The Origins of the Faeries: Encoded in our Cultures – Part I
The faeries appear in folklore from all over the world as metaphysical beings, who, given the right conditions, are able to interact with the physical world. They’re known by many names but there is a conformity to what they represent, and perhaps also to their origins. From the Huldufólk in Iceland to the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland, and the Manitou of Native Americans, these are apparently intelligent entities that live unseen beside us, until their occasional manifestations in this world become encoded into our cultures through folktales, anecdotes and testimonies.
Middle-Earth-like elves by artist (Araniart/ CC BY 3.0 )
In his 1691 treatise on the faeries of Aberfoyle, Scotland, the Reverend Robert Kirk suggested they represented a Secret Commonwealth , living in a parallel reality to ours, with a civilization and morals of their own, only visible to seers and clairvoyants. His assessment fits well with both folktale motifs, and some modern theories about their ancient origins and how they have permeated the collective human consciousness. So who are the faeries, where do they come from…and what do they want?
“Myth is a story that implies a certain way of interpreting consensus reality so to derive meaning and effective charge from its images and interactions. As such, it can take many forms: fables, religion and folklore, but also formal philosophical systems and scientific theories.”
- Bernardo Kastrup, More Than Allegory: On religious myth, truth and belief (2016).
Faerie-tales are a type of mythology; explanations of human and environmental phenomena, usually set at an indeterminate time in the past. Most faerie-tales are never one-offs, but seem to cluster as a single form from many sources, which are dispersed geographically and chronologically. In Europe and America, they were mostly collected by folklorists in the 19th and early-20th centuries, from both oral and written sources, and then disseminated from there. Many were incorporated into the folklorists’ bible, the Aarne-Thompson catalogues of folktale types and motifs, which were first put together in 1910 by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne, and completed by Stith Thompson in 1958. They consist of several doorstop volumes, which index every conceivable story type and motif from around the world.
‘The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania’ by Noel Paton ( Public Domain )
It’s been suggested that the catalogues actually codify every human experience, distilled into story; an index of our collective memory as a species, realized through the medium of mythology. Amidst the catalogues are the story types classed as faerie-tales, each containing hundreds of separate motifs; they are the descriptors of a vast array of myth. These are not simple tales told to pass the long winter nights (although that was always one use for them), but rather, they are sophisticated tools that can be used to interpret human experience and to help understand the reality we find ourselves in.
- The Secret Lives of Elves and Faeries: The Truth behind the Story of Rev Robert Kirk
- Leprechauns: At the End of the Rainbow Lies Richness for Irish Folklore
- Mysterious Worlds: Travels to the Faerie and Shamanic Realms
One common faerie-tale motif, for instance, is the suspension of time when a mortal visits faerieland. A nice example is the Irish story of Oisín, a poet of the Feinn. After falling asleep under an ash tree he awakes to find Niamh, the shape-shifting Queen of Tir na n’Og, the land of perpetual youth, summoning him to join her in her realm as her husband. He agrees and finds himself living in a paradise of perpetual summer, where all good things abound, and where time and death hold no sway.
Oisín and Niamh travelling to Tír na nÓg. ( Public Domain )
But soon he breaks a taboo of standing on a broad flat stone, from where he is able to view the Ireland he left behind. It has changed for the worse, and he begs Niamh to give him leave to return. She reluctantly agrees, but asks that he return after only one day with the mortals. She supplies him with a black horse, which he is not to dismount, and ‘gifted him with wisdom and knowledge far surpassing that of men.’ Once back in Ireland he realizes that decades have passed and that he is no longer recognized or known of. Inevitably, he dismounts his horse and immediately his youth is gone and he becomes an enfeebled old man with nothing but his immortal wisdom. There is no returning to the faerieland of the Tir na n’Og. In other variations of the story, the hero turns to dust as soon as his feet touch the ground of consensus reality.