Taking a quick scan through human history, and its many colourful cultural beliefs, legends and mythologies, it seems clear, at least to me, that human beings simply cannot exist without fairies – or at least, not without stories of fairies.
Ever since our ancestors first began speaking about these strange creatures around the flickering flow of a cooking fire, our minds and our myths have been haunted by fairies, by their magic and by their many weird and wonderful deeds.
From Ireland’s supposed historical invasion of the Tuatha De Danann – also referred to as the Shining or Lordly Ones – to the Victorian obsession with tiny, delicate pixie beings with Tinkerbell-style wings, we have told tales, painted pictures and dreamed many a dream of these mysterious creatures.
Of course not all of our beliefs about them are as sweet and cutesy as the Victorian’s precious ‘tiny fairy’ image. In Anglo Saxon times elves were believed to inhabit our meadows, woodlands and hilltops and though our ancestors told stories of how beautiful they were elves were also treated with a healthy mixture of fear and respect. Sacrifices were made in their honour, both to appease them and ask for their aid, and pieces of iron – which they supposedly hated – were left under the cribs of new-born babies, so that the children wouldn’t be stolen away in the night and replaced by changelings. Elves were also blamed for an affliction which was known in Anglo Saxon times as ‘water-elf disease’ but was probably dropsy, and for many years our ancestors had a firm belief in ‘elf-shot’, tiny malevolent barbs shot by the elves which caused illness, lassitude and sometimes even death.
However elves and fairies could also impart good fortune as well as bad. From helping with the crops to – ironically enough – curing diseases, we believed that these magical beings could give us aid when ordinary human techniques or knowledge failed. Two famous gifts said to be imparted by fairies are those of music and literary skill. As I have written in a previous article, the leanan sidhe are ‘fairy lovers’ which legend has it imparted poets such as Keats and Shelley with uncommon writing abilities…while at the same time draining them of vitality and causing their early deaths.
Meanwhile, British folklore – particularly that of the Irish – is filled with tales of people who became able to play sublimely beautiful music after being visited by fairies or falling asleep on a fairy mound.
Many of these tales date back centuries but there is a more recent example of a talented creative soul who was said to be enchanted by fairies. This person was none other than the revered Edinburgh artist, John Duncan, who was described by a close friend (Charles Richard Gammen) as being “the Scottish Blake” and was not only a skilled painter but also a poet, scholar and mystic. Member of the Theosophical Society for almost 40 years, John Duncan not only believed in fairies but supposedly saw them on many occasions when visiting Scottish islands such as Iona. On these islands he saw “not only the Little People but the Lordly Ones”, according to Gammen.
These encounters began on his very first holiday to the beautiful isle of Iona. He was supposed to stay for a few days or weeks at most, but Duncan soon became so entranced by the stunning landscape and ‘feel’ of the island that he ended up lingering for months. He went walking alone one day through the spectacular countryside when he suddenly noticed “two figures – tall and of strange aspect” who were walking down a heather-clad hill towards him. Duncan must have known straight away that they were uncanny creatures for “their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked, and they made no sound as they passed close to him…”
The two eerie beings then simply “faded out”, and in that moment John Duncan knew that he had witnessed fairies, walking abroad in the sunshine. From that day forward “he saw other members of the Sidhe on Iona”, according to friend Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, who went on to say that, “He had so much experience of Faerie and the Lordly Ones….that he found himself losing touch entirely with the earth and his own earthly existence. So, in the end, he thought it wiser to tear himself away from that mystical, haunted Isle.”
Duncan, who became famous for his stunning artworks, which had more than a trace of mysticism about them, famously led a somewhat unusual life and some modern-day cynics might say that he was mentally unstable. After all, he openly stated that he heard ‘fairy music’ while he was painting, and he proposed to, and later married, a woman who – he believed – had discovered the Holy Grail in Glastonbury’s Chalice Well (she later divorced him).
Then again, many famous ‘Creatives’ throughout history have been thought to be mad or in some way ‘unnatural’.
One can’t help but wonder if these tragic yet highly talented figures are just more examples of the common belief that madness and genius go hand in hand – or if the fairies, with their power to both inspire and destroy, had some influence on our many tortured but brilliant (and much beloved) poets, writers and painters… Could their talents, and subsequent unhappy ends, have been partly inspired by fairies, their brilliance imparted as a fairy gift? And, if so, was it truly a gift – or (thinking of the resultant madness and premature death) something of a spectacular curse?