HIS IS A BOOK I’ve wanted to write for over half my life, ever since I first stumbled into the strange and wonderful, if often baffling realm of Celtic mythology, with its legacy of faerie-faith that has carried a certain magical perspective from ancient times right through here into the present day. It is a distinctly different view from that of mainstream Europe because seen from its western fringes, though preserving many ideas and traditions that once prevailed over most of the continent.
It is as distinct in fact as Celtic art is from the mainstream, as seen in the angelic illuminated manuscripts like the Books of Kells and Lindisfarne, which in their design are actually much closer to Islamic art than their equivalents in the rest of Europe, though through no very direct connection.
What is the reality of faeries? I have a friend who is famous for his faerie paintings, using the term in its broadest possible sense. When asked once if he had ever actually seen one he had to admit disappointedly that no, unfortunately he hadn’t – yet. What he did was paint the beings he felt should be there in certain magical places, especially in Cornwall where he lives; but they always hover just off the edge of vision, or are slightly out of focus.
Only a few gifted seers like William Blake have ever claimed to be able to see faeries naturally, but there are many more who, like my artist friend, can sense them with the eye of imagination, piercing the veil of invisibility faeries long ago raised around themselves; and even more who have a lingering conviction that such things should and possibly even do exist in some closely parallel dimension that occasionally intersects ours.
What was lacking, it seemed to me when I first stumbled into this whole field, was some clear and simple guide to its dazzling intricacies, some kind of guiding thread through the maze. I still haven’t found such a primer or guide, despite having read mountains of endlessly fascinating books on the subject, so here is my attempt to fill that gap, addressed to those who find themselves in the same position today – curious, and even possibly quite well acquainted with much of the material, but daunted by the chaotic wealth of it on offer.
Celtic beliefs about faeries were never exclusive to them. Similar ideas have been held by neighbouring and even far distant people, either through contact or simply because there are some supernatural beliefs that all humans share, even without any direct lines of communication. Australian aboriginals for instance, cut off from the rest of humanity for thousands of years, nevertheless shared with the Chinese, Europeans and many others a conviction that the stars of the Pleiades had once been seven sisters. In different places the legends vary in the details of who the maidens were and how they came to be placed in the heavens, but the essential notion is the same, probably hatched tens of thousands of years ago when the handful of ancestors of the whole human race sat looking up at the stars over north Africa and wondered what they were all about.
So it is with faeries. Along with scarier beings such as vampires, witches and werewolves, people everywhere have believed in them in one form or another since the beginning of time. What is special about Celtic faerie lore is that it is much more vividly documented than most; and widespread belief in the reality of faeries lingered much longer on the Celtic fringe than in the more prosaic neighbouring lands.
An enormous debt is owed to the early Christian scribes of Ireland in particular, who earned the country its nickname as the Land of Saints and Scholars back in the first millennium. Without them very little would be known directly about the supernatural beliefs or mythology of the ancient Celts, because none of it had previously been written down. The Celts had an alphabet but only used it for rare inscriptions – it being a point of honour among their bards and druids that all lore should be carried in their heads. So when, as happened across most of Europe, they were swamped by others such as the Romans, Goths or Huns, most of that lore simply disappeared.
In Ireland lucky conditions prevailed for saving at least a glimpse of the ancient Celtic world view, in which faeries played a leading role. To begin with the Irish were never conquered by the Romans and most others in the first millennium, apart from the partial success of the Vikings. Also their conversion to Christianity was a remarkably benign one. The Irish welcomed St Patrick as a breath of fresh air, not least because he was ready to challenge the druids and other pillars of the old order on their own terms, with little more than his own courage, wit, imagination and humility – even winning many of his enemies over to his own point of view. The Christianity that flourished in Ireland was very different to that of Rome, much more tolerant of the native traditions and pagan past of its converts.
Continued in the published book . . .