Festooned with Fairies

I’ve been accepted as a presenter at the Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern conference at Oxford in July.  My presentation will be an expansion of my talk at the Esoteric Book Conference, just with the scholarship being more overt, and covering more ground.

When I say “more ground,” I mean comprehensively surveying as many of the known manuscripts dealing with fairy magic as possible.  There are brief references in various scholarly works, so I’ve been striving to follow up on as many as possible.  Fortunately, acquiring digital copies of books is quite easy; the staff at the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian have been most helpful, as has Joe Peterson.  In case you’re wondering, scans of the microfilm are usually under $100, although you still have to deal with Latin passages, early modern script, and messy handwriting.  After all this, I have retrieved over a dozen magical manuscripts to which I’ve found references.

So far, I can say the following:

First, my hypothesis stated at the Esoteric Book Conference – that magic that involves fairies, or similar spirits, has some traits different from the calls to demons or other spirits – seems to be borne out so far.  Crudely put, the magician’s approach seems to assume more equality, whether through words or ritual actions that mime those between humans, than the exorcist conjurations of demons via divine dominance, and more likely to incorporate aspects of the landscape as important elements.  I hope my language above indicates that this is more of a continuum than a division; many rites, especially those devoted to Oberion, are much closer to the exorcistic model, for instance.  I’m still transcribing, so I hope there’s more interesting material to come.

Second, by sheer luck the selection of The Book of Oberon for publication has made the largest discovered collection of early modern rituals aimed to invoke the Fair Folk available.  This does not mean that is comprehensive, as I’m finding many other examples, but it’s turned out to be a great source.

I’ve also been reading up on the scholarly literature on fairies.  I’m enjoying Diane Purkiss’ At the Bottom of the Garden (apparently out of print, but also available under the title Troublesome Things) and using it to track back other contemporary references to fairies.  There are a great deal of pamphlets in Early English Books Online that speak to the sixteenth and seventeenth-century interest in these creatures.  Nonetheless, there are huge gaps in what we know about them, simply because the elite and learned did not write much about them until later.  If it hadn’t been for Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, I think a great deal of lore would have been lost – even if, I hasten to add, Kirk was writing from a particular perspective in a particular place and time.

On my own, I’m also chugging away on collecting material on a few different topics – the table ritual, witch bottles, and wax images in particular.  All of these already appear in published or soon-to-be-published places, but I want to have all the material in place so I can one day rewrite them to be even more impressive.  I can dream, right?

No RPG writing is going on right now.  This summer will pick up, I think, with some work on the Delta Green supplement Falling Towers.  Right now, I’m simply enjoying running a game or two (D&D Rules Cyclopedia) and playing in two (D&D 5th edition, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire).

And the snake seems more healthy, even if she does seem to be going through a mid-winter fast – if this long bout of high temperatures constitutes a winter in upstate New York.

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 8:20 pm  Comments (8)  

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  1. I’ve been studying Fairy spells for awhile now, and I think you’re on the right track there. The thing that struck me about them is that the invocations seem quite polite toward them. And so far, I’ve yet to see an invocation include a mention of any demons or the devil. Fairy magic is utterly fascinating

  2. Congrats on being accepted as a presenter at the Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in Early Modern conference at Oxford. It is well deserved and I look forward to viewing your presentation. I agree with your hypothesis that there are differences as to how magicians/wizards approach/interact with fairies versus demons. I suspect it stems from Judeo-Christian beliefs that all demons are evil spirits and therefore can be commanded by Holy Names symbols and threatened by hellfire and such if they should prove recalcitrant or rebellious. Whereas fairies weren’t classified in the same category as demonic spirits so they got a degree of respect, sometimes begrudgingly, but nonetheless their species wasn’t depicted as being inherently evil so they were viewed as having equivalent rights, at least that’s what I understand so far. I have been lucky enough to know of fairy and demon literature and of oral traditions in Urdu, Persian as well as English. I have noticed some of the same differences in Peri (Urdu for Fairy) magic and human interactions and lore, and Jinn (demon) and human interactions and magical lore. So your hypothesis is of particular interest to me.
    For English literature about fairies, I have collected and combed through Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, which you mentioned. In addition I have greatly enjoyed and learned much from the following: Katherine Brigg’s Fairies in Tradition and Literature; Katherine Brigg’s Dictionary of Fairies (reprinted in 2011 by Routledge and available on amazon); Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats; Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fiana of Ireland; Lady Wilde’s Legends, Charms and Superstitions of Ireland; there are others, but those are the ones I can find on my bookshelves atm (I have a personal library and it’s not organized so it’s hard to find things at times, I keep meaning to organize it…someday).

    I am glad to hear the snake seems more healthy. I used to have one as a pet, and I used to have to change the bedding material every once a week, with thorough cleaning of the Plexiglas cage to prevent mite infestation. Snakes require just as much care and love as any other pet. And their vet bills are more expensive because they are classed under exotics and there aren’t many vets that specialize in reptiles.

  3. I found a few more worth checking out:
    Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness by Carole G. Silver;
    The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People by Thomas Keightley;
    The Good People: New Fairylore Essays by Peter Narvaez

  4. It is still rather unclear, I understand, exactly what fairies are thought to be, apart from something one calls pretty names so that they do not steal the children; seems to be worth a closer look, especially considering you have actual written sources to work with.

    • As far as I know, fairies is an umbrella term that includes lots of different sub categories, e.g. Sidhe, gnomes, goblins, etc. And the folklore of fairies stealing children is associated with particular types of fairies, and only among some regions. As for the practice of referring to fairies by pretty names, it is my understanding that the epithets such as Fair Folk, the Gentry were originally used by locals mainly regarding the Sidhe to avoid giving offense to them so the person wouldn’t attract bad luck or get elf shot or other mischief as revenge, not because it was thought they would steal children. Also, because they were considered to be the original native powers of the land and so were considered deserving of respect. Again, this was attitude and beliefs of certain specific localities and there is a shift in the attitude and variation in beliefs regarding fairies in general, and Sidhe in particular, from region to region.
      What is interesting and raises several questions about the mythology of fairies is that there are accounts of human-fairy marriages and unions that produce children. It isn’t just in English lore but also found in Persian/Urdu lores regarding fairies, example of one such account is given in Thomas Keightley’s The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People where he writes about the Peri Wife and how a human tricked her into marrying him and how she managed to gain her freedom and left. The accounts of human/fairy romances and marriages is fascinating because it raises several interesting questions, one of which is about the mindset and worldview of the people who had such beliefs regarding creatures we consider as mythical, not physical beings.

      It is an unfortunate fact that all oral traditions are more vulnerable to loss of integrity and consistency, due to modification because of limitations of human memory, and being more vulnerable to changes due to the prevailing context of the times and cultural eras, so it is harder to establish correlation, and trace origins of ideologies within oral traditions. Written literature is also vulnerable to biases and prejudices of the mindset of the author and the social context and prevailing beliefs at the time a manuscript is written, despite best human efforts to exclude biases. But at least with written manuscripts and records, one can trace the patterns of beliefs and establish correlations with some degree of certainty.
      I would love to see somebody make a phylogeny tree with timelines and origins and subclassification of fairies, demons and other mythological spirits, and make notations about which literature they first appeared in, and how the beliefs and lores regarding each underwent changes due to cultural, religious and intellectual shifts of eras; and collect as many oral and written references to their mythology and lore all in one place, with copious references and footnotes. As well, include chapters employing triple pronged approach including cultural (regional), religious as well as psychological context regarding human-fairy-demonic interactions and magical lore (please Dan Harms, write such a book as a sort of sequel to Book of Oberon!)

  5. Yes, quite, but what I was driving at was the lack of consensus as to the nature of fairies, in contrast to, as an example, the Jinn.

    • You raise an interesting point. Would you elaborate on this consensus regarding the Jinn/djinn?

      • Oh, they are fairly explicitly described in the Quran, just to begin with: mainstream Moslem theologians still publish works about them. The Bible, & Hesiod, do not quite have anything like that. There are things such as the Nephilim, or the Children of Night: the Biblical idea of a “guardian spirit”, or the Socratic Daimon, is quite close to some aspects of the Jinn: but none of this is as coherent as Jinni theory. Scholars such as Diane Purkiss have even defined fairies as being indefinable, or liminal, as she calls them. Of course, the relatively few post- Classical Westerners who believed in fairie, rather than reducing them to delusions, or the Devil, tended to favour the Plutarchian idea of the Daimon, which is also close to that of the Jinn: the “Comte de Gabalis” has a rather comprehensive, if satirical, coverage of that position, complete with Paracelsian elementals; but, again satirical.


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