Metaphysics and the Realm Of Faerie


Text of the April 2018 Meeting Presentation

There is a certain paradox in modernity concerning the status of spiritual beings.  On the one hand, our scientific age tends to regard all talk of ‘spirits’ as mere hocus pocus or superstition. It is a sort of reversion to medievalism or primitive tribalism. And yet, modern stories, television series and films dealing with ‘spiritual” beings have never been more popular. Indeed, many of the fairy stories or related stories of fantastic beings which were once found in children’s books and comics are now hugely popular amongst adults. ‘Spiritualism’ and the occult is also flourishing.

This suggests some sort of innate ‘need’ for such a category of beings.  In this paper, I wish to explore this area in a little more detail.  I intend to omit from my discussions the special case of the term ‘spirit’ as it applies to the soul in religious belief and, especially, in Christianity.  My main concern will be with what are often termed ‘nature spirits, and I include in this term such entities as fairies, elves, dwarfs, and so on. I give to them the class name ‘faerie’.

In traditional metaphysics – that is, the science of being – it was commonly supposed or postulated that there was a class of being intermediate, as it were, between humans and angels.  That is one explanation of the realm of faerie which we need to look at in some detail. The other common explanation is that the faerie is simply that collection of nature spirits which, in some way act as the active agents in nature.

Let us begin with nature spirits as active agents in nature and go back to the very beginning – in other words, to Homer. It is clear that, in Homeric Greece, what we might call the efficient cause of some natural event was always considered to be a spiritual action, not a material one. The ancient Greeks did not suppose that tree spirits, for instance, were simply tiny anthropomorphic creatures like ‘Gumnut Babies’ who activated the leaves etc. It seems to me that they were much more like Platonic formal causes which were also efficient causes.  By way of example, let’s look at Homer’s taxonomy of waves.


If we take up the action in Iliad, Bk 18 we find that Hector has killed Patroclus and Achilles mourns.  His (Achilles) mother, Thetis, carries the news to all the water –nymphs (of whom she is regent). At this point, we get a remarkable and very beautiful account of all the sea nymphs or Nereids, each one named for a particular attribute. Here are the relevant passages in Chapman’s Homer – that translation which so moved John Keats:


… To her plaints the bright Nereides

Flocked all, how many those dark gulfs soever comprehend.

There Glauce, and Cymodoce, and Spio, did attend,

Nessea, and Cymothoe, and calm Amphithoe,

Thalia, Thoa, Panope, and swift Dynamene,

Actaea, and Limnoria, and Halia the fair,

Famed for the beauty of her eyes, Amathia for her hair, Isera,

Proto, Clymene, and curled Dexamene, –

Pherusa, Doris, and with these the smooth Amphinome,

Chaste Galatea so renowned, and Callianira, came,

With Doto and Orythia, to cheer the mournful dame.

Apseudes likewise visited, and Callianassa gave

Her kind attendance, and with her Agave graced the cave,

Nemertes, Msera, followed, Melita, Ianesse,

With Ianira, and the rest of those Nereides

That in the deep seas make abode; …


Thirty-three names are given, but Hesiod tells us that there are fifty. All are females of great beauty. In considering the names of these spirits of the sea, Hilaire Belloc suggests that they denote types of waves and he credits Homer with such an intimate knowledge of the sea that he can supply a full taxonomy of waves. Thus, for Belloc, Limnoria denotes “the wave that runs along the shore”, although other sources suggest the translation “of the salt marsh” and elect Actaea as the Nereid “of the sea shore”. Certainly, in Chapman’s translation, we get strong hints of the Nereids as waves – “calm Amphithoe … swift Dynamene … curled Dexamene … smooth Amphinome”.


But perhaps it is much more than a mere taxonomy of wave-types.  We need to see the names as representing the ‘informing’ spirits which give each type of wave its particular character. Without this background, such a taxonomy is impossible – waves are merely momentary aspects of moving water, nothing else. This notion of a wave’s ‘spirit’ is difficult for us to comprehend, because the modern ‘scientific’ mode of thought precludes any such descriptions.  The shapes and movements of waves are wholly explicable in terms of natural cause and effect and one cannot impose a particular form on any wave. You need to think of Homer as giving us a description not of the material and short-lived wave-form but rather the actual Platonic Idea of that wave-form. In other words, he sees all of nature sub specie aeternitatis – under the aspect of eternity.


“The wave that runs along the shore” is, perhaps, the most familiar to us. It has a particular character, running up the sand with a sort of hissing noise and pushing a fringe of foam before it.  Its advance and retreat is graceful. It is, in fact the last action of a dying wave, caressing the shore after a journey of who knows how far. John Keats saw it and gave this memorable description to a friend:


The rocks were silent—the wide sea did weave

An untumultuous fringe of silver foam

Along the flat brown sand. I was at home,

(Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds, last stanza).


There are other reasons to take Belloc’s idea seriously.  The Nereids are by no means the only spirits of the sea. The ancient Greeks had a multitude of sea deities or semi-deities, but none of their names seem so well attuned to the shape of waves.  Take, for instance, Leukothea (white goddess), who saves Odysseus after his shipwreck.  Modern commentaries often suggest she is the spirit of a sea bird – a gannet or gull.  And yet Homer gives her the epithet ‘of the slim ankle’ – a most beautiful description, for we at once associate her with feminine beauty. A Platonic Form perhaps?


Elsewhere in early Greek literature, we get an account of tree spirits and, again, a sort of taxonomy.

Meliae             Oak Trees

Oreads                         Mountain Pines

Meliades                      Fruit Trees

Daphnoi                      Laurel

Balanis                        Ilex

Karyai                         Hazelnut

Moreau                        Mulberry

Hamadryads              Oak Trees (mortal- die with the tree)



Now , as an aside, when you first read the Odyssey in a good translation (I use E.V. Rieu), you have that sense of everything in nature being “brand new” – shining and resplendent and without any defects. It has those “new car” attributes of sight and smell and sound. I want to suggest that this is precisely for the reasons I have given above – Homer sees all nature sub specie aeternitatis.


And now, back to metaphysics. There were, I think, three reasons why early philosophers, both Neoplatonic and Christian, seriously considered the realm of faerie and all three can be sheeted home to Plato, especially in the Timaeus.


We recall that, in this Dialogue, the creator of the world does not do the actual creating but gives the job to the Demiurge – a sort of lesser God, one presumes. The reason is simple.  Plato and the Neo-Platonists who followed him held to a principle that C.S. Lewis has dubbed “the Principle of the Triad”. They reasoned that an all-powerful and perfect God would not be directly involved in the production of mutable nature – it was below his or her station!  Logically, there needed to be a third party.  We might be tempted to see the Christian notion of Angels in this fashion but, of course, the Christian God, as the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was very much involved in this material world.  Leaving this aside, we can see a possible explanation for intermediate spirits in terms of ‘agents’ for some higher power.


The second possible explanation also comes from Plato. Again, in the Timaeus – one of the few Platonic texts available to the medieval scholars we have this explanation for the creation of the world:

Let us therefore state the reason why the framer of this universe of change framed it at all.  He was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it; being therefore without envy he wished all things to be as like himself as possible.

Now, if not to Plato himself then certainly to the Neo-Platonists who followed him, what this meant was that the ideal Absolute, in order to be ideal, must express all possibilities of being in order to be beyond all possibilities of enhancement or diminution.  This, in turn led to a concept called ‘The Great Chain of Being’.  Here we must imagine a hierarchy of being, with God at the top and stones and other inanimate objects at the bottom. Humans are towards the upper end, jellyfish toward the lower. Importantly though, there can be no gaps – that is, no vacancy where there is the possibility of some form of existence without its actuality.  For the early scholars, then, one had to allow for the possibility of creatures somewhat below the angels but not quite human or animal. Opinions differed. Some scholars thought that the Longaevi (the Medieval name for fairies, elves, etc.) might be angels who, at the time of the rebellion were neither on Lucifer’s side or Michael’s. Others thought that they were a third rational species, existing between angels and humans. By the time of James the First in England, though, the Longaevi were regarded as a species of devil and denounced.  If you want a paradox, consider this. At about the same time that Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in honour of Elizabeth I, old women were being burnt to death for supposedly consorting with fairy folk and ‘the Queen of Elfame’.


Closely related to the Great Chain of Being is the “Principle of Plenitude” – a name coined by Arthur Lovejoy in his classic work The Great Chain of Being.  Since the creator God is omnipotent, every possible form of existence must be present, as I pointed out in the last paragraph.  To suggest otherwise is to suggest the possibility of some deficiency in power. In other words, all possible niches (I borrow a word from ecologists) must be populated. St Thomas Aquinas famously wrote that “a world comprised of one angel and a stone is more complete than a world containing two angels”.  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is a very popular notion in modern ecological thinking.

And so, if you think that the old notions of ‘The Great Chain of Being’ and of “plenitude’ are now dead, think again.  Almost daily in the media someone announces that this forest or that reef must be protected to ‘maintain biodiversity’. Why is a forest of say, eighty species better or more complete than one with twenty? “Because it is more diverse”, people say.  But that does not answer the question because the argument is circular.  “Because the gene pool is greater” say the Darwinists. But this, too, is circular. Why is a bigger gene pool better?  Because it allows for more diversity.  The simple fact of the matter is that we value diversity in itself. We cannot blame the ancients, then, if they took the argument a step further and ensured that all ecological niches, including spiritual ones, were filled.  Fairies increase diversity! Can we have a “National Recovery Plan for Threatened Longaevi”? We might even get a new series from David Attenborough – The Life of Elves.

There remains now the difficult business of commenting upon the relationship between the world of faerie and the world of humans.  In today’s children’s books, fairies are tiny, gossamer-winged females with wands who go about the world distributing goodness. It was not so in the past. True enough, when we read Homer, most of his nature spirits seem friendly enough (or quite uninterested in humans).  The exception might be the Erinyes or Furies (the Harpies of Virgil), but they are not really nature spirits in my interpretation of that term.  By the time we get to the Middle Ages though, the faerie folk are much more dangerous.


Not only were they responsible for a great deal of ordinary mischief  – nasty natural events like whirlwinds – but also for much more serious things such as stealing or changing children and even taking human lives.  Think of those stories about Changelings, or of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Host of the Air, where the Sidhe (ancient and dangerous spirits of sky and earth) take away a young bride. The dark side of the fairy world is very apparent in the story of Thomas the Rymer, who disappears and is bound in the service of the Elf-Queen for seven years. The journey to her kingdom involves travel through a terrible landscape:

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.


One has the impression of the Longaevi existing more or less parasitically on human suffering and death. The description of the approach to Elf-land is very reminiscent of Homer’s description of the approach to the underworld. Thomas the Rhymer was almost certainly the inspiration for a famous poem by Keats – La Belle Dame sans Merci.


Perhaps this dangerous aspect of the faerie that we find in old literature and poetry has some link to the Old Testament because there, the spirits of nature in the desert wilderness are decidedly nasty. Spirit creatures like Azazel, Lilith, Seirim and Tanin are truly frightening. The daemons of the Greeks have become demons.  Some scholars suggest that the Old Testament desert spirits are a sort of remnant of Zoroastrian dualism which the Jews would have encountered during the Babylonian captivity. The really horrific demons are nearly always depicted as being either partly formless or combing two forms in some unnatural way. This is the ultimate in devilish anti-Platonism.  Have a look at the famous painting by Bruegel the Elder entitled The  Fall of the Rebel Angels. This captures the idea perfectly.

But there us another possible reason for the idea of the dangerous fairy.  When you read Thomas the Rhymer, it is clear that what the realm of faerie offers is a ‘third way’, between good and evil (not in the Nietzchean sense). In this poem, Thomas is shown three paths – the narrow path to heaven, the broad path to hell and the path to elf-land. The catch is that you surrender your free will if you chose the middle way.  That is why the faerie world is dangerous.

But, for all that, it has to be said that the realm of faerie is full of contradictions and paradoxes.  This is nowhere better illustrated than in the traditional view of fairies that one could still find in Ireland, Scotland and Wales until relatively recent times. There were good and bad fairies but, even with the good fairies, one never quite trusted them.  Perhaps that is why they departed from us!  I leave you with Richard Corbett’s famous poem on that departure:



Farewell, rewards and fairies,

Good housewives now may say,

For now foul sluts in dairies

Do fare as well as they.

And though they sweep their hearths no less

Than maids were wont to do,

Yet who of late for cleanness

Finds sixpence in her shoe?


Lament, lament, old Abbeys,

The Fairies’ lost command!

They did but change Priests’ babies,

But some have changed your land.

And all your children, sprung from thence,

Are now grown Puritans,

Who live as Changelings ever since

For love of your demesnes.


At morning and at evening both

You merry were and glad,

So little care of sleep or sloth

These pretty ladies had;

When Tom came home from labour,

Or Cis to milking rose,

Then merrily went their tabor,

And nimbly went their toes.


Witness those rings and roundelays Of theirs, which yet remain,

Were footed in Queen Mary’s days

On many a grassy plain;

But since of late, Elizabeth,

And later, James came in,

They never danced on any heath

As when the time hath been.


By which we note the Fairies

Were of the old Profession.

Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,

Their dances were Procession.

But now, alas, they all are dead;

Or gone beyond the seas;

Or farther for Religion fled;

Or else they take their ease.


A tell-tale in their company

They never could endure!

And whoso kept not secretly

Their mirth, was punished, sure;

It was a just and Christian deed

To pinch such black and blue.

Oh how the commonwealth doth want

Such Justices as you!

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Brian Coman

A former research biologist, I returned to the Academy after retirement to take up postgraduate studies in the humanities. I am interested in most aspects of the Western Tradition but, in particular, I have focused on that grey area between philosophy and religion.

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