20.9.14

GOOD LUCK AND TROUBLE

Stuart Vyse. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Oxford University Press, 2014.

This is a revised edition of a work originally published in 1997. Vyse begins by discussing Wade Boggs, a baseball player who set some records that have never been equalled. His “professional life was filled with superstition”. Believing that he hit better after eating chicken, he consumed it every day. He also had a long “pre-game ritual” (which I don’t quite understand, not being familiar with the terminology of baseball). Vyse might similarly have mentioned Norman Parkinson, who in the 1970s was the official portrait photographer of the Royal Family. He would never pick up a camera unless he was wearing a fumi, an embroidered skullcap popular in parts of the Middle East. He believed that it would be bad luck to try to work without this headgear. It is easy to jeer at men like Boggs and Parkinson, but they did reach the summits of their respective professions.

Superstitions are more common with people whose life is uncertain or risky, for example “gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students.” I seem to recall that, decades after Donald Campbell drowned in Lake Coniston during an attempt to break the world waterspeed record, divers finally recovered his body, along with his lucky mascot, which evidently had not worked on that occasion.

As to students, whilst “conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers”, there is clearly a strong element of chance with exams: you may get a question on a topic you happened to revise that morning, or you may get a question on your weakest subject. Another uncertain profession is acting. Most actors are unemployed for much of the time, and when they do have work there are plenty of things that can go wrong.

For convenience, psychology professors frequently do tests on their own students. One wonders about this, since psychology undergraduates are probably not entirely representative of the human race as a whole, and knowing what is going on, may deliberately try to skew the results.

Vyse states that children’s “rituals of avoidance of cracks in sidewalks . . . must have been passed from person to person”. I cannot agree: I developed this habit at age five or six, and I am fairly sure that no-one had told me to do it, so it must be somehow instinctive. It was only later that I read A. A. Milne’s poem ‘Lines and Squares’ (in When We Were Very Young, 1924), about a boy who believed that, if he “steps on a line” he would be eaten by bears. In my case I thought that a bomb would explode, although eventually I noticed that, when my thoughts were elsewhere, I had trodden on lines, but nothing untoward had ensued. Even in middle age I occasionally find myself treading carefully for this kind of reason.

A woman recently told me that, when a girl, she believed that, if she trod on a crack, the ground would open and the earth would swallow her up. If this kind of superstition were passed from person to person, one would expect that the anticipated disaster would always be the same. Nevertheless, superstitions are, as he says, likely to be acquired by membership of a social group, where, as has been shown by many psychological experiments, there is a tendency to go along with the others. (I would also query his assertion that dice rolling is “completely random”. Whole books have been written about cheating at dice.)

Some birth horoscopes contain statements that must be true of almost anyone – “Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic” – but people find them impressive. There are also some totally weird ideas, such as that “Dick Cheney was involved in the 9/11 attacks.” In short, I would suggest that these notions are believed in because they are emotionally appealing, rather than because they are supported by facts and reasoning. – Gareth J. Medway.


15.9.14

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL BIOGRAPHIES

Bernard McGinn. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

David Gordon White. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

The excellent ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series is continuing: McGinn begins by observing that few people have ever read the whole of the Summa theologiae, which runs to a million and a half words. Personally, I have only read the sections on demonology. Even Bertrand Russell’s compendious History of Western Philosophy deals mainly with the shorter Summa Contra Gentiles.

From the age of five Aquinas (1225-1274, the author usually refers to him as Thomas) was brought up in a Benedictine monastery, but at sixteen he joined the Dominicans, a preaching order who had only recently been founded. Over the course of his life he wrote more than a hundred books, most of which he dictated to secretaries. About twenty-six of these were commissioned by his ecclesiastical superiors, but the rest were entirely his own inspiration.

His writings combined traditional Christian theology with the newly rediscovered Greek philosophy. I was under the impression that the versions of Aristotle that circulated in western Europe in the Middle Ages were all Latin translations of Arabic translations of the original Greek, but in fact another Dominican, William of Moerbeke, had spent time in Greece, learned the language, and produced ‘improved’ translations.

One attractive feature of scholastic theologians is that, when attacking rival opinions, they would normally state them in detail before attempting to refute them (unlike some modern authors). This was even true of the fanatic authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.

The Summa began by discussing the nature of God. Since Thomas accepted that God is essentially unknowable, this caused him some difficulties. Moreover, whilst he held that the existence of God could be demonstrated logically, there were other Catholic doctrines, such as the Trinity, that could only be known through divine revelation. Some of the issues are hard to follow nowadays, such as “the nature of separate subjects (i.e. angels), individuation by matter, and the operation of the intellect.”

‘Thomism’ went out of fashion after about 1700. But later it came back, to the extent that in 1914 Pope Pius X laid it down that scholasticism meant the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, and that “all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviated so much as one iota from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, they exposed themselves to grave risk.” He did not specify the nature of the risk.

White’s book has a novel feature: his text was rather longer than the standard size required by the publishers, so he abridged it, but put the excised sections up on the internet, their former presence being indicated by crucifixes in the margin.

Whilst the Summa theologiae is gargantuan, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is a brief work, consisting of 195 short one-line verses. This is unusual, given the vast corpus of Hindu scripture, Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Dharmasutras, Tantras and Puranas, enough to fill several bookcases. It is concerned with what may loosely be termed meditation, rather than getting into funny postures.

Nothing is known about Patanjali, not even when he lived. The British Orientalist Henry Colebrooke went so far as to describe him as ‘a mythological being’. All one can say for certain is that the Yoga Sutra was in existence by the fifth century. One theory is that it is a compilation of works by different authors. It has also been suggested that the fourth section was added later, since it was not included in the Arabic and Old Javanese translations. Another idea is that the commentary by Vyasa was written by Patanjali himself. (Not a ridiculous idea – Aleister Crowley wrote commentaries on some of his own works, such as The Book of Lies.)

Strangely, in 195 verses there are only four verbs. This is partly because, in Sanskrit, as in many languages (such as classical Greek and Hebrew) the verb ‘to be’ is usually omitted, unless the author wants it for emphasis (as in “Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde”), The second verse reads: “yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha”, which might be literally rendered as “Yoga-mind-thought-cessation”. White lists twenty-two different translations, including “Yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind”, and “Disciplined meditation involves the cessation of the functioning of ordinary awareness.”

Whilst the existence of commentaries from the fifth to the twelfth centuries showed that the book was often read in these centuries, it came to be neglected thereafter. In the 1890s, however, it was incorporated into a book entitled Raja Yoga, by Swami Vivekenanda, which was widely distributed in the west – I have a copy whose title page describes it as Fifteenth Edition, 1955.

White refers to “such fraudulent self-proclaimed practitioners of Tantric Yoga as Alistair [sic] Crowley”. It is worth noting that Crowley (sorry to bring him into this twice) included both The Aphorisms of Patanjali and Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (as if they were separate works) in a recommended reading list of mystical books that he published in 1909. They were omitted in an otherwise longer version that he published a few years later (perhaps from an oversight), but his Eight Lectures on Yoga, delivered in the 1930s, show a clear influence of Patanjali. – Gareth J. Medway


11.9.14

LOST AND FOUND

Michael Pye and Kirsten Dalley (Eds.) Lost Secrets of the Gods. New Page Books, 2014.

Lost Secrets of the Gods is one of the latest offerings from the prolific New Page Books. The publishers themselves are making quite an impression in the areas of Fortean and unconventional history, although, after having reviewed a few of their releases, the quality of their authors can be quite hit-and-miss. This latest tome is an anthology of essays covering a veritable chasm of time, some examining what has become known as alt-archaeology and others looking at issues in periods that qualify as recent history. Strange questions are posed and, some would say, answered in an even more strange fashion.
 
There are well-known names here along with some that are fresher to the counterculture. Those of Robert Schoch, whose statements concerning the age of the Sphinx galvanised both the fields of alternative Egyptology and more conventional scholarship in this area, the astonishingly prolific expatriate Nick Redfern, and Jim Marrs, whose book about the assassination of John F Kennedy, Crossfire, is still noteworthy, will be most familiar to regular readers or those steeped in Fortean lore. The subjects covered range from beast men created long past as the guardians of sacred places, the true location of the Trojan War, and indigenous peoples descended from various visitors from the stars. The types of topic also cover a vast sweep, from historical speculation to conspiratorial intrigue.
 
The variety of questions being asked are typical of those that interest me personally.  Were there giants in the Americas back in the mists of time? Did Atlantis (and it gets more than its fair share of coverage in these pages) really exist outside of the works of Plato?  Are we ourselves alien (this, again, is asked more than once) to this planet?  Were there ten-thousand-year-old secret societies whose knowledge is still preserved to this day?  Certainly it would enlighten and motivate us immeasurably as a species if we were to discover that we are directly descended from a race (or races) of beings who were not from this Earth, although, if this were to be proven, one would have to wonder if our forefathers intended to pop back and see how we were getting along, and if so, what form that would take.
 
The question is, though, do these inquiries get answered in this intriguing tome?  To be fair, one or two of them almost do. Micah Hanks, for example, tells us that, far from trying to cover up the existence of giants in the West, that there are catalogued bone samples and scholarly articles alluding to the possible reality of the existence of larger humanoids, although as to whether there is sufficient evidence to answer if there was a whole race of such beings is not mentioned. As to the rest, it is provocative stuff, particularly about whether the Trojan War took place on the Atlantic coast and featured, as posited by Steve Sora, the sea power that may have been - well, suffice it to say that it features the A-word again.
 
I wouldn’t like to say that everything here is convincing. Some of it is even downright confusing. I must say, however, that I take to these anthologies, provided there are some authors who make a reasonably convincing argument for their particular issue and that the subject of the writing is related. This is stretched here by including the Jim Marrs conspiracy piece and the Nick Redfern speculation on ancient spirit forms in with the general ancient alien and archaeology theme. I would say that, at least as a cross-section of some of the more radical thought going on in this area today, this is worth a look. Author biographies are included, along with an index and, depending on the piece, bibliographies at the end of most essays. -- Trevor Pyne
 

6.9.14

BLACK MAGIC AND BOGEYMEN

Richard Jenkins. Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in the North of Ireland 1972-1974. Cork University Press, 2014.

Northern Ireland forty years ago was in a very dark place indeed, with violence on a scale which dwarfs our current concerns with terrorism. It was a place of sectarian/ethic warfare waged by both 'Republican' and 'Loyalist' paramilitaries, neither showing any actual loyalty to the 'really existing' Irish Republic or United Kingdom respectively. The normal everyday assumption that if you went out in the morning there was an overwhelming probability that you would come home safely in the evening no longer applied. It was a time or fearful rumour and paranoid suspicion.
 
In the middle of this crisis, in August 1973, a local Sunday newspaper presented a lurid tale that on the beach of the main Copeland Islands, a picnic spot in Belfast Lough off the coast near Bangor, the remains of four slaughtered sheep had been found, along with 'occult symbols'. A 'leading authority' claimed that these were Satanic Rites, to coincide with either Beltane or St John’s Eve (neither of which were in August).

This story might have died the natural death of all such silly season stories had it not been for the horrific murder in September of a 10 year old boy, whose body had been burned and mutilated. This then became linked with tales of slaughtered dogs and a 'black magic' moral panic ensued on both sides of the sectarian divide. As with most of these things, fear of the occult ranged through a whole variety of beliefs and behaviours, in which, for example, playing with Ouija boards became conflated with sacrificing dogs and murdering children.
 
Occult and spiritualist beliefs and practices, were thus often confused, for example the belief that 'republicans' were engaging in occult rituals in order to contact the spirits of dead members of the IRA. On both sides of the sectarian divide heterodox forms of spirituality were seen as snares of the devil.
 
Jenkins places these fears within the context of the traditional lore of Ireland and of an “enchanted” worldview, in which ghosts, fairies, banshees, faith healing and the like were envisioned. Among these were such bogeys as the 'Black Man' or 'Big Man of Arden Street, a sinister figure that tapped on the windows of those about to die.
 
Much of this is pretty much the general popular lore that might have been encountered in any British town. What these other towns did not have to content with was the possible manipulation of this folklore by state agencies. The controversial whistle-blower Colin Wallace claimed to have been involved in spreading some of these stories; bogeymen being convenient devices for keeping youngsters off the streets at night, and perhaps to further unnerve the population.
 
Jenkins also traces the rise of the myth of Satanism in this period, based largely on the works of Dennis Wheatley. This was exploited by alleged 'survivors' and converts such as Doreen Irvine. This myth was in some ways an outcome of fantasies and conspiracy theories surrounding the Profumo scandal and much of it can be found in works such as Sellwood and Haining’s Devil Worship in Britain (1964), in which post Profumo paranoia was mixed with anti-immigrant paranoia.), and the infiltration into Northern Ireland of a largely American inspired apocalyptic tradition.
 
This is an important book in which there fears and fantasies of a very specific period, perhaps mainly lasting only a period of a few weeks, are placed in their specific historical and cultural contexts, in this case a society torn apart by violence, where the normal boundaries of human conduct were being steadily eroded. -- Peter Rogerson
 

3.9.14

BRITISH BLOODLINES

Paul Adams. Written in Blood: A Cultural History of the British Vampire. History Press, 2014.

Although the conventional belief is that the vampire's origin is the Carpathian Mountains or some other rugged area of Eastern Europe, this book demonstrates that the place where the Undead feels most at home is right here in England. From the moment the sinister count fetched up on the coast of the East Riding he found a comfortable niche waiting for him in English culture and literature.

Adams shows how the vampire theme developed from an earlier Gothic tradition of blood-drinking and life sapping revenants, like Gottfried Burger's Lenore, Goethe's The Bride of Corinth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel. Given more specific form later in the century by writers like Polidori and Rymer (who also introduced us to that other great blood-soaked monster, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), the image of the blook-sucker rapidly metamorphosed from the decayed grave-escapee of European folklore, to the suave, sexually charged figure we know today. The format of the vampire story allowed Victorian writers to explore aspects of sexuality that would be unthinkable (or at least unpublishable) if dealt with in a more realistic format – Sheridan le Fanu's lesbian vampire Carmilla, for instance.

A chapter on possible historical English vampires in rumour and folklore looks at the 'Beast of Coglin Grange' an ambiguous collection of ghost stories where Adams can come to no firm conclusion but leads on to a consideration of a number of murder cases which had vampire-like features.

Stoker's Dracula is of course the defining vampire and has coloured nearly all subsequent fictional treatments of the figure. Adam's traces the development of the character of Dracula and other characters in the story, suggesting that the overpowering personality of the Count himself may have been inspired by the larger than life-sized figure of the actor Henry Irving, whom Stoker worked with for many years; and intriguingly that the whole story may have been inspired by a hypnogogic vision which Stoker experienced years before writing the book.

Adams describes Stoker as a 'benchmark', and clearly his characterisations have indelibly influenced nearly all subsequent literature, even that which consciously avoids the Stoker template. In the first decades of the twentieth century writers such as M R James, Algernon Blackwood and E F Benson – of the genteel Mapp and Lucia novels – all tackled the vampire theme. However he sees much of the credit (or blame) for the development of the particularly English vampire going to the enigmatic Montague Summers. Like much else of his literature and life, his 'history' of the vampire had only tangential connection with anything that might be described as 'the truth' and is best described by the inscription on his gravestone, just a mile from Magonia HQ, “Tell me strange things”.

Most of the rest of this book is devoted to what I think is Adams's first love, the vampire on film. He traces the development of the British vampire on screen back to a one-reeler produced in 1913, The Vampire, set in India and now totally lost. Friedrich Murnau's Nosferatu of 1921 presented a defining vampire image for a generation, and in England Dracula became linked in the public mind with the image of Jack the Ripper, both sinister figures looming through swirling mists in the mean streets of London's East End; and both, it would increasingly seem, equally mythical.

But the most English of vampires was that created by Hammer Films, and Adams narrates the rise and fall of this iconic studio with its stable of classic horror actors, and chronicles the eclectic group of people involved in the production of its string of culturally influential films over nearly three decades. But much like their coevals the Carry On films, they became victims of their own success, gradually falling into formulaic treatments, and being overtaken by more explicit and imaginative films from other studios, particularly following the loosening of film censorship in the nineteen-seventies.

Adams bravely tackles the Highgate Vampire story, and as an outsider I think it seems a pretty balanced account of a subject which raises sometime violent emotions on all sides. Echoing Basil Fawlty, Adams can probably say “I mentioned the Highgate Vampire but I think I got away with it”!

The final chapter looks at modern (post 1975) literature and how the vampire template has grown to allow writers to explore a wide range of psychological, psychosexual and parapsychological themes. I am pleased to see an old library colleague Ramsey Campbell getting due acknowledgement here, especially now that his name is inscribed in golden lettering along with other Liverpool literary greats on the wall of the newly-rebuilt city Central Library.

Although sometimes a little difficult to follow because of the sheer wealth of detail – which is mainly a result of the author's enthusiasm for the topic – this is an intriguing book which demonstrates just how very English the vampire phenomenon has become. – John Rimmer


25.8.14

FIRST READ - MEETING MR FORT

The books of Charles Fort had been taunting me for a while, as they sat on the shelves of Wilshaw’s in John Dalton Street, Manchester, then the town’s leading bookshop. I wanted them but their cost was enormous. £3.00 or 60 shillings. That was a time when my weekly pocket money was five shillings (25p). Finally with some money I had been given for my thirteenth birthday, I went ahead and bought the volume, which, with its indexes is over 1,000 pages long.
 
I think I consumed it in a night and day, or that is how I remember it. It was a wild ride with a crazy man doing the driving. Fort at times looked brilliant to a thirteen year old, and at other times, just plain nuts. Of course the collected Books of Charles Fort is not really a set of volumes for reading right through, it is more something to be dipped into for the fragmentary stories of things falling from the sky, strange lights in the sky, mysterious appearances and disappearances, animals the like of which no sane person has ever seen, poltergeists and teleportations. Many of these read like the opening lines of novels, stories that no-one has ever told.
 
Of course to get at these you have to plough through Fort’s unique, 1920s style experimental writing technique; one which, had he actually settled down to write the really great novel, could have made him America’s answer to James Joyce. I imagine, however, that Fort had come to the conclusion that reality was just so damned weird that nothing you could make up would come close.
 
Fort’s semi-anarchic world view was the sort of thing that was quite attractive to a teenage boy, after all he was getting at all those authority figures, and, Tiffany Thayer assured us, he didn’t really believe the crazy things he was coming out with, it was all a satire on science.
 
Looking back as an adult, and now having the insights that his biographers Damon Knight and Jim Steinmeyer have provided, I am not so sure. The sort of small-womb cosmos that Fort half believed in is typical of many cranks, and it seems the sort of thing that the motherless, abused boy might crave, in much the same way that his more than semi-mysterious wife seems to have been more of a mother figure than a lover. I have suspected that Fort’s legendary reclusiveness may have been more to protect her than himself, as he seemed to have led a fairly active life until their marriage.
 
If you want to read Fort for the first time in one of the many single volume paperbacks, I would recommend Lo! as by far the best, with Book of Damned as second, half of New Lands is taken up with a rather embarrassing tirade against astronomers and by the time he was writing Wild Talents his last illness was clearly taking its toll.
 
Lo! has a special place for Magonians because it is the source of the tales of the wild years of 1904/05, interest in which became the catalyst that brought myself, John Rimmer and Roger Sandell together. -- Peter Rogerson
  • Charles Fort The books of Charles Fort, with an introduction by Tiffany Thayer. Henry Holt for the Fortean Society, 1941 (1959 reprint)
 

21.8.14

25 YEARS AGO: MAGONIA 33

The lead article in this issue is 'From My Pennine Valley Notebook', by David Clarke. Yes, the title is a rip-off of John Keel's classic Flying Saucer Review piece from the 1970s, 'From My Ohio Valley Notebook', and it was inspired by Dave's introductory paragraphs, where he states: “folklore seems to be very much in the making in the haunted areas of the Pennine Hills into which I have been wandering in recent years”. Very Keelian!

The full article describes the spooky experiences of a couple of policemen, patrolling the semi-industrialised valley of the Little Don, which seems very much the same sort of liminal, marginal area that Keel reported from in his Ohio Valley travels. Their experiences seem to combine traditional ghost and fairy-lore (or as we are in deepest Brigantia, perhaps that should be boggart-lore) and modern UFO reports.
 
Arch-skeptic Steuart Campbell was not going to let Ralph Noyes defence of superstition in the previous Magonia go unchallenged and here he presents a vigorous riposte. A critical reading of the article may lead one to suspect that he defines 'superstition' as 'things that Steuart Campbell does not agree with', but others may have a different opinion. Read the article here and see what you think.

Campbell makes a re-appearance in the Readers' Letters pages, in which he presents another vigorous riposte, this time to those, including your editor, who felt that his own one-explanation-covers-all solution to the UFO mystery - namely  that they are mirages of virtually anything, under virtually any circumstances - itself might be considered a sceptical superstition.

Much of this issue was taken up with letters from our readers, including such ufological luminaries as Dennis Stacy, erstwhile editor of MUFON UFO Journal who was eased out of the post for being a little too rational, although ironically this particular letter praised the journal's rationalist credentials; and Thomas Bullard, challenging Hilary Evans's conclusions in his review of Phil Klass's book UFOs A Dangerous Game, concluding cautiously “The objective reality of abductions is by no means assured, but neither is their subjectivity a foregone conclusion. This phenomenon dererves better than a vague gesture in the direction of psychology, followed by a premature call of 'game over'.

Indeed it did, and in the years to come Magonia, amongst others, gave the phenomena the consideration it deserved, but still came to the conclusion 'game over'. -- John Rimmer

14.8.14

FAIRYLAND, MY FAIRYLAND

Marjorie T. Johnson. Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times. Anomalist Books, 2014. Reviewed by Janet Bord.

If this book is any guide, there are a lot of people out there who claim to have seen fairies. Its 350+ pages are crammed full of first-hand sighting reports, most of them not duplicating the many accounts recorded in my own book Fairies: Real Encounters With Little People. Marjorie Johnson collected her reports over several decades, and the mystery is that she was never able to get her book published during her life-time (apart from editions in German and Italian), since it is a unique database of 20th century fairy reports. Simon Young, who was responsible for bringing about this belated English-language edition, details its history, and Marjorie’s involvement with the Fairy Investigation Society, in his comprehensive introduction.

Reading these strange accounts one after another is a disturbing experience. They give the impression that the countryside is heavily populated with little people who live alongside us but are never seen by most of us. Can this really be true? Common sense tells us that it isn’t, and that there must be some other explanation. How can we find out what it is? These are not questions that the author tries to answer, and if we are to solve the mystery, it will be necessary to adopt a more critical stance than hers.

When considering, in a very general way, the fairies’ appearance, there is one major feature that separates one kind of fairy from another: some have wings, and some don’t. Although today many people assume that all fairies have wings, as Simon points out they did not feature in early fairy lore, first appearing in fairy art in the late 18th century, and then in fairy accounts from the 19th century onwards. Therefore any sightings of winged fairies, which account for around half of the reports in this book, are suspect. The witnesses clearly believe they are seeing winged fairies, but it seems likely that the brain is projecting onto the external world a vision of what the witness considers a fairy looks like. Why this should happen is another question entirely!

There is another problem with the winged fairies: they are usually interpreted as some kind of nature spirits by those whose world-view incorporates such things. Far be it from me to criticise such beliefs or pronounce them misguided, but I do not subscribe to them myself. Marjorie Johnson was very much a believer in nature spirits, writing of ‘Devic Guardians’, etc. The photograph of Marjorie which appears on the front cover tells us all we need to know: she is sitting in the bracken playing on a home-made bamboo pipe. To the bottom left is an area looking like white mist, where light has ‘fogged’ the film. This obvious explanation is rejected by Marjorie, who prefers to think that fairies were attracted to her music and were ‘building-up out of the ectoplasm from my aura.’

If we disregard for the moment all those accounts that include winged fairies, nature spirits, and other whimsical creations, we are left with what I consider to be a real mystery: the totally unexpected sightings of little people doing strange things. These are the accounts that are, to me, the most puzzling and disturbing, as there seems to be no obvious explanation for them. In 1953 a 5-foot figure in bottle-green clothing, a conical fur-edged hat and knee-boots was seen to run across a road in Ewell, Surrey, disappearing before reaching the kerb; a child aged 3 or 4 watched a ‘funny little man’ with a long pointed cap working in the beans in their garden at Walesby, Nottinghamshire; some people who had had a moonlit picnic on the moors near Land’s End, Cornwall, saw in the car headlights a little man just over 2 feet tall with a hairy face, long arms and long pointed feet, wearing a hat looking like a mushroom; in 1896 a Shetland woman walking to a neighbouring house saw a little man in dark brown clothes and with a long beard staring belligerently at her and making loud grunting noises; and so it goes on. Sometimes everyone present sees the creature(s), but this is not always the case.

When judging any of the accounts in this book we have to rely on the veracity of the witnesses. I’m sure they aren’t all lying – but some may be deceiving themselves, or misperceiving what they see. It seems certain that in the majority of cases, the witnesses believe they are recounting a genuine event: they believe what their eyes and brains are telling them they are seeing. In order to determine exactly what is happening, a detailed analysis of each witness would need to be undertaken – of their beliefs and expectations as well as their physical condition. Medical evidence is growing to show that there are mechanisms by which people can and do see things that are not physically there. For example, as I was reading this book, recent research into AMD (age-related macular degeneration) was reported in the press [Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2014], to the effect that some sufferers see visions. An unnamed 87-year-old retired teacher saw a ‘funny little miniature woman coming up under [a table]… She had a smiling round face looking up at me, and as I was watching it grew, like a genie coming out of a bottle. I couldn’t see the feet, just a head and shoulders. Her face was tanned and shiny, like someone who had been working out in the fields and was covered in perspiration. It is thought that the faces you see are often from way back in your past. I think this was my Cornish grandmother.’
 
 Of course we cannot explain sightings of fairies by saying that all witnesses must have AMD, but if such visions can be experienced by people with AMD, it is likely that other conditions can also trigger similar visions and hallucinations. The form the vision or hallucination takes may well be influenced by the witness’s belief system, with believers in visions of the Virgin Mary being prone to see Our Lady, believers in aliens being prone to see creatures from UFOs, and believers in nature spirits being prone to see winged fairies.

Unfortunately Marjorie’s presentation of the reports she has collected is uncritical. There is no attempt to analyse the reports dispassionately, or to search for any explanation other than the (to her) obvious one, that the witnesses are blessed with the ability to see nature spirits. But the true value of Marjorie’s efforts in collecting these reports is that we now have the raw material for a proper, unbiased, study of fairy sightings, and it is to be hoped that someone with the knowledge and ability to tease out all the clues can come up with a plausible explanation.

Wherever the truth is to be found, this book is essential reading for anyone with the slightest interest in fairies and the Little People.


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS