In The Science of Faeries Part I, I discussed the historical background of the study of fairies and fairy lore. As promised, I will now discuss the major theories and schools of thought about what faeries are.
But first, I will recount the time I saw a fairy. It was the magical summer of 1997, the best time of my life, and the worst time of my life. I was going through a number of hardships, but I also had a great set of friends. We had well-developed imaginations, and even though we all came from different religious backgrounds and had different beliefs, each of us passionately believed in the unseen. My most unexplainable experiences (both positive and scary) happened that year.
We were adventuring in Eastern Washington, north of our home town, and decided to visit Palouse Falls. We hiked above the falls, where the small river has carved a beautiful canyon. The very rocks seemed to cry out in joy at our presence. We saw hornets as long as my index finger, and one of the boys cut his hand on basalt shale, but that didn't stop us from trekking along the railroad tracks, down the long slope, and into the canyon.
Here the river broke into several smaller streams, forming a microcosm of mini-canyons and tiny waterfalls. I stood at the bottom of one of these tiny falls, and that's when I saw it: a tiny bridge spanning the gap over the water, and a 2 inch winged fairy sitting on the arch.
How I saw it is difficult to explain. I only half saw it with my eyes. The other part of me knew it wasn't there, and that I merely imagined it. It was as it my mind projected it outward until it existed. Another way to put it is that it seemed as if something was there, but the only way I could perceive it was with my imagination. It was not light that hit my eyes, but some other form of energy that I both sensed and created in a feedback loop of viewer/creator.
Sound crazy? When I read Evans-Wentz's "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries", that is exactly how many others described it, 100 years ago. I also saw similar descriptions of modern-day fairy sightings in the documentary The Fairy Faith (2000).
Does that mean I believe in faeries? Maybe. I'm not sure. I am a skeptic, after all. But I do know that something important happened that day. Even if it was all in my head, that's meaningful.
Which leads us to the theories. Some of these are scientific, some pseudo-scientific, and some flat out religious. Listed in reverse order of Occam's Razor (which states that the simplest explanation fitting the facts is most-likely to be true):
The Materialist Theory - Fairies are physically real beings that live under hills or in forests.
The Theological or Hades Theory - In the context of Christianity, fairies are real, and they are are demons, fallen angels or the unjudged souls of the dead.
The Psychic or "Psychological" Theory - Evans-Wentz's favorite. Fairies are some form of energy-beings that we can sense but not "see", so we perceive them by projecting our expectations. An Irishman would see a selkie. An Arab would see a djinn. Someone from India may see a deva.
The Pygmy Theory - Fairies are a folk-memory of an undiscovered prehistoric diminutive race that were driven out of Celtic lands by invading European Homo Sapiens.
The Mythological/Druid Theories - Fairies are a folk-memory of the Celtic pagan gods or the Druids. They are a way of talking about subjects otherwise censored by the encroaching culture of Christianity.
The Animistic/Naturalistic Theory - Fairies are a cultural remnant of pre-monotheistic beliefs in animistic spirits as a way to explain the world, and/or a subconscious projection of animistic symbols a la Carl Jung.
The Pathological Theory - Fairies are entirely imagined, hallucinated, a result of misfiring neurons or diseased minds.
The Delusion and Imposture (Fraud) Theory - As with mediums and psychics, those who claim to see fairies are out to hoax us for fun and profit.
Evans-Wentz does not discuss all of these (not all had been postulated in his time), but he does rule out several: The Pygmy Theory, The Mythological and Druid Theories, Naturalistic Theory, and Delusion/Imposture Theory. He favors what he called the "Psychological Theory", which I call the "Psychic Theory" to avoid any confusion with Jung's Archetypes and Collective Unconscious.
He spends a good deal of time discussing this theory, so I'd like to spend more time on that. Stay tuned for the Science of Faeries Part III in two weeks!