The Origins of the Faeries: Changes in Conscious Perception – Part II
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.
In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock puts forward the hypothesis that the shamanistic cultures of the Stone Age were also interacting with these beings. Around 40,000 years ago there was an explosion of symbolism in human cultures throughout the world, primarily represented by cave art. This cave art is usually located in hard to access underground spaces that must have had significant meaning for the artists and those who would have been experiencing these strange images by firelight. And strange they are. Much of the cave art represents therianthropic beings, that is half human, half animal shape-shifters.
Cave painting from Altamira, Spain, c.15,000 BCE. (Public Domain)
There are also many beings that seem to be distorted humans, often similar to the faeries of folklore. And this gets to the core of the subject. Hancock makes the convincing argument that these cave paintings were produced to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of the anthropologists David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are motifs by the hundred in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance.
- Mysterious Worlds: Travels to the Faerie and Shamanic Realms
- A Brothers Grimm Story Proven Right: Many Fairy Tales Stem from Ancient Oral Traditions
- Lessons from the Hidden World: Icelanders believed in elves, but it is probably not what you think
The basic premise is that the shamans of these stone age cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences — experiences that frequently included the therianthropic beings they encountered. These works of art are manifest throughout the world over a vast prehistoric time period and demonstrate a universality of experience, from the entoptic images (dots, spirals and geometric patterns) frequently caused by psychotropic drugs, through to the imagery of time-lapse perception, often called tracers. It is convincing evidence that our prehistoric ancestors were dabbling with psychotropic plants and mushrooms in order to gain a state of consciousness that was fundamentally important to them. The cave paintings could be seen as the earliest folklore, told in pictures.
Cave paintings at the Laas Geel complex in northern Somalia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Further investigation into the cultures of modern indigenous tribes confirms the importance of induced changes in conscious perception, to what are still shamanistic peoples. The best example is the extensive use of the substance Ayahausca by Amazonian tribes. This is a brew that reveals a reality that includes many non-human intelligences (usually called simply ‘spirits’ by the shamans), that can be interacted with directly. There is usually a highly-charged feminine element to the Ayahausca experience, but reports will also consistently describe therianthropic beings, reptiles, the ability to fly, and humanoid entities. This brings us back to the source of all these experiences. If shaman spirits and faeries are part of the same phenomenon, what is that phenomenon? The evidence from modern and archaic shamanistic cultures confirms that an altered state of consciousness was/is required to access the places where the ‘spirits’ resided. It’s more difficult to prove that faerie-tales were generated from information gathered in an altered state, but there is a predominance of mushroom imagery historically associated with the faeries, most especially the highly psychedelic red and white Amanita Muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom, and the psilocybin mushroom, both prevalent in Europe and Asia.
The iconic toadstool, Amanita muscaria. (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)
These may have been responsible for purposeful or accidental psychedelic trips, but there are a range of other triggers for altering states of consciousness (such as sleep deprivation, trauma, illness etc.) that may also have contributed to people travelling to faerieland and bringing back the experiences as faerie-tales. Many faerie-tales contain dream-like situations, where the laws of physics are suspended and the experienced reality is different than the usual five-sense reality. It’s no accident that the tales are often described as trippy. They can be seen as basically describing events from a participatory altered state of consciousness, that have then gestated and formed into oral faerie-tales, before being fossilized into literature by folklorists at various times in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Diversity of Faerie Origins
The origins of the faeries in folklore and worldwide culture are diverse and complex. Although mythological storytelling and shamanistic altered states of consciousness may account for the phenomenon on many levels, the faeries cannot be pigeonholed quite this simply. There is, for example, a cohesive hypothesis that the faeries are nature spirits; an invisible life-force responsible for the propagation of vegetation and even the earth’s biosphere itself.
- Mysterious Worlds: Travels to the Faerie and Shamanic Realms
- Drugs in Ancient Cultures: A History of Drug Use and Effects
- Mushroom Monuments of Thrace and Ancient Sacred Rites
The Austrian spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner (d.1924) proposed this inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognize how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine, and to recognize the faeries in action.
Älvalek, "Elf Play" by August Malmström (1866). (Public Domain)
It is a theory that has been updated recently by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who proposes that morphogenetic fields are the formative causation allowing life on earth. Sheldrake’s description of this organizing principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are essential in ordering life on earth, something that conventional science accepts in the case of gravitational waves or magnetism, but has a hard time with when it comes to life itself. Steiner’s thesis is that the nature spirits are anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly. The faeries are, essentially, the memory of nature.
Architectural fragment figure, likely a yakshi or female nature spirit, c. 2nd century (Kushan). (Walters Art Museum/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Whatever the origins of the faeries are, they have been ever-present in worldwide folklore, and have loomed large in our cultural mythology, which attempts to explain the cosmic order. They reside in the collective human consciousness, and seem to have been there for thousands of years. Perhaps the biggest question is how they seem to be able to transcend non-material consciousness, and to make appearances within our material reality. Their metaphysical nature is a secret, and is perhaps meant to remain so.
Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide variety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. His first book is Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.
Top Image: Mystical landscape, Deriv. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
By Neil Rushton
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