Traditions and SightingsAs he walked down an isolated country road near Barron, Wisconsin, one summer night in 1919, 13-year-old Harry Anderson saw something distinctly odd. Twenty little men, trooped in single file and heading in his direction, were visible in the bright moonlight. Even as they passed him, they paid him no attention. Young Anderson noticed they were dressed in leather knee pants held up by suspenders. They wore no shirts, they were bald, and their skin was pale white. Though all were making "mumbling" sounds, they did not appear to be communicating with each other. Terrified, Anderson continued on his way and did not look back. The bizarre encounter remained vivid in his memory for the rest of his life.
To Americans, indeed to most people in the modern Western world, fairies are no more than figments of the sentimental imagination, suitable only for children's entertainment, in which they are portrayed almost invariably as tiny, winged, and good-hearted. This version of the fairy is rooted in romantic literature, not in the worldwide folk traditions in which beliefs concerning hidden races which share the earth with us have resided for most of human history.
The tradition and its mysteriesA century or two ago Harry Anderson, who knew no more than that the figures he encountered were strange in the extreme, would have had little doubt about their identity. This would be especially true if he had lived in a Celtic country, whose roads, rocks, caves, fields, rivers, lakes, and forests-so common opinion attested-were infested with entities of such volatile temperament that only the unwise and unwary called them "fairies," for they did not like to hear their proper name spoken. Because one of them could be listening at any time, rural people employed various euphemisms-such as the "good people," the "Gentry," the "honest folk," the "fair tribe," and others-calculated to praise rather than to risk offense. As the Rev. Robert Kirk, a seventeenth-century chronicler of the fairy-faith, wrote, the "Irish ... bless all they fear harm of."
The fairy-faith populated the world with a bewildering variety of entities, even within a single region. Nonetheless fairies could be counted on to be more or less human in form, though sometimes taller or shorter (never, however, bearing wings), and much of their behavior was recognizably human. They had governments, societies, divisions of labor, art and music, and conflicts. They married, had children, waged war, and died. At the same time they possessed supernatural powers which made them, at best, unpredictable and, at worst, dangerous. Few people sought out the company of fairies, and most went out of their way to avoid it.
The origins of the fairy-faith are obscure and by now unknowable. (Stewart Sanderson characterizes belief in fairies as "one of the most difficult problems in the study of folklore.") Folklorists and anthropologists have theorized that the original fairies were members of conquered races who took to the hills and whose descendants were sighted on rare occasion, to be mistaken for supernatural beings. It also has been suggested that fairies were remnants of the old gods and spirits whom Christianity displaced but who survived in popular belief as immaterial beings of a lesser rank than God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. Some writers have suggested the fairy-faith is all that remains of an ancient cult of the dead; indeed, the dead sometimes were said to appear in the company of fairies. A fashionable modern view, expressed by folklorist Alan Bruford, holds that fairies "represent in anthropomorphic form the mysterious and numinous in wild nature, the part of the world which is beyond mankind's understanding."
Aside from the speculations of scholars, folk explanation, especially in Christian countries, often associated fairies with fallen angels. All that is known with any certainty is that wherever they come from, fairy beliefs exist in every traditional society.
Fairies figure most prominently in myths, legends, and tales which folklorists have collected in the field or uncovered in archaic printed sources. One of the great early studies was Robert Kirk's The Secret Common-Wealth (1691). Kirk, a Presbyterian clergyman who served in Scotland's Highlands and who had a keen interest in the supernatural lore of the region, was convinced of the reality of fairies. After all, he asked, how could such a widespread belief, even if "not the tenth part true, yet could not spring of nothing?" He conducted his inquiries on the assumption that once he had enough information, he could accurately describe the nature of fairy life down to its smallest details.
According to Kirk, fairies were of a "middle nature between man and angel" with bodies "somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud." They dressed and spoke "like the people and country under which they live." Sometimes passing fairies could be heard but not seen. They traveled often, frequently through the air, could steal anything they liked (from food to human babies), and had no particular religion. Mortals with "second sight" (clairvoyance) were most likely to see them, since they were usually invisible to the human eye. In fact, the word "fairy" comes from a much earlier word, faierie, which meant a state of enchantment rather than an individual supernatural entity.
Few modern scholars have admitted to a belief in fairies. The major exception was W. Y. EvansWentz, author of the well-regarded The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, originally published in 1911. Evans-Wentz, an anthropologist of religion with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, traveled through the British Isles and Brittany on France's northwest coast and reported the results in a thick book which remains a classic of folklore studies. Besides documenting what remained of an oral tradition of fairy belief, the author, who was also interested in Eastern religion and Western occultism, declared that "we can postulate scientifically, on the showing of the data of psychical research, the existence of such invisible intelligences as gods, genii, daemons, all kinds of true fairies, and disembodied men."
But even those possessed of the will to make this leap of faith-not a small one usually find themselves brought up short by the fact that when considered in their entirety, fairy traditions are too wildly complex, various, and fantastic to add up to anything coherent. As one reads the vast literature of fairylore, one thinks more readily of the vagaries of the human imagination than of the mysteries of the invisible world. Moreover, anyone willing to embrace fairies also has to entertain the possibility, from "evidence" not a lot worse, that gods, merfolk, giants, shape-shifting monsters, werewolves and other folkloric creatures may exist. Common sense warns us it may be better to draw the line sooner than later.
Yet mysteries remain. Even if these do not amount to evidence for the ultra-extraordinary and innately unbelievable claim that a fairy realm exists, they do not necessarily reduce to simple answers either. People see, or think they see, all kinds of strange things, and among the strange things people think they see are fairies. These "sightings" continue even in the absence of an accompanying fairy-faith, as Harry Anderson's story indicates. It is probable that in traditional societies fairies were believed in, at least in part, because they were "seen." Fairies did not exist, in other words, solely in stories; they also existed in what were believed to be experiences.
As the great Irish folklorist Douglas Hyde wrote, "The folk-tale ... must not be confounded with the folk-belief .... The ... story is something much more intricate, complicated, and thought-out than the belief. One can quite easily distinguish between the two. One (the belief) is short, conversational, chiefly relating to real people, and contains no great sequence of incidents, while the other (the folk-tale) is long, complicated, more or less conventional, and above all has its interest grouped around a central figure, that of the hero or heroine." What Hyde calls "beliefs" others would call "sightings."
To Evans-Wentz, to the poet W. B. Yeats (who wrote eloquently of Irish fairy traditions and encounters in The Celtic Twilight [1893,19021 and elsewhere), and to modern occult historian Leslie Shepard, these "sightings" suffice to establish the existence of a fairy world, located in a kind of fourth dimension or parallel reality. To folklorists such as Stewart Sanderson and Katharine Briggs, "sightings" are shrugged off and passed on, without further printed reflection, to parapsychologists, who for their part have shown approximately zero interest in the question.
To behavioral scientist David J. Hufford, a radical skepticism, which sees even "scientific" attempts to explain supernatural beliefs as contaminated by unexamined cultural prejudices which may themselves be no more than expressions of faith, demands that we acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge of some aspects of human experience. In a critique of academic literature which seeks to debunk testimony about anomalous encounters, Hufford writes that "one readily finds appeals to authority, post hoc fallacies, ad hominem arguments and a whole host of other informal errors. Nonetheless, because this inductive dimension of scholarship is less often explicitly presented for scrutiny, and because so much of the work of framing questions and establishing the boundaries of scholarly discourse about 'the supernatural' were largely set anywhere from several generations ago ... to a number of centuries ago ... the systematic bias of this tradition operates almost invisibly today."
In short, no explanation, whether conventionally "credulous" or "skeptical," that purports to offer a blanket explanation for these accounts, answers all the questions in a wholly convincing fashion. Even if we do not understand the underlying causes-be they psychological or paranormal---of these stories, there is nothing to stop us from marveling at them simply as stories. For now, after all, that is all we can do with them.
Sightings and hearingsOne example of the kinds of first-hand accounts folklorists collected while the fairy-faith still lived was related to Lady Campbell by an old, blind Irish farmer. The farmer claimed that some years earlier he had captured a fairy, a two-foot-high figure wearing a red cap, green clothes, and boots and having a dark but clear complexion.
"I gripped him close in my arms and took him home," the farmer related. "I called to the woman [his wife] to look at what I had got. 'What doll is it you have there?' she cried. 'A living one,' I said, and put it on the dresser. We feared to lose it; we kept the door locked. It talked and muttered to itself queer words.... It might have been near a fortnight since we had the fairy, when I said to the woman, 'Sure, if we show it in the great city we will be made up [rich]. So we put it in a cage. At night we would leave
the cage door open, and we would hear it stirring through the house.... We fed it on bread and rice and milk out of a cup at the end of a spoon."
Soon, however, the fairy escaped. Not long afterwards the man lost his sight, and the couple's fortunes further declined-a situation he blamed on fairy retribution.
Another, earlier fairy episode had a happier ending. The following is the text of a sworn statement by a seventeenth-century Swedish clergyman, P. Rahm:
In the year 1660, when I and my wife had gone to my farm, which is three quarters of a mile from Ragunda parsonage, and we were sitting there and talking awhile, late in the evening, there came a little man in at the door, who begged of my wife to go and aid his wife, who was just in the pains of labor. The fellow was of small size, of a dark complexion, and dressed in old gray clothes. My wife and I sat awhile, and wondered at the man; for we were aware that he was a Troll, and we had heard tell that such like, called by the peasantry Vettar [spirits], always used to keep in the farmhouses, when people left them in harvest-time. But when he had urged his request four or five times, and we thought on what evil the country folk say that they have at times suffered from the Vettar, when they have chanced to swear at them, or with uncivil words bid them to go to hell, I took the resolution to read some prayers over my wife, and to bless her, and bid her in God's name go with him. She took in haste some old linen with her, and went along with him, and I remained sitting there. When she returned, she told me that when she went with the man out at the gate, it seemed to her as if she was carried for a time along in the wind, and so she came to a room, on one side of which was a little dark chamber, in which his wife lay in bed in great agony. My wife went up to her, and, after a little while, aided her till she brought forth the child after the same manner as other human beings. The man then offered her food, and when she refused it, he thanked her, and accompanied her out, and then she was carried along, in the same way in the wind, and after a while came again to the gate, just at 10 o'clock. Meanwhile, a quantity of old pieces and clippings of silver were laid on a shelf, in the sittingroom, and my wife found them next day, when she was putting the room in order. It is supposed that they were laid there by the Vettar. That it in truth so happened, I witness, by inscribing my name. Ragunda, the 12th of April, 1671.
Mari Sion of Llanddeusant, Anglesey, Wales, told a folklorist of her own early-twentieth-century experience with a fairy family. One moonlit night, she related, she, her husband, and their children heard a knocking at the door as they sat by the fire. The callers proved to be a tiny man, woman, and baby. The tallest of them, the man, was only two feet high. "I should be thankful for the loan of a bowl with water and a coal of fire," the woman said. "I should like to wash this little child. I do not want them at once. We shall come again after you have gone to bed."
Mrs. Sion left the requested materials before she and her family retired. During the night they could hear the comings and goings of the little people. In the morning the family found everything in order, except for the bowl, which lay upside down. Underneath it the family found four shillings.
Edward Williams, a prominent eighteenth-century British cleric, wrote that in 1757, when he was seven years old, he and other children were playing in a field in Wales when they saw, at a distance of 100 yards, seven or eight tiny couples dressed in red, each carrying a white kerchief in his or her hand. One of the little men chased the children and nearly caught one who, according to Williams, got a "full and clear view of his ancient, swarthy, grim complexion" just before effecting his escape. During the chase another of the figures shouted at the pursuer in an unknown language. The incident puzzled Dr. Williams all his life, and he concluded, "I am forced to class it among my unknowables."
The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, the Victorian historian and folklorist, wrote that when he was four years old and traveling in a carriage with his parents, "I saw legions of dwarfs of about two feet high running along beside the horses; some sat laughing on the pole, some were scrambling up the harness to get on the backs of the horses." His parents saw nothing. Baring-Gould also recorded an encounter his wife experienced when she was 15 and walking down a lane in Yorkshire. There she spotted a "little green man, perfectly well made, who looked at her with his beady black eyes. She was so frightened that she ran home." Fairy sightings evidently ran in the family. One of his sons had gone to fetch peapods in the garden when, so he informed his parents, he observed a "little man wearing a red cap, a green jacket, and brown knee-breeches, whose face was old and wan, and who had a gray beard and eyes as black and hard as sloes [blackthorn fruit]. He stared so intently at the boy that the latter took to his heels."
T. C. Kermode, a member of the Isle of Man's parliament, told Evans-Wentz, "About 40 years ago, one October night, I and another young man were going to a kind of Manx harvest-home at Cronk-a Voddy. On the Glen Helen road, just at the Beary Farm, as we walked along talking, my friend happened to look across the river (a small brook), and said: 'Oh look, there are the fairies. Did you ever see them?' I looked across the river and saw a circle of supernatural light.... The spot where the light appeared was a flat space surrounded on the sides away from the river by banks formed by low hills; and into this space and the circle of light, from the surround sides apparently, I saw come in twos and threes a great crowd of little beings smaller than Tom Thumb and his wife. They moved back and forth amid the circle of light, as they formed into order like troops drilling. I advised getting nearer to them, but my friend said, 'No, I'm going to the party.' Then after we had looked at them a few minutes my friend struck the roadside wall with a stick and shouted, and we lost the vision and the light vanished."
One night in 1842, according to an account he gave to a local historian, a Stowmarket, England, man was passing through a meadow on his way home when he saw fairies in the moonlight.
There might be a dozen of them, the biggest about three feet high, and small ones like dolls. Their dresses sparkled as if with spangles.... They were moving round hand in hand in a ring, no noise came from them. They seemed light and shadowy, not like solid bodies. I passed on, saying, the Lord have mercy on me, but them must be the fairies, and being alone then on the patch over the field could seem them as plain as I do you. I looked after them when I got over the style, and they were there, just the same moving round and round. I ran home and called three women to come back with me and see them. But when we got to the place they were all gone. I could not make out any particular things about theirfaces. 1 mightbe40 rodsfrom them and I did not like to stop and stare at them. I was quite sober at the time.
Over a century later, on April 30, 1973, an educated London woman named Mary Treadgold was traveling by bus through the Highlands. Near the town of Mull, the bus pulled over to the side of a narrow road to let an oncoming car pass by, and Treadgold idly looked out the window to an expanse of peat. There, standing in front of a clump of heather, stood a "small figure, about 18 inches high, a young man with his foot on a spade, arrested (frozen like a bird or a squirrel on the approach of something alien) in the act of digging," she reported. "He had a thin, keen face (which I would know again), tight, brown, curly hair, was dressed in bright blue bib-and-braces, with a very white shirt, with rolled-up sleeves. An open sack, also miniature, stood at his side. He was emphatically not a dwarf, nor a child, nor (last desperate suggestion of a skeptic) a plastic garden gnome. He was a perfectly formed living being like any of us, only in miniature." The figure was lost to view after the bus resumed its journey.
"When I got home," Treadgold wrote, "I inquired from a Highland acquaintance who told me friends of hers had seen similar small people on Mull, and that Mull was known for this. She added the small people were generally pale (I don't recall this particularly) and very bright. This last I do recollect in the brightness of the hair and clothes, and the general appearance of energy and alertness.
On occasion folklore collectors have had experiences consistent with local fairy manifestations. Sir Walter Scott complained of an educated correspondent who, though "a scholar and a gentleman," had confessed that "frequently" he had seen the "impression of small feet among the snow" and once "thought I heard a whistle, as though in my ear, when nobody that could make it was near me." Scott laid these presumed delusions to the "contagious effects of a superstitious atmosphere. Antiquarian George Waldron [the correspondent] had lived so long among the Manx that he was almost persuaded to believe their legends." John Cuthbert Lawson, who studied turn-of-the-century rural Greek traditions including beliefs in tall fairy women known as Nereids, remarked on the "wonderful agreement among the witnesses in the description of their appearance and dress. I myself once had a Nereid pointed out to me by my guide, and there certainly was the semblance of a female figure draped in white and tall beyond human stature sitting in the dusk between the gnarled and twisted boles of an old olive yard. What the apparition was, I had no leisure to investigate; for my guide with many signs of the cross and muttered invocations of the Virgin ordered my mule to perilous haste along the rough mountain path."
Many people claim to have heard fairy music. Manx fiddler William Cain swore he heard music emanating from a brightly lit glass palace which he encountered one night in a mountain glen. He stopped and listened, then went home and learned the tune which he thereafter performed widely. In the summer of 1922, while sitting on the banks of the Teign River in Dartmoor, England, composer Thomas Wood heard a strange voice calling him by his first name. Though he searched with field glasses, he could find no source. Then he heard "overhead, faint as a breath," then ever louder, "music in the air. It lasted 20 minutes," he told writer Harold T. Wilkins. "Portable wireless sets were unknown in 1922.... This music was essentially harmonic, not a melody nor an air. It sounded like the weaving together of tenuous fairy sounds." Listening intently, he wrote down the notes. In 1972, while strolling along the shore of a peninsula in Scotland's Western Highlands, American folk singer Artie Traum heard disembodied voices chanting "Run, man, run" in a strange harmony to the sound of fiddles and pipes. When Traum fled into a nearby woods, he heard crackling sounds and "great motion." All the while, he recalled, "my head was swarming with thousands of voices, thousands of words making no sense." The voices ceased once he found his way back to the open air.
Though nearly extinct elsewhere in the West, the fairy-faith in its most traditional form lives on in Iceland, where a University of Iceland survey a few years ago indicated that as much as 55 percent of the population considers the reality of elves (huldufolk, or "hidden people") certain, probable, or possible, and only 10 percent rejects the notion as flatly out of the question. Belief is so strong that construction and road projects are sometimes delayed to accommodate the wishes of the invisible folk who dwell in fields, forests, rocks, and harbors. In such cases psychics are called in to negotiate. As with other fairies, the entities are not always invisible to normal perception. A 1990 Wall Street Journal article observes that "humans and huldufolk usually get on well. Midwives have told [folklorist Hallfredur] Eiriksson about delivering elf babies. Farmers say they have milked elf cows. Sometimes, the two peoples fall in love, though affairs of the heart often end badly."
Fairies or humanoids?In 1938 Dublin's Irish Press reported, "Watching for fairies has leaped into sudden popularity in West Limerick." There a number of men and boys said they had seen groups of fairies and even chased them, to no avail; "they jumped the ditches as fast as a greyhound," one witness stated. All the while, "though they passed through hedges, ditches, and marshes, they appeared neat and clean all the time." The figures had "hard, hairy faces like men, and no ears.
The excitement began when a schoolboy named John Keely encountered a two-foot--tall man, dressed in red clothing, on a road. Asked where he was from, the gnome responded curtly, "I'm from the mountains, and it's all equal to you what my business is." The boy alerted friends and acquaintances, who the next day returned with Keely and hid in the bushes as he approached a company of fairies, letting one of them take his hand. They walked together for a short time until the fairies spotted the human beings in the bush and shot away.
If this incident had occurred a decade later and been reported somewhere other than Ireland, it probably would have been treated as an encounter with UFO occupants. (In November 1959, according to the Belfast Telegraph [November 91, a man moving a large bush with a bulldozer on a farm in County Carlow was startled to see a three-foot-tall red man run out from underneath the machine, "about 100 yards across the field, over a fence into the field adjoining." Three other men observed the fleeing figure. Only the Irish locale kept this from being treated as a UFO incident, though no UFO was seen.) Indeed, the UFO literature contains a handful of incidents in which someone conversant in the fairyfaith might find familiar elements. In April 1950 Kenneth Arnold, whose much-publicized June 24, 1947, sighting brought the UFO age into being, interviewed a Canby, Oregon, woman, Ellen Jonerson, who recently had seen a 12-inch little man with dark features, stocky build, and a plaid shirt. Walking with a "waddling" motion, he passed under a car and disappeared.
Inevitably some writers have suggested that UFO phenomena and fairy manifestations are related. Sometimes, notably in debunker Robert Sheaffer's sarcastic The UFO Verdict (1981), the connection is made as a way of heaping ridicule on UFO reports. Sometimes, as in Jacques Vallee's Passport to Magonia (1969), it is made to support an occult view which assumes the reality of paranormal shape-shifting entities that can appear, depending on the observer's preconceptions, as fairies or extraterrestrials. More recent theorists, for example Hilary Evans in Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians (1987), argue that all "entity" encounters occur in altered states of consciousness and are hallucinatory. But despite their surface attractiveness, theories like Evans's are hardly more persuasive than Vallee's; psychosocial approaches suffer from an absence of empirical evidence and are open to the sorts of criticisms David Hufford has made (see above).
In any case, links between UFO lore and fairylore are weak and require the theorist to read the respective literatures with great selectivity. Folklorist Thomas E. Bullard calls proposed connections "oblique and speculative" at best--a point readers can easily establish for themselves by comparing the contexts of two books coincidentally published in the same year (1976): Coral and Jim Lorenzen's Encounters with UFO Occupants and Katharine Briggs's An Encyclopedia of Fairies.
Another important difference is that at least some "close encounters of the third kind" have been well investigated and documented by civilian or official inquirers, whereas fairy "sightings," however provocative, are no more than simple anecdotes. No doubt this is so because those who heard them saw no reason to investigate; either they believed in fairies and so implicitly assumed the stories to be true, or they did not believe in fairies, or they were collecting what they thought of as "folklore" whose reality status was irrelevant. In all of these cases, no further inquiry was deemed necessary.
Perhaps real investigation would turn belief or disbelief into a response based on information rather than on supposition. But fairy "sightings" are likely to remain where they always have been: at the fringes of human experience.