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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Odin and the Wild Hunt - Excerpt from 'Pagan Portals Odin'

The following is an excerpt from my recently released book 'Pagan Portals Odin'
Cover art by Ashley Bryner


"The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is a group of spectral horsemen who ride the air at night, accompanied by hounds and horses, and led by a fearsome Huntsman (or in some cases Huntswoman). The Hunt is found in several areas of Western Europe as well as America and who exactly they are as well as who leads them can vary depending on where they are, so that in Wales they are known to be fairies led by the God Gwynn ap Nudd, while in Norse lands they are the souls of dead warriors, or the dead more generally, led by either Odin or Odin and a consort (Jones, 2003). In the Germanic areas the Hunt is often led by Odin under the name of Wodan, or sometimes Frau Hulda, or both together, and parts of England by Herne. There has been some suggestion that Herne is either Odin in disguise or else if Herne is a purely literary character that his later development into a deity was heavily influenced by Odin (Ford, 2001). The hunt in Germany is also sometimes led by Frau Perchta, or Frau Gauden [Mrs. Odin], who led groups of dead children or witches through the sky (Berk, & Spytma, 2002). In the areas where it is led by Odin it may be called Odensjakt [Odin’s Hunt], Oensjaegeren [Odin’s Hunters] or Odin’s Army. Odin’s connection to leading the Hunt goes back in writing at least several hundred years and speculatively in oral tradition to the 13th century (Lecouteux, 1999).

    The Wild Hunt is known to ride out at certain times of year, especially during Lent, which is usually March and April, as well as around Midsummer and Midwinter (Grimm, 1883). Meeting the Hunt was usually seen as a bad thing and people would flee indoors or avoid going out when the Wild Hunt was known to be abroad, because of the danger it represented, but it could also bring blessings to people who were clever enough to earn them. For example, in stories like “Wod, the Wild Huntsman” the protagonist meeting the Hunt is rewarded with gifts of meat and gold for his cleverness. Conversely offending the Wild Hunt might mean the person earning a more gruesome reward, such as the corpse of his own child or a severed human limb, while other times the Hunt would turn on the individual and tear them to pieces (Berk, & Spytma, 2002; Grimm, 1883).

The beings who make up the Wild Hunt itself in Norse and Germanic lands are most often the dead, often the battle dead who still appear to bear the wounds that killed them. These ghostly troops also included animals, particularly hounds and sometimes wolves, and horses that may have as few as two or as many as eight legs (Kershaw, 2000). It’s possible that these horsemen are the Einherjar, although they may also be other members of the Dead associated with Odin. 

The Wild Hunt may also have had a living counterpart, a cult of masked youths who engaged in ecstatic practices to connect to Odin and the spirits of the ancestral dead, and held processions at certain times of year (Kershaw, 2000). The Wild Hunt, particularly in Germany, had associations with blessing the harvest (Lecouteux, 1999). We may perhaps suggest that at least in Germany Odin as Wodan and his Wild Hunt was at one point connected to cultic practices that may have had many layers of purpose, possibly both connecting to the dead and blessing the land."

References
Berk, A., and Spytma, W., (2002) Penance, Power, and Pursuit, On the Trail of the Wild Hunt
Ford, D., (2001). Royal Berkshire History: Beware the Ghostly Hunt
Grimm, J., (1883). Teutonic Mythology, volume 1
Jones, M (2003) The Wild Hunt. Retrieved from www.maryjones.us/jce/wildhunt.html
Kershaw, K., (2000). The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Mannerbunde
Lecouteux, C., (1999). Phantom Armies of the Night

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Possession by Fairies or Elves

I'll note as I begin that I will in this article be using the terms elf and fairy synonymously, as general terms for Otherworldly beings. This reflects the generalized use of the terms in the source material I'm referencing in writing this. For those who prefer to see the terms as applying to specific beings, understand that what follows would then apply equally to both.

That fairies or elves are capable of possessing humans may seem like a strange concept to some people reading this, but it is a power that they were always understood to have until recently. Just as they can influence a person's perceptions through the use of illusion - glamour - they can also directly influence a person's mind by bringing madness or even by displacing the spirit and taking over control of the person's actions. Effectively what we in modern terms would call possession, although historically we see a variety of examples of this ranging from voluntary to involuntary, temporary to longer-term. Like the more commonly understood demonic possession however possession by fairies was problematic enough that cures and exorcism rituals for it exist.

Demonic possession and possession by fairies seem to have been understood as different and distinct situations, but they were also seen as somewhat overlapping in nature. Looking at the Saxon evidence we see that cures for elf-possession were found alongside exorcism for demons and in the case of one example found in the marginalia of a manuscript it simply adds the word 'aelfe' into the existing Latin rite of exorcism (Jolly, 1996). The symptoms for elf-possession in the Anglo-Saxon and Saxon evidence however is not what we would in modern contexts associate with demonic possession, necessarily, and is marked by fevers, nightmares, and madness more generally. Madness in these cases was usually described as marked changes in personality, nervousness or anxiety, or significant behavioral changes. This is reflected somewhat in a later Irish anecdotal example of fairy possession from the 19th century which also involved madness. Elves are often grouped with demons and night-hags as beings which both possess and torment humans and for which there are specific prayers, charms, and herbal cures (Jolly, 1996).

There is a specific word for such possession in Old English: ylfig. Ylfig seems to have been associated with possession by aelfe [elves] in particular and had both negative connotations which could require exorcism as well as some connections to prophecy (Hall, 2007). The fact that there was a particular word for this exact type of possession, separate from the word for divine possession [gydig], tells us that it was either widespread enough or understood enough in the culture to necessitate its own vocabulary and that is significant.

In Irish sources there are hints of fairy possession in the mythology, especially in some of the stories of the conceptions of heroes or kings believed to have both mortal and fairy fathers. Depending on how one reads the tales of the conceptions of Cu Chulainn and Mongan it can either be interpreted that the being in question, a member of the Tuatha De Danann who was also at the time among the aos sidhe, physically visited the woman or else possessed the body of the woman's legal spouse*, giving the child, effectively, two fathers. There is also a more clear anecdote of fairy possession in 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' which describes a girl whose father "held communion with evil spirits" and whose house was built into a fairy hill, who came to be possessed by the fairies and was eventually institutionalized (Evans-Wentz, 1911). After two years of that she was taken to nuns and then to a Fairy Doctor who eventually worked a cure for her.

During the Victorian period some writers favored the idea that changelings* were the result of fairy possession rather than actual physical abduction (Silver, 1999). In these circumstances it is not the child's body that is taken into Fairy but only the soul, and the body left behind is then filled with a different spirit. One source described it as if the child was being overshadowed and displaced by the secondary spirit (Silver, 1999). The symptoms of a changeling then would also be the symptoms of fairy possession, which would be inline in many cases with what is seen in the Anglo-Saxon and European evidence: illness (fevers), nightmares, and significant behavioral or personality changes. By this logic charms to get rid of a changeling and return the human are actually a type of exorcism, seeking to drive out the foreign spirit and allow the original to return; tragically like some demonic exorcisms the possessed person/alleged changeling doesn't always survive the treatment.



Fairy possession is also found in mainland Europe. It is seen among the Romanian Calusari who dealt with a type of fairy called the iele; the iele possessed people as well as teaching those who followed them herbal cures (Purkiss, 2000). In Germany while outright possession is not explicitly described the elben [elves] are clearly connected to both madness and nightmares, two things that are closely tied to the ideas of fairy possession. Grimm, for example, relates that in German there were two closely related expressions for nightmares: "dich hat geriten der mar" [the night-mare has ridden you] and "ein alp zoumet dich" [an elf bridles you i.e. has a horse's bridle on you] (Grimm, 1888).

Involuntary possession by fairies seems to occur most often when a person has transgressed against the Good Folk in some way, although they may not be aware of having done so. It also occurs, looking at anecdotal evidence, to children whose parents have transgressed in some way, as we saw in Evan-Wentz's story and the theory about changelings. It is also possible that such possession can be invited by an individual voluntarily, either as a result of seduction by a fairy or through a desire for prophecy. The Calusari invited possession by the iele through trance dancing (Purkiss, 2000).

Cures for fairy possession in the Lacnunga and Leechbooks ranged from Christian rites of exorcism that included calling for the elf-spirit to be cast out to drinks made from frankincense, myrrh, and shaved agate* (Jolly, 1996). Exorcisms through prayers are common but so are casting out these spirits using salves, drinks, and incense. For example burning the plant aelfthone* soemtimes along with several other herbs, such as bishopwort and lupin, is repeatedly recommended in the Leechbooks. Another, safer, option is 'smoking out' the elf or fairy using mugwort. Smoke was believed to be an effective method to drive the elf out of a person, or as Jolly says "to purge or exorcise the internal evil" although Jolly does also discuss the difficulty of synthesizing "amoral creatures such as elves...into the Good-Evil paradigm of the Christian moral universe." (Jolly, 1996, p 136). Indeed Christianity has struggled everywhere to fit fairies into its paradigm, often settling for an uneasy compromise that places them ambiguously between angels and demons and this may be reflected in the approach to fairy possession, which is itself ambiguous.

Fairy possession is not a subject that is widely discussed in the Western world today, yet it was once commonly understood, enough so that in the 13th century Old English had a particular term for it. Unique from demonic possession, although an overlapping concept, fairy possession was marked by fevers, madness, and nightmares all of which were thought to indicate the influence of fairies on a person's mind and by extension body. Multiple cures existed for this type of possession relying to varying degrees on the aid of an expert, either a priest or a Fairy Doctor. In context it must be understood as something that cannot be clearly labeled as either good or bad, and that can be found in various places as a voluntary practice to gain knowledge from the fairies or elves as much as it can also be viewed as a punishment from them for people who offend them.


*for example in the Imramm Brain Manannán says that he is taking on the shape of a man and that he will be a vigorous bedfellow to Caintigern but Fiachra will acknowledge the son as his own.
*Personally I do not believe that any single theory explains changelings, but rather that there were likely multiple possibilities.
*please don't actually do this. I am in no way advocating the safety of this drink, nor do I recommend it.
*aelfthone is an old name for a specific kind of belladonna. I DO NOT recommend burning this unless you have experience handling poisonous herbs. Burning this herb or consuming it could be extremely dangerous. Do not do this.



References:
Jolly, K., (1996) Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: elf charms in context
Hall, A., (2007) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Silver, C., (1999) Strange & Secret Peoples: fairies and Victorian Consciousness
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Purkiss, D., (2000) At the Bottom of the Garden: a dark history of fairies, hobgoblins, and other troublesome things
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology volume 2

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Translation: Tond Clidna/Cliodna's Wave

Today I wanted to do a piece from the Metrical Dindshenchas and I thought I'd take on a new look at poem 38 'Tond Clidna I' since I will be heading off to southwestern Ireland in a few weeks.

Tond Clidna I

Clidna chend-fhind, búan a bét,
'con tuind-se tánic a héc;
 damna d'a máthair beith marb
inní dia tarla in sen-ainm.
5] Dia ndernad in t-óenach the
ac lucht tíre tairngire,
is é thuc in mnái tre cheilg,
Ciabán mac Echach imdeirg.
Rígan ind óenaig thall tra,
10] ingen dar' chomainm Clidna,
tar in ler lethan longach
tuc leis Ciabán cass-mongach.
Rofhácaib hí forsin tuind,
luid uaithi echtra n-étruimm,
15] d'iarraid selga, monur mass,
luid roime fon fhid fholt-chass.
Tánic in tond tara éis,
do Chiabán nírbo deg-shéis;
mór gním, ba dimda linne,
20] bádud Clidna cend-fhinde.
Tond dúine Téite na tríath,
issé a hainm roime in bar n-íath
nocorbáided 'mon tuind tra
ben diarbo chomainm Clidna.
25] Lecht Téite 'sin tráig-se túaid;
rogáet immese a mór-shlúaig;
lecht Clidna 'sin tráig-se thess,
fri Síd Duirn Buide anairdess.
Fliuchthar folt in Duirn Buide
30] i tondaib in trom-thuile:
cid dimda do neoch fuil ann,
is sí Clidna nosbáidenn.
Ildathach is a dá macc,
robáitea in triur ac tochmarc;
35] is mairg roadair don luing
náchasanaig ar óen-tuind.
Cóica long lótar tar sál,
teglach tige Manannán;
nocharb í 'n chongaib cen gá:
40] robáitea ar thondaib Clidna. C.
- Metrical Dindshenchas



Cliodna's Wave I

Cliodna Fair-Haired, eternal her exploits,
with this wave came her end;
the cause of her mother's death
this the matter of the ancient name.
5] When there was held the gathering of the
people of the land of promise,
it is he who took the woman through deception,
Ciabán son of Echach Imdeirg.
The Queen of the gathering in truth,
10] the maiden her name was Cliodna,
taken over the ship-full ocean
taken with Ciabán curly-haired.
he left her on the waves,
he went on a swift adventure,
15] he sought to hunt, fine work,
he went forth under the foliage, the curly-haired.
the wave came after he left,
to Ciabán no well-omened sound;
great acting, that inhospitable ocean,
20] Drowned was Clidna Fair-haired.
The wave of the People of Téite of the lords,
was its name before in this territory
Until in truth the wave drowned
a woman there who was named Cliodna.
25] Téite's grave and her strand are northwards;
she was slain amidst her great army;
Cliodna's grave and her strand are southward,
southeast of the Síd of Duirn Buide.
Wet is the hair of Duirn Buide
30] in the waves of the heavy tide:
yet displeasure to anyone's blood there,
it is Cliodna that was drowned.
Ildathach and his two sons,
were drowned the three while courting;
35] There is sorrow to those who cleaved to the ship
who weren't saved from one wave.
fifty ships went across the sea,
the household of the house of Manannán;
That wasn't a host without spears:
40] they were drowned in the waves of Cliodna.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Meeting New Liminal Gods - Thallea and Thessilae

A lot has changed for me in my spirituality in the last few years, as anyone who follows my blog knows. But I do still follow the path I - for lack of a better term - call Fairy Witchcraft. And while I now focus my worship more on a specific Fairy Queen, who I feel fits the role of a liminal Goddess, I haven't stopped exploring who and what the liminal Gods are. And just like I had written about in November of 2016 I do sometimes run across new (to me) liminal deities; because Fairy Witchcraft was always meant to be a living and evolving tradition I wanted to share that here.



Today I want to talk about two liminal Goddesses I have started connecting to. Unlike the others who kind of organically came to me over time and exploration these two I found, because I was specifically looking for a deity of healing that felt like they fit in with the beings I already acknowledged. It was a slow process finding the right fit here and when I did finally meet the power I was seeking I was genuinely surprised to realize it was not one but two.

They are sisters, although what they do is very different, but as I have gotten to know them better I have come to believe they are like two sides to one coin despite their differences. They seem to act together as a pair and although I am not sure they are twins, per se, they seem very closely linked to each other; I have never seen them apart even when I am only trying to connect to one or the other.

Thallea, Lady of Roses: a power of healing and growth. I see her with skin like fresh turned earth, her hair a subtle dark green that always seems to be moving slightly, her eyes are black. Although she is focused on healing her mannerism is abrupt and brisk and I found her often impatient even though she is very kind. She is always in motion, like her hair, and rarely rests or sits still. She sings or hums when she heals and her presence is very warm. She is everything passionate about life and the struggle to live and keep living. Roses, especially pink roses, seem to be her symbol.

Thessilae, Lady of Thorns: a power of battle and death. I see her with skin like bone, dark hair and with black eyes like her sister. Her demeanor is calm and precise and she is a study in contrasts - still and peaceful when she is passive and a flurry of precise motion and deadly aim when she is active. I found her temperament to be much more calm and even soothing than her sister's. She may not seem at first like a healer but she is the aspect of healing that comes in the final release from suffering and pain and the transition out of the physical form. Her symbol is the blooded thorn.

An important thing to understand about these two is that in many ways they act together and they don't seem, in my experience, to differentiate at all between health and death as success in healing - both are the cessation of illness after all. They are compassionate and caring but they are, ultimately, Fey and they don't see things the same way we do; to them the spirit goes on in one form or another either with renewed physical health or freed from one body to be reborn in the next. It's just something to keep in mind if you decide to connect to them yourself.

Editing to add pronunciation:
Thallea - Thah-lee-ah with the 'th' like in this
Thessilae - Thehs-sih-laye

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Seven Years in Fairy

We sometimes see people referencing or discussing the idea of a person being in service to Fairy or going into Fairy for a set amount of time and then coming back to mortal earth, at least for a while. Often in folklore when this occurs it is for a very precise amount of time and what we most often see is 7 years. This pattern repeats in both folklore and ballads. 

It's said that the bean feasa and fairy doctors in some instances would be 'taken' for 7 years and then come back to serve the human population. Or, as Yeats puts it: "The most celebrated fairy doctors are sometimes people the fairies loved and carried away, and kept with them for seven years" (Yeats, 1888). Although the text does also clarify that not all fairy doctors are taken in this manner, it is interesting to note that 7 years is specified so exactly for those who are. We also see this number showing up in some of the ballad material as the number of years that a person will be taken to serve in Fairy before being returned to earth.


'Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland' by K. Cameron, image in the public domain


Thomas the Rhymer was gone seven years and then returned, at least temporarily. In the ballad after meeting the Queen of Elfland by chance she says to him:
"Now, ye maun go wi me," she said,
"True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as may chance to be.
"
Thomas is then taken into Fairy and serves the Queen for the required 7 years before being returned to earth with a pair of shoes and new coat - both green* - and the gift of prophecy and true speech. By some folklore accounts she later sent a white hind and stag to guide him back to the Otherworld.

In the ballad of 'The Faerie Oak of Corriewater' the Fairy Queen says that the young man she's taken to be her cupbearer will serve her for 7 years.
"I have won me a youth," the Elf Queen said,
"The fairest that earth may see;
This night I have won young Elph Irving
My cupbearer to be.
His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
And his wage is a kiss of me."
In this instance the person being taken is filling a specific role, although it is also implied that he will also be the Queen's the lover. Unlike True Thomas Elph Irving's payment for his 7 years of service is simply a kiss from the Queen, indicating that what exactly one does in the Otherworld or the reason one is taken has an important impact on how one may be treated and the compensation one receives. 

Although it's never explicitly stated in the ballad of Tam Lin, and there is much debate about how long Tam Lin has been in Fairy and how old he was when he was taken, it may possibly be argued that he had served the Queen for less than 7 years. When he convinces his pregnant lover, Janet, to free him he tells her that the fairies pay a tithe to Hell every 7 years, that the tithe is due November 1st (within a few days), and that he is afraid that he will be given in payment because he is 'so fair and full of flesh'. While not conclusive the implication is that he may not have been there for the previous tithe, hence his concern that Janet free him before the next one. It is of course also worth noting that here again we do see the number 7 showing up as significant.  

As with anything relating to Themselves there are other options seen, including being taken permanently or, as sometimes happened with nursing mothers, being taken until the fairy baby was weaned. However 7 years of service seems to be a common contract, and is a number we see repeated in ballads and folklore.


*green is a colour strongly associated with the Good People

References
Acland, A., (1997) Tam Lin
Child, F., (1882) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Yeats, W., (1888) Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fairy Taboos - #4 Food

Fairy taboos around food are complicated and layered, and each aspect tends to have its own rules and repercussions. For this blog we will break the prohibitions around food down into three categories and try to summarize each one as concisely as possible.

1 - Eating Food from Fairy.
     The most well known prohibition around food and fairies is certainly the rule not to eat fairy food. The general belief is that to eat the food of fairies is to be irreversibly bound to them and their world. We see a wide range of anecdotes centered on this idea, usually featuring a human who has encountered a group of fairies and been invited or inveigled to join them, been offered food or drink, and is then cautioned by a human among the group (often recognized as a recently deceased community member) not to take the offered meal. The warning always includes the explicit message that if the food or drink is accepted the person will not be able to leave and return to the mortal world or their family. In the ballad of 'Childe Rowland' the protagonist is advised to "bite no bit and drink no drop" when he goes to Fairy to rescue his sister if he wants to succeed and return again to earth with her. There are some exceptions to this, particularly in situations when the food is being offered by one of the monarchy of the Otherworld, but overall this is one of the most consistent prohibitions we find.

2 - Giving Food to Fairies.
     There is a long standing and deep seated understanding that fairies were entitled to a portion of the human harvest, including both crops and animals. We see this beginning in Irish mythology where the Dagda negotiates an agreement with the Gaels to give the Gods - who have gone into the sidhe to live - a portion of all their grain and milk in exchange for the Gods allowing the crops to flourish and cows to be in milk. Over time this concept was extended and shifted to the fairies more generally. In the modern period we find examples in MacNeill's book 'Festival of Lughnasa' that discuss the fairies being given a tithe of the crops during the harvest, with an understanding that such a tithe is due to them. While this may not at first seem like a taboo it should be understood in the context of an action that had to be taken in order for humans to prosper.

3 - Fairies Claiming Food.
     Related to point #2 is the idea that fairies will claim food they want, under different circumstances; this may be an extension of the idea that they are owed, by longstanding agreement, a portion of what humans harvest. Evans-Wentz relates anecdotes in 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' of the belief that if food fell or was dropped it was being claimed by the Good People and should be left to them. Along those lines Campbell in 'The Gaelic Otherworld' and Kirk in 'The Secret Commonwealth' both discuss the fairies removing the substance from food items, either in the fields or on the stove. This theft of the essence of food, rather than its physical presence, is attributed by Campbell to the owner of the item speaking badly of it. Another widespread folk belief in both Ireland and Scotland was that any berries left unpicked after Samhain belonged to the Good Folk and that eating them was unhealthy as they had been either spit on or urinated on by the púca, as a means of claiming them. Food that had been given to the fairies, or claimed by them, should not be eaten by humans as it was thought to have no value to it, although there are accounts of animals eating it. This falls into the area of a taboo as it was believed that taking what the fairies had claimed for themselves was at best very unlucky.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fairy Rings

  One particular bit of folklore that is still especially relevant today is that of fairy rings, also called fairy circles, elf rings, or elf circles. In Welsh they may be known as cylch y Tylwyth Teg [literally 'circle of the Fair Family']. The concept of these rings can be found throughout the different Celtic language speaking countries as well as the various diaspora and some Anglo-Saxon and German lore as well. Fairy rings appear as either a dark circle of grass or as mushrooms growing together in a ring, and less often as a circle of dead grass or small stones. It is said in folklore and common belief that this ring marks a place where the fairies have danced or where they like to dance. In the 12th century there was an English belief which attributed rings of daisies to elves dancing (Hall, 2007). The fairies love of dancing is well known as is their penchant to take people who disturb their revelry, either as a punishment or through a desire to keep the person in Fairy (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Fairy ring of Clitocybe nebularis (“Clouded Agaric”) photographed near Buchenberg in the Allgäu by Josimda – Own work,CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Fairy rings can appear in different sizes, from three feet across to ten times that size (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). If they were the sort made of darker green within a field then they would be either moss or much darker green grass and were notable because "no rushes or anything grew on it" (Gwyndaf, 1991). From a scientific perspective fairy rings are created by the fungus mycelium and when they grow above ground can include a variety of mushroom species, both poisonous and edible. Even the dark grass circles or less common dead grass rings are the result of mycelium though, as the fungus naturally grows upwards and outwards in an expanding circle and effects the nutrient content of the soil, resulting in the visible fairy ring effect (Mushroom Appreciation, 2016). The scientific explanation doesn't necessarily contradict the fairylore explanation, and the two beliefs are compatible with each other. For example, in some folklore it isn't the fairies dancing that causes the circle but rather the existence of the circle that draws the fairies to dance there (Bennett, 2001).

A person who comes upon an active fairy ring might see the dancers within it, and even the instruments, but hear nothing from outside, although in other stories hearing the music acts as a lure to draw an unsuspecting mortal in. Most people had a clear aversion to the idea of entering a fairy ring as it was known that to do so risked the fairies coming and taking the person away. In one Welsh story preserved in the late 20th century a person was questioned about why they avoided fairy rings and they relayed the tale of a boy named Robin Jones who entered a fairy circle one evening; he saw the fairies dancing and after what seemed to him a few hours in their company he asked to leave only to return home to find that a hundred years had passed (Gwyndaf, 1991). In a similar tale a man stopped outside a fairy ring, just to watch the fairies dance within for a few hours, and lost fifteen years of time for his dallying (Gwyndaf, 1991). Often the person would dance for what seemed like a night to them, or even only a few minutes, and then be allowed to leave only to find that a year or more had passed. Some fairy rings appear to have been used as a sort of trap to intentionally lure mortals, especially children, that the Fey folk wished to take and these people if they entered the ring would never be returned (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Other times however it seems to be only chance that leads a person to find fairies dancing in a ring; in accounts from Brittany some who join them are treated well and released unharmed with little time passed while those who offend them while they dance are forced to join the circle until they collapse form exhaustion or worse (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Once in a fairy ring, by choice or by compulsion, a person could not leave unless they were freed by the Good Folk or rescued by another human being.  In one Scottish tale a man fell asleep in the middle of a fairy ring and woke to find himself being carried through the air by the angry fairies who dumped him in a city many miles away (Briggs, 1978). In the above example of Robin Jones the boy was allowed to leave when he asked politely to, although upon leaving he found that so much time had passed on earth that everyone he knew in life had died. In another story a boy was taken through a fairy ring and tried to leave later with a golden ball to show his mother; the fairies took the ball back and threw the boy out after pinching him until he was thoroughly bruised (Evans-Wentz, 1911). He re-emerged and returned home to his mother to find that several years had passed.

Several options were available for those seeking to rescue a comrade from a fairy ring. One Welsh method of securing a person's release was to place a stick of rowan across the boundary of the ring, breaking it (Gwyndaf, 1991). Some suggest throwing specific herbs, including thyme, into the circle, and of course iron is seen as superlative method of both disrupting a fairy ring and protecting oneself from angry Fey (Hartland, 1891). Any iron object would suffice and could be used to break the edge of the ring or could be tossed into the circle to disrupt the dancing. Another method was for someone safely outside the circle to reach in, sometimes by stepping on the perimeter of the ring, and grab the person as they danced past (Briggs, 1978). Even if they were rescued though many times the person could not truly be saved, and those who had danced with the fairies in a fairy ring were known to pine away afterwards or else, if they had been taken for a length of time and allowed to leave they might rapidly age or turn to dust when the truth of their long absence from mortal earth was revealed to them in their home place, then occupied by strangers (Brigg, 1978).

There is a strong belief that if one finds a fairy ring it should not be disturbed, not only because of the possible danger, but because there is a sacredness to the space set aside within them. If one were to damage a mushroom associated with a fairy ring reparations would be offered to avoid punishment (Bennett, 1991). In Scotland and Wales it was generally unthinkable by those who believed in the Good Folk to consider intentionally damaging the ring or mushrooms, and it was believed that those who did so would be cursed (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). In one Irish story a farmer who knowingly built a barn on a fairy ring fell unconscious afterwards and had a vision telling him to take down the barn (Wilde, 1888).

Fairy rings are still found today although perhaps fewer people see the footsteps of the Fey in them, and more see the science of mycelium. In the spirit of tradition though it doesn't have to be one or the other but can both, in truth, and we can still see the enchantment and sacredness of the footsteps of the Good People in fairy rings without denying the knowledge of their natural cause. If you keep your eyes open and your sense sharp you may find a ring of dark grass or new grown mushrooms in your yard or the area you live in.
Although perhaps you'll think twice about stepping across its boundary.


References:
Bennett, M., (1991) Balquhidder Revisited: Fairylore in the Scottish highlands, 1690- 1990
Briggs, K., (1978) The Vanishing People
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and legends from Welsh oral tradition
Mushroom Appreciation (2016). Fanciful Fairy Rings
Evans-Wentz (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, E., (1888). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland
Hall, A., (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Hartland, E., (1891). The Science of Fairy Tales

Excerpted from my book 'Fairies'