There is a type of fairy encounter often dismissed as less authentic and less significant than other types, and yet possibly the most common encounter and one with the most positive, uplifting effects on the human spirit. This is what I call encountering the “faerie presence,” rather than encountering the “presence of fairies.” It is encountering “Faerie” as an ongoing “presence” in our ordinary world, rather than the occasional appearance of fairies in which they present themselves to us in an often intrusive and irritating manner.
Faerie presence is a kind of energy or intuition which Dennis Gaffin in his excellent book, Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion, describes as a “mild ‘high’” that one experiences in certain energy fields. In his words, it is a feeling of “lightness, sanctity, otherworldliness, alliance, and contentedness, often as a mild smile crosses my face and my mind.” (12-13) This is the experience of entering a place in nature that has a recognizably faerie quality, a place often called a “fairy haunt.”
Certain times of day and night and atmospheric conditions also alert us to the faerie presence. In fact, the typical ones are almost cliches in our culture: mossy stones beside a cool cascading waterfall; deep shadows surrounded by the thick greenery of wild forest; soft shafts of light shooting through leaves shortly before the sun sets; a grassy knoll illuminated by moonlight; the sparkling in bubbles left by waves on a lonely and deserted shoreline; deep, dark crevasses on rock outcrops along a shady stream. And there are many others. We wander into these places but may not actually “see” a fairy there.
I prefer “faerie” spelled this way rather than “fairy”because it indicates we are discussing something collective rather than individual. Faerie suggests the total realm of fairies, or that quality which is produced by the activities and presence of individual fairies. It is the equivalent of the Celtic term “sidh” which can mean both the Celtic Otherworld as well as the spirits that dwell there. “Sidh” can be spelled in a variety of ways and is also the root word for peace, harmony, and tranquility—common characteristics of the faerie presence that we feel most poignantly in fairy haunts. For this reason fairies are sometimes called the “People of Peace.” The faerie presence gives us that peaceful, easy feeling, to steal a song-phrase from the Eagles.
Each generation or era describes fairies in its own way. In earlier times people tended to fear fairies, or consider them demonic, or the product of superstitious imaginations. Today many people, when in the faerie presence, feel a certain awe or mystery, similar to that which is felt in the presence of the Divine or the Holy. In our era a growing number of people consider fairies to be divine messengers similar to angels or other intermediaries between humans and the Creator, the Source, or God. A person may feel a kind of enchantment in the faerie presence that mystics and holy people throughout the ages have felt in the presence of God.
Rather than fearing fairies, the current trend is to welcome them and to actively seek out places with the faerie presence, not to boast about “having seen the fairies,” but to enter that kind of worshipful aura that lifts one’s spirit as when in the presence of the numinous. These feelings make us forget our ordinary tasks and responsibilities, our attachment to the material world of money and technology, the struggle and hardships of everyday living. The faerie presence disrupts our normal daily habits in a way that is more gentle than the mischief caused by individual fairies who knock us off our daily routines by aggravating us. It rouses us from our routines by enchanting us.
All spiritual traditions warn that being self-centered or egotistical is a deterrent to experiencing the Divine. Our tendency to anthropomorphize spirits, especially fairies, can circumvent the mystical experience. Feeling the faerie power and presence, however, without a stubborn need to attribute our own human characteristics to the fairies, can produce a buoyancy and lightness that mystics speak of as they attempt to describe what is ultimately indescribable. There are no adequate words to capture an experience that is ineffable. Stepping into a faerie place often renders us momentarily speechless. About all we can say is something like “They’re here” or “This is one of those places.” Or we simply smile.
Faerie presence has a luminous quality, a luster that verges on the ecstatic. It shines and dazzles us out of our ordinary consciousness into an altered state of awareness that is rare for many people. The strangeness of the experience can be frightening, especially for those who hold a strong rational, linear, or logical view of reality. The faerie world is not rational, linear, or logical. Attempts to define it and the fairies themselves always produce a welter of confusing terms, names, attributes, characteristics, and contradictory traditions that leave us groping for certainty. (Should we eat their food, or not?)
Nor does it help to go back to earlier people and times to see how they defined their encounters with fairies. We cannot rely on Victorian artists’ depictions of the faerie world or even contemporary artists like Brian Froud. While these images often satisfy some longing in us to pin down fairies so we feel like we “know” them, ultimately such images cannot be the final vision of the faerie world. Fairies are part of our world. Many people believe they are created by God, and hence, like everything else on this planet, they too change and evolve. Fairies are not stuck in some olden illustration or folk tale from ancient times, nor can they be pinned down like dead butterflies in a glass case. They are evolving, even as our understanding of them is evolving.
In the late nineteenth century the Irish mystic and poet George Russell, writing under the pen name A.E., questioned whether the fairies even had individual life, or whether “they moved in some orchestration of their being” by some “guardian or oversoul” that “lived within them” or some kind of Divinity that “seemed to breathe within” them as a collective entity. (20) Once, he saw on the face of one of them “the ecstasy of beauty and immortal youth,” (21) and he wondered if his memory of this and his other memories of Faerie could “reach to past ages and mix with the eternal consciousness of Earth.” (38)
This youthfulness and beauty lead us to wonder if the faerie presence is in reality the presence of God working out the ongoing creation and consciousness of the world. Why is this? Because Faerie is traditionally called Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth, or as it is sometimes worded, the Land of Eternal Youth or the Land of the Ever Young, or the Land of Ever-Becoming—terms that point us to the ongoing process of creation. Youth, after all, is the quintessential state of becoming. So Faerie and the fairies themselves are in some hidden way part of the never-ending creation of beauty and joy which they so wonderfully project into our lives.
Places and times with faerie presence tend to be beautiful, often a calm, restful beauty that is entrancing. Fairies themselves tend to be, in William Butler Yeats’s words, “beautiful beyond any one we have ever seen, and …(they) are not far away when we are walking in pleasant and quiet places.” He suggests beauty is a “gateway out of the net” that is our ordinary and troubled lives. (54-55) In fact, all things beautiful work their magic on us in this way, as do faerie places. When we see something truly beautiful, whether a painting, a human face, a landscape, a building, or a sunset, we are enchanted out of whatever task or work we are engaged with. We stop and pause, we look and admire, and for a brief moment we transcend out of the commonplace. Beauty is the work of Faerie.
Gaffin points out that some contemporary people see the “fairies as independent entities, subservient to Nature and God, which help humans to accomplish tasks and to understand the sanctity of nature and the closeness of God.” (6) I would extend this idea beyond individual fairies to the faerie presence itself. Experiencing Faerie can be a mystical encounter that approaches that same mystical experience that we have called the presence of God. Perhaps that is why Faerie brings beauty, joy, humbleness, and puts a smile on our face.
Gaffin, Dennis. Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2012.
Russell, George (A.E.). The Candle of Vision: Inner Worlds of the Imagination. Bridport, Dorset, United Kingdom, Prism Press: 1990.
Yeats, William Butler. The Celtic Twilight: Myth, Fantasy, and Folklore. Bridport, Dorset, United Kingdom, Prism Press: 1990.