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Sunday, 1 February 2015

What Sort of People See Fairies?

Belief in fairies, in one form or another, is found all over the world, but is strongest among primitive peoples. It is presumably as old as mankind itself, and in Christian communities is one of the surviving relics of paganism.
     That was a passage I remember well from the 1144-page tome pretentiously entitled, The Great Encyclop√¶dia of Universal Knowledge, apparently published in 1938, and the constant literary companion of my boyhood. Indeed several of the front and rear pages have been seriously damaged by the caresses of my childish fingers.
     I was only a little boy at the time. That was the first time I had heard that there were people who genuinely believed in fairies. As I grew older, I discovered that a detailed and complex mythology exists regarding fairies, and that during both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries folklorists recorded people who not only believed in fairies, but claimed to have seen them. Of course, it is assumed that they were making it up. Just the same, the folklorist Katherine Briggs included in her 1967 book, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature a chapter 16 entitled, "Fairy encounters and odd experiences". Interestingly, some of them were by people who did not share the tradition and did not expect it. Then there was Fairies, real encounters with little people (1997), in which Janet Bord culled the literature for exactly that. In this blog I myself have published two posts of such odd encounters from different parts of the world. (See here and here.) And at the back of all this, there were rumours of a mysterious organisation called the Fairy Investigation Society, which I could never discover for itself. Well, at last it has made its appearance. I am, of course, referring to Seeing Fairies by Marjorie T. Johnson (Anomalist Books, 2014)
      But before we venture there, let us have a glance at the background. If I were to see a diminutive human figure, I would hesitate to call it a "fairy" or "elf", for the words come with a lot of baggage: magic powers, but ineffective against iron, changelings, shape-shifting, invisibility, underground realms where time moves faster than on earth, and the use of twigs and clumps of grass as witch's broomsticks for flight, because they do not have wings. Getting down to appearances, we come to something slightly more concrete. According to tradition, some are incredibly beautiful, and some grotesque. Some are human-sized and are capable to marrying humans, while others are tiny, but mostly they are described as of a similar size to a human toddler. Their clothing is mostly of bright primary colours, and their caps often peaked. These are the accounts folklorists were hearing while children's novelists were creating creatures with filmy garments, magic wands, and butterfly wings.
     Then, in the early twentieth century, a collection of spiritualists and theosophists - the forerunners of the modern New Age movement - decided that they really did believe in fairies after all. However, they were "nature spirits", dedicated to helping flowers, trees, and other vegetation grow and develop, the tutelary spirits of natural places. Of course, there never was any real evidence for this view (and still isn't), even if all the encounter stories were taken seriously, but it is amazing how deeply it has seeped into popular culture.
     At any rate, the organisation was founded in 1927 by a group of such esoteric believers. In the nature of human networking, one would assume that  information would be more likely to come from people sharing the same worldview. Enter Miss Marjorie Johnson (1911-2011), a long time theosophist who joined the society not long after she had written to an obscure London journal concerning a fairy seen by herself and her older sister, Dorothy. About that time she started collecting reports of her own. Then, in 1950 she became honorary secretary of the revived society, and in 1955 a folklorist, Alasdair MacGregor wrote to the press on her behalf requesting reports from the general public.
     Imagine the situation: suppose you had once experienced a close encounter with a flying saucer, and wished to discuss it with someone who would take it seriously, and not laugh at you. At last, such an organisation appears! But the only UFO groups available were the Aetherius Society and the Raelians.
     It was about this time Miss Johnson began writing her book - but nobody wanted to publish it. (Tell me about it! I'm a frustrated author myself. I don't wish to make any aspersions on this book in particular, but when I see the vast amount of rubbish which somehow get published, I am constantly amazed at how many of us can't find a publisher.) Nevertheless, she continued adding to it, and its most recent record is dated 1996. Then - the irony of it all! - when she was 89 years old, it did get published - in German, a language she could not read. Five years later, an Italian version came out. Despite the fact that she lived long enough to get a telemessage from the Queen, the original English version wasn't published until three years after her death.

So what kind of book is it?
     Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. This one displays a 1934 photo of Marjorie kneeling in a clump of bracken, playing a bamboo flute in order to attract fairies. In the left foreground are two large leaves so close to the camera that they are out of focus and fuzzy. However, on the back of the photograph they are described as "nature spirits veiled in ectoplasm".
     She herself claimed to have see fairies on innumerable occasions. How many is not clear, because she repeatedly inserts the references casually and, one might say, naturally into the text as, for example, on p 137:
The latter ones, which he mentions [referring to an author just cited], may be similar to the "spark fairies," which I used to see on the fire-back. They had a bluish aura and flew to and fro like flies, but they swelled to the size of wasps and bees while they were absorbing the essence of the dying sparks, which they carried back to the main fire.
     To be fair, most of her alleged sightings are more concrete than this, and in many cases they were shared with her sister. I have no reason at all to doubt her sincerity. Her objectivity is another matter.
     Proving the existence of fairies is not the aim of the book; their existence is assumed. So is their nature as "nature spirits". A display of any unusual aspect is explained by a brief reference to some book of occultism, which is accepted at face value. The author never heard of a fairy encounter which she didn't believe. To her credit, she eventually accepted that the Cottingley fairy photographs were fakes. However, at a time when everybody knows about the surface of Venus, she casually mentions a person who allegedly received a visit from a Venusian at night, and another who went on an astral flight to the planet.
     Under such circumstances, it would hardly be expected that the witnesses' stories would be presented with the rigour a sceptic would prefer. Only occasionally, for example, is the lapse of time between the sighting and its reporting given. On page 227 is the account of a tourist who, during an idyllic stroll on Iona, happened to briefly see a fairy. Fair enough. But the previous two pages relate how another woman regularly saw them on the same island, usually while she was resting with her eyes shut. One whole section is devoted to bedroom encounters before sleep or after wakening, or when the witness was sick, culminating in an account of a woman who saw the most beautiful fairies while under general anaesthetic in the dentist chair. This demonstrates, says the author, that
[c]ertain drugs and gases can affect the vibrations of the human body, and when an anaesthetic is used, it causes the etheric or vital body of the patient to be partially driven out of the physical body, and this makes him or her more sensitive to superphysical vibrations. . . They must have utilized some of the ectoplasmic substance from her loosened etheric body, for they were of a transparent white colour [p 94].
     She then goes on to refers to a scientist who used to see fairies dancing on his dining room table whenever he took a few glasses of whisky. Who would have imagined it?
     From this you may assume that I regard the book as a waste of paper. On the contrary! The fact that a lot of people do claim to have seen fairies is itself a major phenomenon. Even if it could be demonstrated that they were all in the mind, that would still be an interesting avenue of psychological research. To paraphrase a comment by Simon Young in the introduction: whether fairies are a paranormal phenomenon or a psychological phenomenon, this collection of 400-odd reports from around the Anglosphere provides the best tool to make the determination. As I delved deeper into the book, it became more and more difficult to ascribe them all to one category or the other.

But what sort of sightings are we looking at?
     It would be impossible to cite a typical report, but the following are a sample.

     (1) Mrs Clara Reed was described as a Christian seer and a heroine of the Coventry bombing, her sincerity confirmed by the Rev. Paul Stacy, the former vicar of St Peter's, Coventry. She claimed to have seen fairies on countless occasions. Many of them were involved with flowers, and wore dresses made of petals, while others had tunics made from the bark of trees. One was even part-bird and part-fairy, with a turkey-shaped body grass green in colour, and feet and beak-like mouth bright red. But my suspension of disbelief, which was growing ever more tenuous, finally snapped when I read the following passage:
Once, in Coventry Park where she had wandered feeling weary and depressed after the long illnesses of her husband and daughter, a fairy showed her his "domain" in the trunk of a tree. With her etheric (X-ray) vision she saw that he had thought-built a good imitation of modern house in miniature . . . [p95]
      Miss Johnson also once glimpsed the interior of a fairy house, but whether she did so with etheric (X-ray) vision was not stated.

       Let us ratchet up the credibility factor a little.
     (2)  Mrs Rosalie K. Fry described an experience when she was seven years old and her her sister nine. It was a bright sunny morning, and they were in the nursery looking down the hall to a larger hall, the two halls being joined by an archway. Just then, what looked like a piece of the finest white chiffon about 18 inches [46 cm] square floated very slowly down into view beyond the archway, "moving in an extraordinarily graceful, flowing manner", and then wafted out of sight. Without saying a word, the two girls rushed into the further hall, but it had vanished completely, although they were the only people there, and the object had been moving too slowly to just disappear. They looked everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found. Yes, they were children, but they both saw it, and recalled it many times in the following years, but could never think of an explanation. At the time they were convinced it was a fairy. It obviously wasn't, but what was it? [pp 155 -6]

     (3) When Mrs Ellen Jackson was six years old and her sister nine, they were convinced that the water feature in their extended garden in Yorkshire must be the haunt of fairies. So, just before bedtime, at twilight, they ran down to the garden to "look for the fairies", skirted the pond and stood above a spot where the water trickled over some rocks. Much to their astonishment, they saw, sitting on a rock, three beautifully formed women, milk white in colour, completely naked, and only 18 inches to two feet [45 - 60 cm] high while seated. They stood watching them for a few minutes, when one of the beings caught sight of them, and pointed them out to the others. Then all three slipped into the water, and disappeared, but not before one of them reached out and retrieved from the rock the gauzy drapery presumed to be their clothes. The author continues:
My contributor pointed out that, as she and her sister were firm believers in fairies, one would be justified in thinking they had imagined them, even though they both saw the identical figures and actions, but the kind of fairies they had thought of were always those with wings and wands and brightly coloured clothes, whereas these water sprites were wingless and colourless, and of kind unimagined by them. [pp 123-4]
     (4) Thomas Shortreed of Galashiels was not only grown-up, but his grown-up son and his wife were visiting him. On the last evening of the visit, he suggested to his son that they stroll to the top of a nearby hill. Australian readers must appreciate the very long Scottish twilight, for he referred to "a very quiet, grey-dark September evening with no wind, cloud or mist". On the way back, he was most surprised to see, a few yards in front of them, a troop of figures crossing the road. They were long and lanky, all heads, arms, and legs moving in a jaunty fashion. Indeed, there were about twenty of them, the first being about six feet tall [180 cm] and the others sloping down until the last one was about two feet [60 cm] high. When they reached the stone dyke at the side, they appeared to just melt into it. He went and looked over, but they had vanished. Amazingly, his son had seen nothing. They walked another fifty yards or so when - lo and behold! - there was another troop crossing the road, only this time they were not as tall or as lively. Again, he was the only one to see them.

     (5) This happened in Australia. It is also one of the few cases where the time lapse between sighting and report was mentioned, and it was not very long. Miss Marjorie A. Thompson wrote to Miss Marjorie T. Johnson in November 1955, and the encounter happened the previous spring ie just over twelve months before. At this point I would like to explain to non-Australians that white settlement in Victoria was particularly intense, and completely devastated the indigenous population. By the 1950s there were no - repeat, no - traditional tribal Aborigines in Victoria, although there were various mixed blood communities scattered around the state on the fringe of society. Also, in those days family cameras were mostly Box Brownies taking black and white photos of family members. They were seldom used for landscapes, and were really not suitable for them.
     Well, Miss Thompson and two of her friends, Barbara Diprose and Jill Traralgon spent some of their holidays with Miss Thompson's parents in Gippsland, and took a sightseeing trip to the temperate rainforest national park of Bulga Park. They crossed a swing bridge over a deep gully of tree ferns, strolled off the beaten path in search of unusual wild flowers, and came to a small clearing covered in bracken fern about three inches [7½ cm] high.
     Just then, all three of them simultaneously saw three Aborigines, each clad in just a piece of bark, emerge from the far side of the clearing, and begin to speak to each other, although the women could not hear what was being said. Two carried woomeras, or spear-throwers (but no spears), and the other a didgeridoo, or drone pipe. I'm surprised at this, because it is a north Australian, not Victorian instrument. Also, not many white people had even heard about a didgeridoo in 1955. The Aborigines then went back into the ferns, the taller of the two woomera holders retiring by himself. They were only about 9 inches [23 cm] high.
     For some reason, Miss Thompson's parents refused to believe them, so the next day they returned to the site, this time bearing their cameras. Unfortunately, nothing eventuated.
     I like it. Children's books about Australian fairies almost invariably show them as white, but I always thought Australian fairies should be black and wear loin cloths.

     (6) Meanwhile, back in Oxford, Mr and Mrs Sinnett had finished the evening meal and were sitting beside the fire, minding their own business, when they saw
a little fellow about seven inches [18 cm] high running around on the table and finally vanishing behind a jam pot. The small creature was dressed in what seemed to be a complete suit and hat, tight fitting throughout, and the colour was best described as neutral, or greeny-brown. [p 151]
     Not wanting to influence his wife, Mr Sinnett asked her what she had seen, and her description matched his, so he was convinced it couldn't have been an hallucination.

     (7) Then there are the stories so bizarre one wonders how anyone could have made them up. A botanist which degrees from two universities, referred to as L. Verdoye, wrote to her in November 1955 about  some "mobile, semi-vegetable forms assuming human shape." A boy, one of his pupils, came to him and told him "in mystified consternation" the following story.
     One afternoon in the summer holidays his family - himself, his father, mother, aunt, and brother - went for a picnic in the Lincolnshire woods. Feeling bored, they all took a stroll and came to a clearing, and
there they saw some green shapes dancing in a circle, hand-in-hand. As far as L. Verdoye's pupil could estimate, they were not more than nine or nine-and-a-half inches [23-24 cm] high. No expression or features could be seen on them but all had pointed green hats, long legs and arms, "and there was," recounted the boy, "a sort of 'king' in the centre of the ring, with a light in his hand." While the family stood petrified with fright, the ring of shapes opened and the "king" went out and sat under a large dock-leaf. He curled his legs up like a human being and fanned himself with a little leaf.[p 115]
     At this point, the boy's father moved forward. The creatures immediately raced away towards a bank and vanished. They searched, but nothing could be found. The boy's aunt had to look after his mother, who was having hysterics. Nevertheless, the aunt had taken a photograph of one of the beings. It had its back to the camera at the time, but when the aunt moved forward, it went around the bole of the tree and vanished. Remember was I said about photographs in that era. The aunt refused to let it out of her possession, but the boy drew it from memory.
     Typically, certain prominent items of information were not provided, such as: when it happened (presumably not long before being reported, but we don't know how long it was before L. Verdoye wrote to Miss Johnson), the age of the boy (he probably wasn't too young, if his teacher took him seriously), or whether Dr Verdoye confirmed the story with his parents. However, he did tell the story to "a trustworthy colleague'. The latter, no doubt delighted to get it off his chest, confessed that he had seen the same thing in the same wood. It was Midsummer Day in 1943 (tradition says this is the day the fairies are most likely to be active), and he was bird-watching at night (for owls, presumably). He saw what appeared to be identical creatures, also without any facial features, in various places among the weeds and bushes. Sometimes there were two or three together.
     So, having spoken to L. Verdoye, the colleague went back to the woods and
found they were teeming with the little creatures, which crawled away from the trees at dusk and went to and fro underneath the high leaves of dock, bogweed, hazel, etc., and then back again.
     He felt stunned. He went into a swoon, and awoke to find himself all wet. When Verdoye met him next, he appeared "fairy-struck".
     L. Verdoye therefore decided to have a look himself. He spent two whole nights in the woods with a witness, and examined every inch of the ditch up to the bank where the  family had seen the elves vanish. None of them put in an appearance. However, he did discover tiny tracks, and holes around the roots of eight or nine trees neatly carpeted with dry, unrotted leaves, in a manner that did not appear consistent with human or animal intervention. He went back on 25 June 1956, and found dry branches and twigs stacked and tidied away in an inaccessible place.

So what sort of people see fairies?
     Quite a variety, as the above sample will testify. I would divide them into the following large categories:
    (A) Apparently ordinary people who just happened to experience something extraordinary. This, of course, is the gold standard. Experiences people don't expect, of things they didn't believe in, carry the most weight, just as religious experiences carry more weight when they happen to unbelievers. As J. Allen Hynek said about UFOs: what do you do when perfectly credible people tell perfectly incredible stories?
     (B) The same as (A), except the experience occurred when they were children (not necessarily very young) but were remembered as real events during adulthood. A surprisingly high proportion of cases fall into this category.
     (C) The same as (A), except that the fairies were not visible to other members of the group. This category is smaller than the subset where all members of the group saw the entity.
     (D) People claiming multiple sightings over the years, often at different sites.
     (E) Self-identified "psychics" or people with "second sight".
     (F)  New Age cranks People whose encounters are mixed up with strange occult theories and beliefs.
     The last three tend to overlap somewhat. In some of the cases, it is not clear whether the fairies were seen by the physical eye or the mind's eye. In a few cases, they actually asserted that they "sensed" the fairies, and in a few others, that they were "astral travelling" at the time. Lastly, we must include:
     (G) People who are making up the story as a joke on someone they consider a batty old biddy. It is impossible to identify them as such. However, it would seem unlikely that every single one, or even a majority of them, fell into this category. And, as with other anomalies, if only one case is genuine, then an unknown phenomenon is present.
     For the sake of argument, let us throw scepticism to the wind and assume that there really are fairies - even if we reserve our judgment about their identity as "nature spirits" or the entities of traditional beliefs. Then, not only would we expect them to be seen, but some people would be lucky enough to see them more than once. Indeed there might be some places haunted by them so consistently that any visitor could see them. Also, if they are essentially psychic manifestations, then it would not be surprising that occasionally only one person in a party is attuned to seeing them, and some might possess the special ability of seeing them on a regular basis. I previously raised the same hypothesis concerning ghosts. And, of course, the fairy encounter might be the one factor which draws witnesses into the sort of occult theories which offer to explain it. See, everything makes sense with this presupposition.
     However, when the wind wafts scepticism back, a number of questions raise their ugly heads. Firstly, considering how many people claim multiple sightings, why aren't a lot more of us seeing them? The obvious response would be that they are, but are too embarrassed to say so. But hold on a minute! Ghosts aren't supposed to exist, either, but people are not normally too backward in coming forth about their experiences in the matter. Why is it considered all right to admit to seeing a ghost, but seeing a fairy is too ridiculous to be confessed?
     Secondly, I have always had reservations about so-called "psychics", because of the extreme difficulty in establishing the validity of what they claim to see or sense. However, I do note that a lot of people claim to be able to sense or see ghosts, but they practically never claim to sense or see fairies. On the other hand, none of Marjorie Johnson's correspondents ever claim to have seen a ghost. Are fairies and ghosts on two different, mutually exclusive psychic planes? Or is one - or both - a figment of the imagination?
     Thirdly, a substantial minority of the "fairies" in this book possessed wings - and often gossamer type clothing as well, with occasional wands. These were never reported to folklorists in the olden days. Neither will you find them in Janet Bord's book, which was researched by the more conventional method of painstakingly culling the literature. It looks like many modern fairies have taken on the aspect of the children's literature for the past century or two. All of this implies a cultural, rather than a paranormal, phenomenon. So what's the explanation?
     "You just imagined it!" That's what we tell our children when they come up with a wild story. Yes, children do have vivid imaginations, and often get caught up in games of make-believe. But, ultimately, they are aware that it is make-believe. More importantly, when they reach adulthood, they don't remember the imaginary adventures of childhood as real events. In fact, I would expect the reverse to be the case: if something extraordinary happened to them when they were young, as they grew older, they would be more likely to convince themselves it was all in their imagination.
     What about adults? Obviously, imagination and expectation can lead to misinterpretations. A flock of birds or some floating debris on Loch Ness is perceived as the Monster. An unusual predator witnessed fleetingly in the Tasmanian bush becomes a thylacine. Some draughts and creaks and mystifying light effects turn into a ghost encounter. But what could possibly be misinterpreted as a little man running around the table, or a group of twenty individuals, graded for height, crossing a road? Or, if you think they were both lying, then feel free to choose another couple of sightings. There are a lot of them where they came from.
     Producing a vision out of scratch is an altogether different matter. Look, I have a vivid imagination myself, but I don't see what I'm imagining, let alone confuse it with reality. I have previously referred to tulpas, the visual hallucinations induced by Tibetan mystics, but they require intense and prolonged concentration and meditation; they don't just happen. Likewise, in an earlier post I described how, under the pressure of intense collective suggestion, individuals can be induced to see things which aren't there. However, these cases, by definition, involve groups and a highly emotional atmosphere.
     For a debunker, it would be a good "out" to attribute all anomalous sightings to the imagination. If a person can imagine seeing fairies in the garden or woods, then another visitor to the woods might conjure up a bigfoot out of his imagination. (The footprints might be a different matter.) Looking up to the sky, he might not just misinterpret a strange light, but imagine a flying saucer from whole cloth. Unfortunately, most of the people who make such claims were completely surprised by what they saw, and not expecting it. Also, if the imagination can conjure up anomalous objects, then logically it cannot be restricted to them. Why not cars, or other mundane objects? How can any of us ever know what we think we see is real?
    Just the same, when a woman claims to have seen fairies at every site in England where she lived, and that when she migrated to Australia, she could see them there as well, I have great difficulty believing they were not figments of her imagination. Pretty darned good imagination, if it can make you see the same strange things everywhere you go! Crazy? That's really just an insult disguised as an explanation. A genuinely psychotic person generally suffers from free-floating, ever changing delusions, has incoherent thought and speech patterns, and can normally not take care of herself. A mental illness which leaves you completely normal except that you regularly suffer the same basic visual hallucination would be really interesting field of study. It would also mean that none of us could be sure we were not sufferers.
     Nevertheless, if we discarded all cases where we suspected, however weakly, that the witness had been in an altered psychological state at the time, and if we culled out, fairly or unfairly, all those who claimed "second sight" or more than one encounter, we are still left with a couple of hundred testimonies for which the only reason for not believing them is that they are, well, unbelievable. Even if we further reject all those whose witnesses were pre-teenagers at the time, we still have a large number of first hand accounts which would be taken seriously if they involved a crime, or some other mundane event. It is the old Hynekan quandary: what do you do when perfectly credible people tell perfectly incredible stories?
     So why do people see fairies? Is there a real paranormal phenomenon behind it, or some strange, unstudied psychological phenomenon? Or is it a bit of both? You pays your money and you takes your chances.
     In the meantime, I am still waiting for one of those little blighters to enter my field of vision. I'll let you know if it happens.

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