing in rings became popular during the Victorian era. Public Domain

In Scotland it was believed the fairies sit on the mushrooms and use them as tables for their fetes, while in Wales the story goes that the mushrooms were picked by the fairy folk and used as parasols or umbrellas. Even now in Wales it’s said the rings signify an underground fairy village. Welsh folklore also considers the rings as locations of fertility and fortune, and claim that crops grown around them and livestock feeding nearby will flourish.

In contrast, the Dutch legends had it that the barren center of the ring was caused by the devil placing his milk-churn there.

The Austrian tradition said flying dragons caused the rings, blighting the area so only toadstools could grow there for seven years.

French folklore believed the strange circles were guarded by giant toads that would curse anyone that happened into the ring.

Do NOT Step Into the Ring

It is generally felt that fairy circles are to be avoided as dangerous places as they’re associated with malevolent beings.

If you dare to enter a ring, many myths warn you will die young. You also become invisible to the mortal world, unable to escape the ring, or you are transported instantly to the fairy realm. You might also lose an eye for your foolishness. Either way, you will be forced to dance around the ring until you die of exhaustion or madness.

"Plucked from the Fairy Circle" A man saves his friend from the grip of a fairy ring.

"Plucked from the Fairy Circle" A man saves his friend from the grip of a fairy ring. Public Domain

To avoid this terrible, cavorting fate, you can take specific measures, such as running around the ring nine times (nine times only, as 10 is too many and will undo the procedure). It is said that to enter the ring without penalty you can run around the ring during a full moon, but only in the direction the sun travels during the day.  If you do this you might hear the fairies dancing underground.

You might also wear a hat backwards, because this is said to confuse the fairies and they will not do you harm.

This fellow is probably in trouble – his hat is not on backwards. The Fairy Ring; the Enchanted Piper

This fellow is probably in trouble – his hat is not on backwards. The Fairy Ring; the Enchanted Piper (c.1880) Public Domain

Can Science Explain the Mystery?

In present day the fungi that causes the natural phenomenon is well understood.  Mycelium is a spreading fungus which grows in fertile, damp environments. In good conditions, the spores will develop into mushrooms (the most well-known being the edible Scotch bonnet, or fairy ring champignon). The mushrooms reach out of the ground and create an easily visible ring. Underground, the mycelium networks out under the grass, moving outward from the center, and feeding upon organic matter and decomposing as it travels. The dead mycelium forms a thick, water-repellant mat that starves the grass roots of nutrients and moisture. Eventually the land within the ring withers and dies from starvation, but the leading edge of the ring remains lush and green, as the feeding/dying and decomposing mycelium releases fertilizers. This cycle can continue for centuries, and the ring grows, shrinks, and moves around the countryside, delighting some people and disturbing others.

Clitocybe nebularis mushrooms in part of a ring.

Clitocybe nebularis mushrooms in part of a ring. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

We in modern times may scoff at the traditional superstition of the fairy rings, but scientists still struggle to explain the so-called “fairy circles” occurring in Africa. It is reported that in Namibia in southern Africa, bare, circular spots on the sandy grasslands have been occurring for unknown reasons. The circles behave much like the mycelium growths, persisting and then vanishing after decades. But scientists have ruled out a similar fungus, and remain stumped as to why these rings have been appearing in the remote, arid landscape. Local oral tradition explain them as the work of spirits and nature gods.

The enigmatic rings of Africa can be about 6.5 feet (2 meters) to almost 40 feet (12 meters) in size. The circles appear, and then disappear, leaving “ghost circles” behind. Credit: Mike and Ann Scott of the Namib Rand Nature Reserve

The enigmatic rings of Africa can be about 6.5 feet (2 meters) to almost 40 feet (12 meters) in size. The circles appear, and then disappear, leaving “ghost circles” behind. Credit: Mike and Ann Scott of the Namib Rand Nature Reserve

The differences of the lush outside of the ring compared to the dead inside, with no obvious cause, undoubtedly led the people of antiquity to presume that otherworldly affairs were at work. Certainly the abrupt, unpredictable change in the natural world, the age-old circle symbolism, and the fact that these ‘portals’ seemed temporary and mobile were convincing evidence of the supernatural.

To the consternation and frustration of those now seeking unblemished lawns, ridding a yard of a fairy ring can be as tricky as dealing with the legendary fairy-folk. To stop the mycelium from spreading its necrosis, one should pick the mushrooms as soon as they appear. Next, a thorough soaking of water may drown out the problem, but often it requires digging down beneath the white fungus to remove the tainted soil. This can sometimes mean digging down several feet or more to get all the infected dirt, replacing it all with fresh soil, and restarting the lawn anew.

Perhaps it would be easier just to take your chances with the fairies.

Featured image: A mushroom ring creating a circle on the grass. These rings were believed to be portals to the fairy realm, and areas of danger. (Unukorno, Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Liz Leafloor

References

Sproule, Rob. 2012. “The Magic to ridding fairy rings” Sherwood Park News[Online] Available at: http://www.sherwoodparknews.com/2012/08/09/the-magic-to-ridding-fairy-rings

Pappas, Stephanie. 2012. “Mysterious African ‘Fairy Circles’ Stump Scientists” LiveScience [Online] Available at: http://www.livescience.com/21228-mysterious-african-fairy-circles-mystery.html

Nelson, Scot.  2008. “Fairy Rings: Toadstools, Stinkhorns, and Puffballs” Cooperative Extension Service, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources [PDF] [Online] Available at: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/PD-49.pdf

Schwarz, Rob. 2014. “Fairy Rings: Myth and Nature” Stranger Dimensions [Online] Available at: http://www.strangerdimensions.com/2014/03/17/fairy-rings-myth-nature/

Leather, Tony. 2015. “Fairy Rings: Nature’s Magical Mushroom Circle” Scribol [Online] Available at: http://scribol.com/environment/fairy-rings-natures-magical-mushroom-circles

Brinn, Lily. 2013. “Dare you enter a fairy ring?” Royal Society of Biology [Online] Available at: http://blog.rsb.org.uk/dare-you-enter-a-fairy-ring/

Comments

Thank you for this article. We must release all superstition. Fear and love cannot coexist. Fairy (Fae) Rings are crop circles.!! The energy of the Fae/Angel Realm - brings Heaven to Earth. Mushrooms are one of the was trees communicate with each other. Yes do step into one!! They assist our body/mind to heal from all stuffed down thoughts feelings emotions - the cause of all illness. All circles represent wholeness. A Fae circle is the live/life energy of the COMMUNICATION of HEART. They purify the and our atmosphere .If you find a fae circle it is you calling you to your grace! If you have not yet and want to - wish it! One will come when you allow.

i just found a fairy ring two mornings ago on my lawn. and this was on september 24th.after reading the articles, i don't know exactly what to do with this thing.play cavalier and cut them down along with the grass or stay clear and leave it alone. lol. i'm mowing my lawn for the last time before the season's turnover.i'm sending pictures of it if the site allows me..

Wonderful article, thank you.

SJDF's picture

Hi I just want to pass along some information I have on this topic, one thing that was not mentioned that is directly related is "Time" seam's to be faster within the fairy realm, the part about death if you entered one is easier to understand if you account for this. The fellow pulling his friend out of the ring dance, is a interesting story. First the man pulling his friend out was being accused of murder cause the other chap was missing several week's, and second after he freed him he died latter in church.
The bit about "Blindness" has to do with another story of a lady who somehow retained the ability to see the fairy's after returning to reality and was stabbed in the eye by a fairy who didn't like being observed. Fairy's don't like to be seen even by the people they like.

Its always neat to hear from others who are like minded and better informed... Thanks for the information you shared

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