FAERY

on

faery

“I come from Cymru, sir, and my home is in the waste; and my lineage is elf-lineage …

“Where, then, is this waste situate,”
“it lies between Salop and Radnor. It lies also between life and death. It is betwixt and between all things.”
“Is it in Doom Book?”
“Nay my lord, for it is in neither county. Nor is it in any hundred, nor does it pay gold.”
“How comes that?”
“Why, lord, it is faery ground and you cannot measure it nor go round it, for though it is only a narrow piece, times, of the width of three horses head and tail, yet, times, it will widen to eternity and yet again it will shrink to a knife-edge.”

Mary Webb from Armour Wherein He Trusted

It is said that the land of Faery is as near as breath. So it is. And as far away as a land beneath the waves or deep underground. That is true too. Faërie logic allows for this contradiction. The old stories of the Otherworld folk living in mounds and moving between the worlds capture its nearness while at the same time conceding that it is an invisible realm for those going about their daily business with eyes focused on the main chance.

To be in Faery is to pass from the shallows to the Deep.

Saying ‘ pass from … to …’ suggests a journey, and the passing might well be achieved by a journey from one place to somewhere else that is resonant or significant in some way. Or it might not. It might simply be like moving from a defined square to a defined circle each of which appear to occupy much the same space.

Faery-space is not space as we know it. Distances cannot easily be measured. The way to Faery may be long and through unfamiliar or even frightening terrain. Or perhaps it simply means walking down a familiar path which imperceptibly becomes unfamiliar as shallowness becomes depth, here becomes otherwhere, sight becomes vision and experience becomes … well, it becomes Faery.

Yet to go there is not always easy. Stories tell of journeys through darkness, through water and through suspended time. What sort of journeys are these? Are they journeys of dream, of trance, of stillness in a world of shifting time and space or of movement through a stillness that contains us? Many accounts of Faery in traditional lore tell of people returning after what they think is a matter of days or months only to find that centuries have passed and they crumble to dust as they touch familiar ground. In the 12th century, the story of Herla, related by Walter Map (~>), gives a version of the Wild Hunt as comprised of those who have returned from the Otherworld where they had gone as Brythonic speaking Britons but returned to find the inhabitants of their country speaking Saxon and must ride perpetually to avoid crumbling to dust if they dismount. Other accounts tell of spending many years there and returning only a fleeting second later. Space in Faery is Infinity and yet it may be only a hair’s breath in any direction. Time is Eternity there and yet may appear not to pass at all. Such accounts seek to define an experience of Faery in terms of a comparison with Thisworld. Others tell of individuals coming and going without experiencing those disparities of Time and Space, though the place through which they pass to get there may suddenly no longer be found.

Such stories as that of Elidor, related in the 12th Century by Gerald of Wales [1], which tells of a child who could visit the faërie lands to play with a child there. But when he tried to bring home a golden ball he was pursued and it was taken from him. He could never again find the entrance that he had used to come and go after that. But he was haunted by his visits there for the rest of his life. There is a traditional tale of ‘Plant Rhys Ddwfn’, apparently ‘the Children of Rhys the Deep’, but usually interpreted as ‘Plant yr Is-Ddwfn’ (‘Children of the Lower-World’). This land could only be viewed from a particular spot where a certain herb grew – either on land or on islands out in Cardigan Bay – which enabled the way in to be seen. The entrance was liable to suddenly disappear or move to another location. The same herb was said to make those who came from that land to be invisible when moving around in our world. [2] Taking ‘Is-Ddwfn’ to mean ‘Lower-World’ rather than ‘Under-Deep’ is dependent on a now obsolete meaning of ‘dwfn’ as ‘world’ rather than its current meaning as ‘deep’. Applying this to Annwfn – the name for the Brythonic Otherworld – gives the meaning ’Un-world’ or ‘Not-world’. (see further below)

Portals open and close. What lies beyond them may be homely, strange, paradisal or perilous. In the ‘Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer’ the road to Elfland is neither the road to Heaven nor the road to Hell, but somewhere between that runs across a ‘ferny brae’. This ‘inbetweeness’ or liminality is a characteristic of Faery. The path leading there isn’t a straight path, and may itself be clearly or less well defined, but it is one that is trodden by the gods when they visit us. Think of Rhiannon riding neither fast nor slow, her horse seeming to proceed at a steady pace, but always outpacing any who try to catch up with her. Or of Lleu Llaw Gyffes whose uncertain birth and whose death which can only occur neither inside nor outside with a string of other ‘neither this nor that’ conditions attached to it. This is the way the gods pass into and out of our world. Not according to the rules we live by but by ‘neither one nor the other’ ways of being which we struggle to define but which, if we place our feet neither on the path nor off it, we can sometimes walk with them.

The 14th century Welsh bard Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks in one poem of Summer going from Dwfn to Annwfn (from world to not-world) when the leaves begin to fall. In another of his poems an enchanted realm is said to be ‘is dwfn’ which could mean either ‘lower world’ or ‘down deep’. The parallel meanings ‘world’ and ‘deep’ fortuitously flicker between definitions in a way that imitates Faery itself. The first element of the word ‘Annwfn’ – ‘an’ – is similarly ambiguous. It may be an intensifier for the element which follows (so ‘very deep’ or ‘hyper-world’); it may be a negative particle (so, ‘not-world’ or ‘undeep’/‘from the deep’); or it may simply mean ‘in’ (so, ‘inner world’ or ‘in-deep’)[3] Discussing the word ‘Annwfn’ in his notes to the medieval Welsh text of the Mabinogi, Ifor Williams suggests that the meaning is in transition at this time, developing in one way to be equivalent to ‘Faery’ and in another to signify ‘Hell’[4].

A deeper focus on on the conundrum of multiple meanings of Faery is embodied in the character of Gwyn ap Nudd. He is characterised the Gatherer of Souls, Holder of the Cauldron of Rebirth, the Leader of the Wild Hunt and the King of Faery. He contains the spirits or devils of Annwn within himself according to the tale of How Culhwch Won Olwen.  He  haunts the fields of battle, receiving the slain into his domain [6]. That he is also seen in the folklore tradition as the King of Faery and the Master of Otherworld Revels offers a clue to how these apparently disparate worlds interact. He mediates between the worlds and keeps from us what would destroy us. He holds the keys to the portals of Faery and can make them visible or not as he wills it.

If the way to Faery is somewhere between the road to Heaven and Hell, nevertheless it might be confused with either. Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas, discussing the name of the Brythonic Otherworld, remark that “only the Welsh name Annwfn … suggests an etymological notion of an otherworld” [5]. Their suggested origins of the name are *an-dubnos (‘not-world’ or ‘not-deep'[deep-notness?]) or *ande-dubnos (‘underworld’ or ‘under-deep’). Also discussed is a Gaulish word antumnos, used in calling upon Dis or Proserpine and therefore suggesting a nether world of darkness rather than a paradisal parallel realm.

This may imply that its later associations with the ‘Hell’ of Christian tradition is not entirely a later overlay. Rather, as Mees and Nicholas suggest “… the entrance of the term to early Brythonic might even be plausibly connected with the development of the dual nature of the Insular Otherworld and Graeco-Roman influence: paradisaical and ageless on the one hand, sinister and Stygian on the other.”

If the Otherworld is the Land of the Living Gods, can it also be the Land of the Dead? Such questions seem to steer us on a course between uncertain locations, which, as we have seen, is characteristic of Faery. Not Heaven nor Hell, but somewhere beyond the road that winds towards a far horizon over the ferny hill, or through the dark forest where roots twist around the path. A path only found by stepping out of the common world into the deeps of Otherwhere… Or perhaps a god might step out of those deeps into our world for a while, or a goddess ride out at a steady pace that cannot be matched to inhabit our world and be one with us. Then we will know that the Gates of Faery have opened and we have been touched by the Deep World. If, that is, we are listening, watching or waiting and not preoccupied with our own affairs. In which case we might not notice, except that somehow, just then, the world seemed a bit less shallow, a little more alluring in what it contains, which is our history and our future in an eternal present.

RackhamFP

An associate of mine, now passed to otherness, once told the following story:

“Once, there was a man travelling alone over Greenberrow Heath in the evening when, just as twilight was falling, he heard the sound of strange wild music and suddenly saw in a grassy hollow a group of beautiful women of the faërie kind dancing in a ring before him. He was so captivated by the music and the graceful steps of the dancers that he threw all caution to the wind and entered the ring and danced there with them. He soon found the pace took all the agility he could muster, and his legs began to ache and he felt tired but, try as he might, he couldn’t break out of the dance. Round and round he went like a whirlwind and he danced the whole night through till the break of day when, at last, the faërie troupe vanished and he fell from exhaustion in the grass where his friends found his body next day, and his shoes quite worn through. And when at last he awoke and was able to speak to them he said it was as if he couldn’t find the way out of the dance. “And how is that?” they asked him. “It was my big feet,” he said, “and I couldn’t find the right step. The rhythm was in it; it was going nim, nim’t, nim, nim’t, nim, nim’t’ all the time, and I couldn’t get it into my head to think is, isn’t, is, isn’t, is, isn’t” at all. I wanted a half-step, and I couldn’t for the life of me find it.” [7]

That notion of a half-step, or an alternative to ‘is’ and “isn’t’, or to ‘exist’ and ‘not exist’ – here represented by ‘nim’ and ‘nim’t’ – is another way of attempting to express the experience of Faery. So if you met a Goddess, as Pwyll met Rhiannon, it wouldn’t occur to you to ask “Do you exist?” That’s not a question for a Goddess, whether she comes in a forest of the waking world or in a dream of the night. Her world is not insubstantial and fleeting; it is deep in its dimensions and time is everlasting. But it often manifests unexpectedly and as soon fades into a barely perceived memory. Tales tell of those who – for a while at least – could see though the veil and dream the land by charms, by spells, or by developing the clear sight conferred in some tales by the application of a special lotion and taken away by the casting into the eyes of a special dust so that the Otherworld is no longer visible. That lotion is a gift of the gods which we may choose to accept … or not. Instead we may choose the dust and the gritty question of existence, which there are only two possible ways to answer; neither of these is the way to Faery.

[1] Gerald of Wales Itinerary Through Wales Ch VIII (Various modern translations)
[2] T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom (D. S. Brewer, 1930; 1979), p. 58.
[3] As speculated by Thomas Parry in his notes to Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym (Caerdydd, 1952). p.449
[4] Ifor Williams. Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi. (Caerdydd, 1978) pp.99-101
[5] Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas Studia Celtica XLVI (2012) pp.23->
[6] Culhwch and Olwen ed. Rachel Bromwich and D.Simon Evans (Cardiff, 1997), and translated in most editions of ‘The Mabinogion’.
For Gwyn ap Nudd as gatherer of souls see my translation of the ‘Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ ~>.
[7] Written by Tony Kelly whose writings are available on the Pagan Movement Archive ~>.

_*_

I try to use the word Faery as a proper noun – the name of the place – and the word
faërie as a common noun to name the inhabitants of Faery or as an an adjective to describe the inhabitants of that place or its characteristics. But others have other usages, as might be expected.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. ‘Nim nim’t’ is probably the best way of explaining the experience of Faery I’ve come across. I think the more we try to conceptualise it the further we get which differs from the Graeco-Roman and Norse traditions where it’s all so well mapped. One of the things I keep returning to is that Annwn/Faery contains the otherside of things in thisworld – Gwyn refers to ‘the other Tawe’, Taliesin refers to the river Defwy in Annwn but also to a Defwy in Rheged. I’ve has experiences of othersides to my locality and of places firmly within the otherworld but always shifting. The ways of navigating Faery seem far less logical than within other shamanistic traditions and traditions of descent where you get nice laid out circles where you’ll see this, this, and this…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Greg says:

      Yes the ‘other’ world does have this sense of other selves and parallel places in it as well as being ‘other’ in the more general sense so both different from and similar to our everyday world. Faery is definitely both distinct from the ‘Underworld of Graeco-Roman tradition and yet interpreted in the context of that world. People who try to make a ‘system’ for exploring Faery are certainly not going to get very far!

      Like

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