Celtic faery tradition is full of tales of glamourie, a Scottish word meaning illusion. It was believed that faeries had the power to cast a “glamour” over the senses, so that things did not appear as they actually were. The word is in fact a variation of “gramarye,” from which derives “grammar,” for spells of enchantment have much to do with the spelling of words. Glamourie could make a beggar in rags appear as a king in silken robes, a tumbledown hut his grand palace, a filthy puddle its moat, and beans his golden coins. Often the illusion vanished with extraordinary suddenness, leaving the deceived one stranded in a ditch or mire. The spell of glamourie could only be broken by a four-leafed clover or by the application of faerie ointment to the eyes, as in the Irish tale The Fairy Nurse.
A village midwife was summoned from her bed late one night by a dark gentleman on a great black horse, saying she was urgently needed to assist a woman who was about to give birth. He brought her to a splendid castle, and led her through lavishly decorated rooms, past grand ladies and gentlemen dressed in silks and satins. In the finest room of all, upon a rich bed curtained with silk, a beautiful woman lay in labor. The midwife plied her task and soon a fine baby boy was born into the world. The dark man was overjoyed and gave the nurse a green jar of ointment to rub the baby with, instructing her not to miss an inch of his body. As she did so, she accidentally got some in her eye, and then –
“I nearly dropped the baby, for the whole place changed before my eyes. The great fine room was a big cave with the water oozing up between the stones and the silk-hung bed was nothing but a heap of dry bracken, and the lord and lady and the wee baby itself were poor, weazened, thin creatures looking as if they’d never had a good meal in their lives, and all their fine clothes were just rags and bits of weeds.”
The midwife knew better than to let on and incur the wrath of the faeries, so she acted like everything was normal and returned home on the dark gentleman’s horse, which was a terrifying ride because with her unenchanted eye she could see that they were galloping along on a stalk of ragwort. He gave her five golden guineas for her wages, but by the light of the next morning she discovered them to be nothing but five withered oak leaves.
The power of glamourie could also be overcome by the power of the Church. Faeries were looked upon with loathing by medieval priests, who believed they were evil spirits. A Somerset folk-tale tells of St. Collen, a 9th century former abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, who had retired to live the life of a hermit at the foot of the nearby hill known as the Tor, a mysterious place that has always had the reputation of being an entrance to Annwn, the British faery realm. One morning, he heard two men talking about Gwynn ap Nudd, the King of Annwn, who lived in a magnificent palace on top of the Tor. This irritated the pious monk, who stuck his head out of his cell and rebuked them soundly for talking about demons from Hell. The men were shocked and warned St. Collen not to call the faery king such names or he would be angry, a caveat that made no impression on the good saint. But Gwynn ap Nudd did come to hear of it, and sent a messenger to the monk’s cell, inviting him to dine at the palace. At first St. Collen refused, but on the messenger’s insistence, he finally agreed, and as night fell, set off on the steep path up the Tor – but not before concealing a flask of holy water beneath his cloak.
As he reached the summit, he saw what could not be seen by day: a faery palace shining with a thousand brilliant lights. From its gates streamed a cavalcade of handsome knights on horseback and lovely maidens ran to greet him. He was led to a magnificent banqueting-hall where the king welcomed him to the feast that was being set out by pages dressed in red and blue.
“Come sit and dine with me!” said the king, smiling. “And if this does not please you, we have plenty more!”
But the saint was not taken in by the faery glamour.
“I do not care to eat of the leaves of a tree,” he sniffed. At this, a shudder ran through the assembly seated around the banqueting table.
The king tried again.
“How do you like my fine pages? Do they not look splendid in their livery of red and blue?”
“They are fine enough for what they are,” said St. Collen.
“How do you mean?” asked Gwynn ap Nudd.
“Red for the quenchless flames of Hell “ cried the saint, “and blue for the eternal ice!”
And as he spoke, he took out the flask of holy water and splashed it over the company. There was a great shriek, all the lights went out, and the beautiful palace and all its inhabitants vanished. The saint was left standing in darkness, his cloak flapping in a chill wind.
If pious churchmen of St. Collen’s persuasion did their best to banish faeries from the hills, the scientific worldview of later centuries carried faery persecution one stage further by refusing to admit of their existence in the first place. A living belief in a race that was like, yet unlike, our own, that lived in the hollow hills beneath the earth and occasionally trafficked with the human world, was not compatible with the philosophy of the so-called Age of Reason and the growing materialistic worldview of the 18th century, that William Blake called the “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” The rationalist position was not that faeries were objectionable, but that a belief in them was, since it implied that one must be gullible and superstitious, most likely an ill-bred peasant who lacked the benefits of modern education. Faery lore was relegated to the status of fireside tales and children’s literature, to the realm of fantasy and fiction and greeting cards.
Yet a number of people continued to have encounters with faeries and so persisted in believing in their reality as living beings co-existing on some level with the human race, even down to present times. Celtic lore is full of accounts of quite ordinary people, who, up until the modern age, lived side by side with the faery races in quite a matter-of-fact way. Accounts of faery meetings range from descriptions of a tall, beautiful, god-like race to a diminutive, imp-like variety, although, as Dermot McManus points out in his classic study of the Irish fairy world, The Middle Kingdom,
“...it is not possible to find a satisfactory dividing line anywhere, as the various types so gradually and imperceptibly merge into one another.” Some of these faery seers were descended from generations of country-dwellers who had kept the old beliefs intact; others were visionaries, poets and artists, whose exposure to modern education and the scientific worldview had not narrowed their perceptions of what constitutes “reality” to the evidence of the senses alone.
At the revival of Celtic culture towards the end of the 19th century, often called the “Celtic Twilight,” faery lore became a legitimate arena of interest to the intelligentsia of the time. The way in Ireland was led by W. B. Yeats, who wrote a number of faery poems and collected faery lore, but the real visionaries were among his colleagues. One of these was George Russell, who went by the pen-name A.E. (for Aeon) In his mystical work, The Candle of Vision, he describes many encounters with the faeries known in Irish as the Sidhe, (pronounced shee):
Once I lay on the sand dunes by the western sea. The air seemed filled with melody. The motion of the wind made a continual musical vibration. Now and then the silvery sound of bells broke on my ear. I saw nothing for a time. Then there was an intensity of light before my eyes like the flashing of sunlight through a crystal. It widened like the opening of a gate and I saw the light was streaming from the heart of a glowing figure. Its body was pervaded with light as if sunfire rather than blood ran through its limbs. Light streams flowed from it. It moved over me along the winds, carrying a harp, and there was a circling of golden hair that swept across the strings. Birds flew about it, and over the brows was a fiery plumage as of wings of outspread flame. On the face was an ecstasy of beauty and immortal youth. There were others, a lordly folk, and they passed by on the wind as if they knew me not or the earth I lived on. When I came back to myself my own world seemed grey and devoid of light through the summer sun was hot upon the sands.
A. E. translated such visions not only through prose and poetry, but through extraordinary paintings that aptly convey the power and luminosity of the faery realm.
Another Celtic seer was Ella Young, a poet and writer who spent much time in the west of Ireland, listening to the folk-tales of the country-people and communing with the faerie race. In her autobiography, Flowering Dusk, Ella, like A.E., describes the faery music, or ceol sidhe, which often accompanies their presence.
Last night I was aware of Gregorian chants, and many voices singing. The sound increased in volume and the rhythms became very intricate…The voices chanted words, or phrases and I caught some. These were chanted by different groups. Thus while deep voices chanted, a marvelous swirl of high sweet voices rose, with an interval in between: in such a fashion that it was almost a harp-string accompaniment to the singing. Also there were sweet high-sounding percussion instruments. No description can do justice to this music: the intricacy; the beauty; the changing rhythms; the way in which a sound is echoed and re-echoed with undertones and overtones.
Ella did not only encounter the High Faery races. She also met the classically small beings known as the “little people,” as in this incident in County Kerry:
I am walking on the green hillside…The sea is making a faint sound in the distance. There is nobody for miles but I am not alone. Five or six elves of the hillside are trotting beside me. They are about the size of a child twelve years. Their heads are large for the size of their bodies. They have pointed ears, round eyes, and an engaging grin. They are going to show me anything worth seeing on the hillside. I see many wild flowers, but they say that isn’t much. They know something really fine. They conduct me to it. It is a great stone thrusting from the greenness and against it a cotoneaster is growing, with multitudinous red berries on its branches. The elves display it with delight…I haven’t the heart to tell them I have seen cotoneasters before – in gardens. I show a proper astonishment and joy. I say, “Let us take some of these berries and plant them in other parts of the mountain.”
The elves smile from ear to ear. I take some berries and they troop after me. We plant them in different places.
Ella sailed to America in 1925, and when she reached Ellis Island, the New York Times announced her arrival with the headline, “Ambassadress from Elfland!”
Since the time of the Celtic Twilight, many others have borne witness to the reality of faeries in interviews or in books such as Real Fairies, edited by David Tame, a compilation which gives examples of faery experiences stretching from two thousand years ago to the 21st century. Given that such evidence for the existence of faeries is highly compelling, perhaps we need a different kind of faery ointment to open our eyes to them. For since the rational mind usurped the throne of human perception in the so-called Age of Reason, most of us in the civilized west have lost our ability to see with more than the outer eye. It is not the faeries who have disappeared: it is rather that our cultural conditioning has tuned out our ability to see them. We are the ones that sleep-walk through our lives under a glamour cast upon us by purveyors of the materialistic worldview.
But given that the faery world may not be merely an illusion, and that we could actually recover our ability to experience it, why indeed should we want to? What can be learned from this insubstantial realm of glamourie which can burst like the bubble of a dream? For that answer we must turn to those who have explored the trackless paths of Faerie and learned the wisdom of the secret country. One of these was the Reverend Robert Kirk, who, despite being a minister in the Church of Scotland in the 17th century, firmly believed in the reality of faeries. Kirk categorized them as being “of a midle (sic) Nature betwixt Man and Angel.” This points to their non-material substance, for as all the tales tell us, they are creatures of light and energy, “forces” rather than “forms,” who can therefore shift their shape and the shapes of things in their realm as they please, not being bound by the laws of physics. As beings halfway between the human and angelic planes, the faery race can serve as a bridge between ourselves and the more rarefied realms of higher beings of Light, mediating that energy and wisdom into our world.
One belief prevalent in Scotland and Ireland for many centuries was that the faeries are in fact angels who have fallen from a state of grace and are doomed to wander the earth. Hidden behind this biblical exegesis, however, is an esoteric teaching that faeries are indeed from the angelic realm, which is the kingdom of the stars, but have come willingly to our benighted planet to help us return to the Light from which we have been separated all too long. Victor York, a 20th century mystic and seer, hinted of this in a paper entitled Fairy Lore and the Path:
Turn not lightly aside from fairy lore for in it may be found fragments of the starry wisdom and initiatory teachings. It is as a deep well whose boring was not of yesterday, but in its depths sparkle the cool refreshing waters of knowledge.
But how to regain that lost relationship with the faery world? We can garner hints from another poet, Francis Thompson, in lines taken from his evocative poem, The Mistress of Vision:
Where is the land of Lutheny?
Where is the tract of Elenore?
I am bound therefor.
Pierce thy heart to find the key;
With thee take
Only what none else would keep:
Learn to dream when thou dost wake
Learn to wake when thou dost sleep…
When to the new eyes of thee
All things by immortal power
Near and far,
To each other linkèd are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star;…
O seek no more!
Pass the Gates of Lutheny, tread the region Elenore.
“Lutheny” and “Elinore” are imaginary names that conjure up the beauty, enchantment and mystery of the faery realm. But, the poet says, these places are not merely part of an imaginary landscape – they are accessible to all of us who are willing to change our perceptions from within. And this begins at the heart, not the head. To “pierce the heart” means to break through the conditioning and armoring that has closed off the heart in favor of the mind. These two primary tools of perception were meant to work together in harmony, but, particularly in the last two hundred years, we have locked away the key that enables us to open up to a wider view of reality that embraces the unseen living forces of the universe. Now we must unbolt the long-shut doors of perception:
Learn to dream when thou dost wake
Learn to wake when thou dost sleep.
To “dream while awake” is to see the world in a new way, yet one well-known to children and to the indigenous peoples of the world. Australian aborigines call this The Dreaming, a term used to describe the balance and relationship between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world that is perceived when one is in direct contact with its underlying archetypal patterning, which is to say, the faerie realm. When the human race once more recognizes and embraces its long-lost fellowship with Faerie, we shall “pass the gates” into a world of enchantment – which turns out to be none other than the world we live in, only seen with the true vision of our “new eyes.” Or as A.E. once put it:
I who have sought afar from Earth
The Faery land to meet,
Now find content within its girth
And joy beneath my feet.