There are many accounts of a land of immortality and eternal youth in world myths and legends, as well as shamanic and indigenous spiritual traditions.
Writing in his recent work, Sky Shamans of Mongolia , Kevin Turner tells us that the three worlds or realms of the Mongolian Darkhad shaman don’t consist of a traditional upper, middle, and lower world but are instead overlapping dimensional realities, more in line with a holographic outlook.
These places are populated by deities, spirits, and ancestors. In Irish lore it is the land of Tir na Nog where a race of supernatural beings is said to reside, although this otherworld adapts itself to incorporate the afterlife, the Summerland of Wicca, as well as shamanic realms according to other interpretations.
Often these dimensions are seen to be accessed across an ocean, leading many to associate Tir na Nog with the mythical island of Hy-Brasil, an island that was said to rise from the sea every seven years and which was populated by a race of advanced antediluvian beings.
Hy Brasil island was believed to appear and disappear. ( CC BY-ND 2.0 )
However, the realm of faeries or the crypto-terrestrial is more often encountered through places considered sacred or having an alignment of some kind in relation to auspicious days in the yearly cycle, such as solstices, equinoxes, and new moons. In many legends passed down from oral traditions the liminal moments at dusk, between sunset and moonrise, are when the ethereal forms of these beings are best seen.
Trapped in the Magical Realm of the Faeries
Perhaps one of the most famous anecdotes relating to this is that of the Rev Robert Kirk who was a Scottish scholar and clergyman. His book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies was published in 1691 and collected many instances of encounters with these elemental creatures and what a person could do to either avoid or come in contact with them.
Rev Kirk wrote of the fairy realm. ( Public Domain )
At this time the Inquisition was still in full force across Europe so Kirk’s interest in what some saw as demonic entities put him at odds with many of his religious colleagues. Some, in fact, speculated that Kirk himself might be a changeling sent by the devil in order to corrupt the faith of his parishioners and to lead them back to ancient pagan ways. Kirk was also a seventh son, which lent him an aura of the otherworldly , as this was a particular sign of association with second sight and affiliation with the fairy folk.
One summer evening, Kirk, while out walking, collapsed and died upon a fairy hill. Or so it seemed.
In the days following his funeral, a cousin of Kirk’s had a strange dream in which the reverend pleaded with him to rescue him from fairyland. Kirk told his cousin in the dream that he was not dead at all but was in a magical swoon caused by his supernatural captors.
Kirk had promised his cousin that he would be able to appear for just one moment at the baptism of his child and when this occurred his cousin was to throw a ceremonial knife over his apparition. This would have the effect of releasing Kirk from the faeries’ spell.
At the baptism it is said that when Reverend Kirk appeared his cousin was so shocked that he forgot the instructions about the knife and Kirk then vanished, doomed to live in fairyland for eternity.
Fairyland has Altered Time and Space
This concept of eternity and that time can run faster or slower in these realms has been part of faerie myth for thousands of years. The Japanese legend of Urashima Taro is a good example. In this story a fisherman visits the supernatural undersea kingdom of Ryugu-jo and discovers that the three days he spent there had been 300 years in his homeland.
The season of autumn in the kingdom under the sea ; The fisherman Urashima Taro, is transported to undersea kingdom of Ryugu-jo. (Bodleian Libraries/ CC BY 4.0 )
Ryugu-jo has some specific architectural symbolism relating to the earth’s cycle in that each side of the kingdom was said to be a different season. Perhaps we are seeing an association with the solstices and equinoxes once again, which in themselves have a history of being doorways for the legendary beings like the faeries and various elementals to appear through.
The Winter side of the palace, with a light snow on the garden. ( CC BY 4.0 )
The elves and fairies of Scotland and Ireland, for example, would use certain magical doorways or stone circles in which to appear depending upon the time of the year. Each magical doorway was associated with a particular season.
There is a potential connection to the Heb Sed shamanic rituals of ancient Egypt in this context as each ceremonial area would be used once then a new structure would be constructed for the following festival.
Detail from an ebony label of the First Dynasty Pharaoh Den, depicting him running around the ritual boundary markers as part of the Heb Sed festival. ( CC BY 2.5 )
The communication with ‘star gods,’ along with offerings in return for wisdom also has parallels to folkloric interactions with the Sidhe (Irish and Scottish fairy folk) or energetic forms of various cultures. Sometimes, a ritual site would have to be left for a time in order to allow its energy to replenish and so the gods could be reached again in further ceremonies.
Another interesting connection is how the Pharaoh would be considered dead but still living during this ritual; the priests would consider him outside of time and having traveled to the Duat , the immaterial realm of spirit.
The Dreamtime and the Faerie Realm
The term ‘time outside of time’ is also one of the popular translations of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime. Specifically, this description is better understood as ‘eternal, uncreated’ and refers to a dimension where all mythical heroes and ancestors exist and have always existed. Although there are many regional differences, all of the connotations relate to an immaterial, timeless place outside of the physical world.
Stencil art in Australia showing unique clan markers and dreamtime stories symbolizing attempts to catch the deceased’s spirit. ( Public Domain )
Indeed, there are mythical faerie-like mediators in Aboriginal lore called the Mimi who are said to have taught the first Aboriginal tribes many skills. The Mimi were said to be so thin that a strong wind might break them and they could be contacted by approaching sacred stones or mountains in the correct manner. These places were doorways to an immaterial dimension that existed outside of the human world.
Aboriginal rock painting of Mimi spirits in the Anbangbang gallery at Nourlangie Rock. (©2002 Dustin M. Ramsey (Kralizec!) / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Often the Mimi would play tricks on humans if they or their magic places were not respected. There was a type of shamanistic process for contacting the Mimi properly and this was usually carried out by ‘Men of High Degree’ who were the shaman of the aboriginal tribes.
In his ground-breaking work, Aboriginal Men of High Degree , A.P. Elkin describes these men as “supernormal, usually super-sensory, and are derived from two sources: first, the cult-heroes of the craft-sky and totemic heroes, spirits and ghosts , who may be all the one; second, the long line and hierarchy or order of medicine men, which leads back to the same heroes of the dreamtime.”
However, the role of women in mediating with the Mimi was also extremely important. There were certain tasks and requests that could only be asked by a woman and where the context of ‘high degree’ was outranked. Writing in Wise Women of the Dreamtime Johanna Lambert explains, “That which is subtle, ambiguous, interconnected, intangible and beyond reason or logic emerges from the realm of the Universal Feminine and is the basis of what has been called “magic or “the occult”.
The Magic Arrow
The Mimi, like fairies and elementals in all other cultures, were unpredictable and could punish a human as often as rewarding them. They were thought to steal food, trip up unsuspecting travelers, and even shoot magic darts—which is a tantalizing connection to many shamanistic practices.
The magical arrow is also associated with Abaris the Hyperborean, a figure said to have emerged from a mythical land “beyond the north wind”. Abaris was said to be able to commune with spirits, heal the sick, and travel through the air on a magic arrow.
Other connections to Apollo and Pythagoras hint at the shamanistic journeying technique of incubation, best recently described by Peter Kingsley in his work, In the Dark Places of Wisdom.
When we look past the particular cultural interpretations, which change depending upon religious systems and societal developments, what we find beneath the many different faerie and shamanistic encounters are strong hints of a universal otherworldly experience. And although we find many accounts of strange lands with the help of faeries and spirits, it’s worth remembering that sometimes it is also at their insistence!
Do you dare enter a fairy ring? The mythical mushroom portals of the supernatural
For thousands of years, the sudden appearance of a ring of mushrooms was a sure sign of otherworldly presences. These rings would seemingly appear overnight, or travel from one location to another, with no clear rhyme or reason. Warnings of the dark forces that must create these abnormalities were passed down between generations, and the folklore of fairy rings was established.
These fairy rings (fairy circles, elf circles or pixie rings) are a naturally occurring phenomenon. A fungi creates a ring or arc shape within the soil, affecting the grass in the area, and grows up through the greenery forming a circle of mushrooms. These rings—a lovely surprise and good luck to some, or a dark omen and nasty lawn problem to others—can spread from a very few inches or feet to 164 feet (50 meters) or more. The ring found in Belfort, France, is thought to be the largest ring ever found. It is approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) in diameter, and an astonishing 700 years old.
Fairy rings in moss in Iceland. (Chmee2/Valtameri / CC BY 3.0 )
Sometimes there can be more than one ring in an area, and they will overlap, creating strange, winding patterns in the grass. Often the grass inside the ring is dead and withered, and has a clearly different coloring than the grass outside.
Supernatural Creatures with Mysterious Powers
Fairy rings have an historical, mythical reputation, as revealed by the folklore and warnings surrounding them around the globe, but especially in Western Europe.
A mushroom ring in the woods. (Alison Chaiken, Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Various places have their own superstitions surrounding the fairy rings, but for the most part the myths involve fairies or supernatural creatures either dancing around the ring, or have the ring serving as a portal between the fairy realm and our world. It was also believed that the circles were formed by shooting stars, lightning strikes, or were the work of witches. These beliefs persisted into the 19 th century, as did the warnings to not stray into a fairy circle, lest you be transported to the fairy realm, and certain doom.
The rings are known throughout Europe. In tradition, they were called “sorcerers’ rings” in France, and “witches rings” in Germany, where they’re supposedly most active on Walpurgisnacht, the eve of April 30, when witches were believed to meet and hold large celebrations coinciding with the arrival of Spring.
Beautiful fairy ring, or profuse circle of Clitocybe nebularis fungus. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In English, Scandinavian and Celtic and many other traditional European beliefs the rings were caused by fairies or elves dancing. Such events were associated especially with moonlit nights, and the sudden appearance of the rings in the morning were evidence of a dance the evening before.
Images of nude and semi-nude fairies dancing in rings became popular during the Victorian era. Public Domain
In Scotland it was believed the fairies sit on the mushrooms and use them as tables for their fetes, while in Wales the story goes that the mushrooms were picked by the fairy folk and used as parasols or umbrellas. Even now in Wales it’s said the rings signify an underground fairy village. Welsh folklore also considers the rings as locations of fertility and fortune, and claim that crops grown around them and livestock feeding nearby will flourish.
In contrast, the Dutch legends had it that the barren center of the ring was caused by the devil placing his milk-churn there.
The Austrian tradition said flying dragons caused the rings, blighting the area so only toadstools could grow there for seven years.
French folklore believed the strange circles were guarded by giant toads that would curse anyone that happened into the ring.
Do NOT Step Into the Ring
It is generally felt that fairy circles are to be avoided as dangerous places as they’re associated with malevolent beings.
If you dare to enter a ring, many myths warn you will die young. You also become invisible to the mortal world, unable to escape the ring, or you are transported instantly to the fairy realm. You might also lose an eye for your foolishness. Either way, you will be forced to dance around the ring until you die of exhaustion or madness.
“Plucked from the Fairy Circle” A man saves his friend from the grip of a fairy ring. Public Domain
To avoid this terrible, cavorting fate, you can take specific measures, such as running around the ring nine times (nine times only, as 10 is too many and will undo the procedure). It is said that to enter the ring without penalty you can run around the ring during a full moon, but only in the direction the sun travels during the day. If you do this you might hear the fairies dancing underground.
You might also wear a hat backwards, because this is said to confuse the fairies and they will not do you harm.
This fellow is probably in trouble – his hat is not on backwards. The Fairy Ring; the Enchanted Piper (c.1880)
Can Science Explain the Mystery?
In present day the fungi that causes the natural phenomenon is well understood. Mycelium is a spreading fungus which grows in fertile, damp environments. In good conditions, the spores will develop into mushrooms (the most well-known being the edible Scotch bonnet, or fairy ring champignon). The mushrooms reach out of the ground and create an easily visible ring. Underground, the mycelium networks out under the grass, moving outward from the center, and feeding upon organic matter and decomposing as it travels. The dead mycelium forms a thick, water-repellant mat that starves the grass roots of nutrients and moisture. Eventually the land within the ring withers and dies from starvation, but the leading edge of the ring remains lush and green, as the feeding/dying and decomposing mycelium releases fertilizers. This cycle can continue for centuries, and the ring grows, shrinks, and moves around the countryside, delighting some people and disturbing others.
Clitocybe nebularis mushrooms in part of a ring. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
We in modern times may scoff at the traditional superstition of the fairy rings, but until recently scientists were still struggling to explain the so-called “fairy circles” occurring in Africa. It is reported that in Namibia in southern Africa, bare, circular spots on the sandy grasslands have been occurring for unknown reasons. The circles behave much like the mycelium growths, persisting and then vanishing after decades. But scientists have ruled out a similar fungus, and until just last year they were stumped as to why these rings have been appearing in the remote, arid landscape.
In 2017, scientists published a report suggesting the African fairy circles may be explained by a combination of two ecological forces : groups of root-eating sand termites competing underground for resources and self-organizing plants competing above ground for water. Both have been suggested in the past as a possible cause, but the two forces had not been combined before Corina Tarnita of Princeton University and her team created computer simulations with both in action. Put together, the two processes create patterns that mimic at least some of the circles found in the Namib desert. The researchers don’t suggest their simulation can explain all the fairy circles, though “We get a much more complete description of the patterns”, Tarnita said, by combining the effects of the simulated termites with those of the competitive plants.
The enigmatic rings of Africa can be about 6.5 feet (2 meters) to almost 40 feet (12 meters) in size. The circles appear, and then disappear, leaving “ghost circles” behind. Credit: Mike and Ann Scott of the Namib Rand Nature Reserve
Local oral tradition explains them as the work of spirits and nature gods. The differences of the lush outside of the ring compared to the dead inside, with no obvious cause, undoubtedly led the people of antiquity to presume that otherworldly affairs were at work. Certainly the abrupt, unpredictable change in the natural world, the age-old circle symbolism, and the fact that these ‘portals’ seemed temporary and mobile were convincing evidence of the supernatural.
To the consternation and frustration of those now seeking unblemished lawns, ridding a yard of a fairy ring can be as tricky as dealing with the legendary fairy-folk. To stop the mycelium from spreading its necrosis, one should pick the mushrooms as soon as they appear. Next, a thorough soaking of water may drown out the problem, but often it requires digging down beneath the white fungus to remove the tainted soil. This can sometimes mean digging down several feet or more to get all the infected dirt, replacing it all with fresh soil, and restarting the lawn anew.
Perhaps it would be easier just to take your chances with the fairies.