In the spring of 2014 John Hyatt, a lecturer with Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, published a series of photos of small winged creatures that look like very small flying people or fairies. Hyatt said he was taking photos through the trees at sunset, trying to capture fast moving insects. The photos weren’t doctored in any way other than enlarging the size and the resolution of the images. These “Rossendale Fairies,” similar to the famous Cottingley fairy photos taken in Yorkshire in 1917, have excited many believers and have been widely ridiculed as well by skeptics.
In an interview in International Business Times, Hyatt said, “I am an artist. These are honest photographs with no trickery. Fairies certainly exist in art and within culture and, for those that believe and those that disbelieve, they act on many people’s decisions and ways of life. Are they materially real? I have merely placed some interesting evidence before the public. Let the people decide. I never claimed to prove anything but simply to offer gifts of great beauty and interest to the people of the world.”
Many have already decided one way or the other. Hyatt said that since posting his photos people from around the world have thanked him on behalf of their children and themselves. They’ve also sent photos and their own stories of encounters with fairies. If you search for “fairy” or “elemental” online, you can find many sites showing images in which the faces and bodies of “spirits” are visible in plants, water, trees, and other natural forms. Of course, skeptics have had a field day, too, quickly pointing out that the photos could simply be of midges or another small flying insect. Plus, there’s the fact that no one has ever found any material evidence of fairies. Yet, belief in fairies and other nature spirits is very high all across the world and has been for a very long time.
The folklore of the Persians, Mongolians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Egyptians all contain accounts of such nature spirits. The Celtic druids had tree spirits that inhabited sacred groves and special trees. The Teutonic tribes had their gnomes and dwarves. There are also many indigenous cultures with animistic beliefs about the world who experience spirits inhabiting all forms of nature. With the rise of Christianity worldwide, these kinds of beliefs were labeled “primitive” or “superstitious.” Anyone who publicly held such beliefs might have risked persecution for their association with such “demonic” forces. For 1500 years the belief in these kinds of creatures in the West continued, though was kept more private. Natural healers, who were labeled as witches, gypsies and alchemists, continued to interact with them in their hidden practices.
In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus revived interest with his fairy book, Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaieis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, where he describes “creatures that are outside the cognizance of the light of nature.” In his book he catalogued beings belonging to the four elements: Gnomes, of the earth; Undines, of the water; Sylphs, of the air; and Salamanders, of the fire. These “divine objects,” though generally invisible, were believed to be beings between creatures and spirits, corporal and ethereal.
Later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the power of the church declined and the study of science increased, there was a resurgence of belief in fairies, spirits, and other mystical forces. At the turn of the twentieth century, the spiritualist movement and the Theosophists were applying scientific methodologies to the realms of spirit, subtle energies, and consciousness. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was a spiritualist and was drawn into the mystery of the Cottingley fairies. In his 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies, he said, “We see objects within the limits which make up our color spectrum, with infinite vibrations, unused by us, on either side of them. If we could conceive a race of beings which were constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations, they would be invisible unless we could tune ourselves up or tone them down… there is nothing scientifically impossible, so far as I can see, in some people seeing that which is invisible to others.”
In the 1890’s, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater took their scientific investigation into the invisible and impossible. They conducted a whole series of investigations into the structure of the physical elements, such as uranium and hydrogen. Using what they called an ‘ajnic microscope,’ a kind of internal, mental focusing tool, they were able to perceive and draw the molecular and submolecular structures of these elements, which they published in the book Occult Chemistry in 1895. Many of their illustrations showed previously unknown isotopes and specific numbers of quarks in elements, information that wasn’t confirmed by science until the 1970’s.
In the early 1920’s Major Geoffrey Hodson was studying, describing and publishing his insights into elemental spirits in the books Faeries at Work and at Play and The Kingdom of Faerie. Peter Tompkins, who popularized the possibility of the sentience of plants in the 1970s, suggested in his book The Secret Life of Nature that since the work by Annie and Charles in Occult Chemistry has proved to be so highly accurate, Hodson’s work on elementals and fairies should be considered more seriously.
At this time, Hodson was a member of the Theosophical Society. He was also a student of Buddhism, a practitioner of yoga, and a highly skilled clairvoyant. He initially thought fairies were products of people’s imagination, yet an experience he had changed that. One time he saw his dog stare fixedly into space. He was curious, so he “quickened his clairvoyant faculty by the practice of Yoga” and for the first time had a vision of “traditional forms of brownies, elves, fairies and the like” dancing around in his living room.
Hodson was brought in to investigate the Cottingley fairies after the photos taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths created a public stir. For many years there has been intense debate as to the validity of the five photos taken by these two girls. Hodson spent time with Elsie and Frances at their home in rural England and concluded that the girls were clairvoyant themselves. He also believed that the girls combined “prepubescent aura” helped to enable the fairy images to be captured on film. Although the debate on the validity of these photos raged for some 60 years, both adult women admitted near the end of their lives that the photos were staged with cardboard cutouts. However, Frances claimed the fifth photo in the series was genuine. Her daughter said that Frances believed until her death that fairies were real.
After investigating the young girls, Hodson continued his clairvoyant explorations around the English countryside, researching elemental spirits. He elaborated on Paracelsus’ descriptions, dividing nature spirits into four main categories according to their dominant element—earth, water, air, or fire. He pointed out, though, that there were also innumerable overlapping species. He believed that none of these spirits had solid bodies, since they lived on the astral plane. They were able to materialize more defined shapes, though, that could be seen by people with “etheric” or “astral” sight, such as Elsie and Frances, and only rarely could be captured on film.
He described in detail fairies, brownies, elves, gnomes, and mannikins, the last of which appeared to be male forms of these creatures that were a blend of several different types. He observed these varied creatures in all the elements; in the air, in amongst plants, in rock faces, and in the earth, living beneath the bark of trees and even in flowing water or in the crashing of waves. He suggested that their life appears to revolve around the expression of three fundamental processes in Nature: absorption, assimilation, and discharge.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, science was becoming more polarized as to what was “true” science and what was “pseudoscience.” Since all of the clairvoyant explorations of the Theosophists couldn’t be replicated by the skeptical or seen by ordinary people, they were more commonly written off as delusion. While the psychologists and the mystics continued studying the occult, mental worlds, mainstream science became more and more concerned with tangibles and essentially relegated any theory of elementals or fairies to childish imagination.
Since then, materialistic science has made tremendous progress defining the energies and structures at submolecular levels. Intangible energies that can’t be seen by the eye, can’t be heard or felt—at least in normal conditions—are commonly accepted to be facts of nature. One would think this would make faeries more acceptable. The thread, though, throughout this scientific progress is that there is no “life,” “will,” or “consciousness” in natural forces; though with the deeper understanding of quantum physics, with entanglement and the observer effect, mainstream scientists are begrudgingly acknowledging that consciousness has some role to play in the material world.
At the cutting edge of science, there are now multiple theories postulating dark matter and alternate dimensions in order to more fully explain the physical world that we live in. Dark matter could correlate to the etheric or astral dimensions perceived by the mystics. Of course, there’s still an implicit assumption in science that the consciousness of a human being couldn’t access these aspects of reality, or that there is any kind of consciousness that could exist in these subtle energies. On the other hand, many philosophers and some physicists believe that consciousness couldn’t possibly be an emergent property of the human brain and must therefore be a fundamental part of the universe.
Regardless of whether or not the scientists believe in nature spirits, personal experiences with elves, devas, and other spirits continue to occur. Perhaps one of the best-known examples is the Findhorn community in Scotland. Founded in the late 1960s, this community became famous for the cooperation between the gardeners and the spirits of the plants. Dorothy MacLean, one of the founders, discovered she could intuitively contact the “angels” or “devas” of the plants. MacLean realized these weren’t the spirits of individual plants but, rather, the ‘overlighting’ beings, which were the consciousness holding the archetypal design of each species. These beings gave her instructions for how to care for the plants, which resulted in the 40-lb. cabbages that captured the world’s attention. The Findhorn community is still active and has grown into a spiritual center and education hub. They teach that the forces of nature are something to be reached out to and that we can harmonize with those essences.
MacLean’s descriptions of a species-being resonates with Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphogenetic fields. This is another place where mainstream science is moving towards the realms of the mystics. Sheldrake’s proposal suggests that there are nonlocal information fields that guide the development of biological systems. These fields have no physical basis and are held in some kind of alternate dimension to the physical. The step yet to be proposed would allow for some kind of consciousness we could interact with in these morphogenetic fields. If any of the subtle energies or fields that western science does recognize were found to have an aspect of consciousness, then science would interact with the spirits of the natural world again.
One person’s personal vision of an elf spirit entwined with the life force of a tree, as Hodson described in his journals, might be an observation of how these fundamental energies in nature manifest. Since these perceptions occur in concert with a meditative or altered state in the individual, it would make sense that the images would be informed by the beliefs held in the consciousness of the individual. MacLean described initially seeing angels and later expanded her awareness to something even larger, which she termed a “deva.” If the person observing had no belief in the possibility of consciousness in these energies, then they might not perceive anything other than an aesthetically pleasing tree.
There is also a tendency for the mind to see familiar shapes in nature. Eyes, faces, and animal figures can easily be seen in the clouds. It’s easy to write these off as creative imagination. Yet, in this context one shouldn’t rule out that a person might be perceiving some other form of energy that may have qualities of consciousness associated with it. Again, I may see it as an angel, and that is how my consciousness processes what I’m experiencing. The essential nature of this spirit may be something wholly different, that can’t be apprehended easily by the mind.
Perhaps the forms we see in nature feel real because at the same time we’re processing the visual information, we are experiencing more complex information through our other senses. Since these subtle energies are all part of the overall experience of a place, they may all be an aspect of the spirit of this place. When one stands in amongst an old growth cedar or redwood forest, it’s hard to deny that there are subtle qualities to these spaces.
Throughout this article, we’ve focused on the western, scientific view, which can be myopic, not allowing for any alternate views. However, belief in the aliveness of the natural world, and human interconnection with it, is still very much a part of the animistic worldview of many indigenous peoples. One might say that to the degree a “primitive” culture hasn’t been hypnotized into the separation between mind and matter or between man and nature, they still experience the world they live in, with all it’s energies, elements, and alternate forms of consciousness, as alive and interconnected with humans.
In these cultures, it’s commonplace to engage with a nature spirit as part of a healing ritual, or to recognize that beautiful places in nature such as waterfalls, vistas, or a groves of trees are attractive to us because they are imbued with spirit. The “energy” that a westerner perceives has qualities of consciousness as part of its nature. At the quantum level, our consciousness does have an affect on matter, perhaps because matter has qualities of consciousness in it. Why wouldn’t animate matter also have an effect on human consciousness? Perhaps this wonder we have for fairies is an expression of a connection to nature that is much more alive than our materialistic culture wants us to believe.
With the growing appreciation for mindfulness practices and other meditative techniques, science is also rediscovering the value of state-changes in human consciousness. All that is meaningful does not take place in a narrow-focus, objective, and analytical state of mind that is so elevated by western science. Deep meaning, wonder, and truths can be perceived in other states of mind where one’s experience isn’t separate from the natural world. When we see the image of a face in the clouds, our minds are loosened a little with “creativity”—another trance state—that puts us in touch with deeper metaphoric and symbolic meaning. The face in the trees and the little fairies in Hyatt’s photos may be reaching out to us from the animate world in an attempt to reanimate our lives!
Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.