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Fairy Roses, Fairy Rings by Amy Van De Casteele

Fairy roses, fairy rings, turn out sometimes troublesome things” – William Makepeace Thackeray
The inhabitants of Great Britain have been telling tales of elves and fairies for hundreds if not thousands of years. Known as ‘the little people’, the ‘Fair Folk’, the Sidhe and many other names besides, these mysterious creatures have fascinated us throughout our history and continue to do so even now, in this technological age when so many myths and legends have been reduced merely to dusty pages in forgotten books.
While fairies and elves are varyingly portrayed as being helpful, sweet, pure, mischievous and even malicious, one of the most enduring motifs in tales of the fairies is that of hapless mortals being whisked away to Elfland to join in the fairy revels. On the surface this sounds like an enchanting prospect but legend has it that in the land of the fairies time is much more fluid than in our mortal realm and can flow much faster or even stop and stand stock still. As a result, when these unfortunate humans are returned to their homes, they often find that in the “real world” time has galloped onwards and perhaps a hundred years have passed and everyone they once knew – including all their loved ones – are dead.
One of the most famous accounts of a mortal being taken away to Elfland is that of True Thomas, also known as Thomas the Rhymer, who encounters the beautiful Queen of the fairies riding on a milk-white steed. Mistaking her at first for the Queen of Heaven, Thomas consents to ride away with her and is shown “three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell and to her own world”. Finally she bestows upon him a gift of “even cloth” and “shoes of velvet green” and, lastly, a tongue that cannot tell a lie – hence his later nickname of True Thomas. He is then returned to the mortal realm where he is blessed with the gift of foresight and becomes a prophet, predicting among other things the Scottish triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn, the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 and the defeat of King James IV at Flodden.
Many poems and ballads have been made about the predictions of True Thomas and his supposed encounter with the Queen of the elves. In real life not much is known about him besides his predictions and the fact that his name was probably Thomas of Erceldoune and he was born in or around 1220. No one is really sure how he died but there are two differing versions of events; one says that he was the victim of a political killing; the other more mystic tale states that he lives on still in the Eildon Hills and will rise again one day, just like King Arthur or that other famous prophet, Merlin.
Another famous “real life” tale of a person being whisked away to Fairyland – in this case, for all eternity – is that of the minister and Gaelic folklorist Robert Kirk, who penned the rather iconic A Secret Commonwealth (of Elves, Fauns and Fairies) back in 1692. A dedicated scholar, devoted husband and minister of Balquhidder and then his hometown of Aberfoyle until his death, Robert published a few other Gaelic works and oversaw the printing of the Gaelic Bible which was published in 1690, but it was his work on folklore and fairies which has brought him most renown. The reason for this is partly the work itself but also the romantic and rather haunting mystery surrounding his death.
Robert Kirk passed from this world on May 14 1692 at the relatively young age of 48; his body was found on the slopes of what was known as the “fairy hill” above the village of Aberfoyle. Although there is a grave and a tombstone with his name on it in the churchyard it is rumoured that no corpse is interred there; that, in fact, Robert Kirk’s body was spirited away to Fairyland where he will dwell for all eternity and serve as chaplain to the Fairy Queen. This seems an ethereal and very romantic notion; however a darker version of the story says that the fairies took him because they were angry at how he had betrayed their secrets, and another equally disturbing rumour is that the fairies imprisoned him in the lonely Scots pine which stands atop the hill, echoing the fate of the Arthurian mystic Merlin, who was also held captive in such a way in the forest of Broceliande.
It is even said that the spirit of Robert Kirk appeared both to his pregnant widow and to his cousin, begging them to free him from Fairyland, and later Colin Kirk, the unfortunate folklorist’s eldest son, stated that his father came to him in dreams and told him that he could be saved if a child was christened at the Aberfoyle manse and a dirk stuck into his chair. Unfortunately it seems that this has never been achieved and local people say that if you cross the bridge to go up the fairy hill where he died you will feel a heavy weight riding on your back – the poor lost spirit of Robert Kirk himself, clinging to your mortal flesh, still desperate to be rescued from his eternal captivity.
Of course there are many fairy tales and fictional accounts of people being stolen away to Elfland but these reports of true-life encounters with the Fair Folk are enough to give us pause, to send shivers rippling down our spines and raise the fine hairs on the back of our necks. While the “abduction” of Thomas the Rhymer and Robert Kirk took place centuries ago, there have been more recent stories of strange vanishings, such as the 1960’s case of the little boy from Govan, who was walking home along the road with his brothers when suddenly he disappeared as if into thin air – he hasn’t been seen since.
Whatever you believe – or don’t – about the Fair Folk there is no doubt that humans remain fascinated by tales of these fantastic creatures; perhaps within us all there is some ancestral yearning for a connection with the mystical, making the idea of a sojourn in Elfland seem desirable despite the inherent otherworldly quality of this place; the element of danger and death. Whether it is a real place or not, Fairyland will continue to haunt our dreams and imaginings for many years to come.
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China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand

Tales of Asia’s Hungry Ghosts by Amy Van De Casteele

Many Asian countries, such as Thailand, China and Japan, while being cultural and ethnic melting pots, are still for the most part rooted in Buddhist beliefs. One of these beliefs revolves around the various realms of existence, which include Hell, the animal realm and the God realm, akin to Christianity’s Heaven. However there is another disturbing level of existence reserved for gluttons and addictive personalities – the realm of the hungry ghosts. The neglect or desertion of your ancestors can lead you to inhabit this realm after death according to Chinese beliefs, but another way souls reach this realm, unsurprisingly, is by being very greedy in their mortal lives, whether this meant a greed for food, money, drugs or even sex. Now trapped in hungry ghost form they are tormented by their insatiable desires which can never be fulfilled.

Hungry ghosts come in slightly different forms and have different features depending on the country but in terms of their general “physical” appearance they are quite uniform, said to resemble rotting corpses with bloated pot bellies – in other words, they look grotesquely ugly and anyone who sees them finds themselves rooted to the ground in terror. Often these ghoulish creatures are cursed with tiny mouths, the size of pin-heads, and thin spindly necks, preventing them from eating the food they so desperately desire.

In Japan there are two forms of hungry ghost, named jikininki and gaki. Jikininki translates as man-eating ghosts; these hungry spirits are doomed to spend their afterlife searching for human corpses, which they then devour, emerging every night after sundown on this grisly mission – despite the fact that, in some moral vestige of their souls, they despise themselves for it. Gaki are the spirits of greedy, malicious and jealous people cursed with an overpowering hunger which leads them to constantly search for sustenance, even stooping so low as to eat human faeces. In modern-day Japan gaki is also a remonstrative term for a spoilt child, while for hundreds of years Japanese Buddhists have devoted a day in mid-August to giving offerings and remembrances to these doomed souls in the hope that they might be saved from their eternal anguish.

Elsewhere in Asia, such as China and Singapore, there are fully fledged Hungry Ghost Festivals, such as the one held during the 7th month of the Chinese calendar. During this month it is believed that the gates of Hell are opened and the hungry ghosts are allowed to escape from their wicked realm and indulge their greed in the our mortal world, eating the offerings and taking the paper money and goods left for them by their human descendants. Special entertainments such as concerts and shows are held during this month, and the front row of seats is usually reserved for the hungry ghosts so they can enjoy uninterrupted views. During the evenings incense (representing prosperity) is burned outside homes and shops, and altars are erected in the streets behind which Buddhist monks chant special “ghost songs”. At the end of the festival lanterns are lit and placed outside homes or in running water to guide the ghosts back to Hell; supposedly when the final lantern has gone out all of the ghosts are back in their immortal realm.

Because of the country’s Buddhist beliefs and strong Chinese influence, Thailand has its own Hungry Ghost festivals such as the Por Tor Festival in Phuket Town, and Thai people have a firm belief in “Pret” (เปรต), the incredibly tall, pot-bellied hungry ghost of Buddhist folklore. They also believe in a wide variety of other ghosts, some of which could fit into the “hungry” category, such as the evil female spirit known as Phi Pop, which eats human entrails. After the massive devastation and destruction of the Boxing Day tsunami it was quite widely believed that the affected Thai beaches and coastal towns were haunted by hungry ghosts, as the souls of people killed prematurely can turn into these sometimes vengeful spirits. So widespread was this belief, people from other Asian countries stopped booking holidays to the region and Buddhist monks conducted cleansing ceremonies in the affected locales in order to propitiate the spirits and send them on their way.