Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Science of Faeries (Part I)

The world is not only stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose. -- J.B.S. Haldane, evolutionary biologist
The "science of faeries". An oxymoron? 

Not really. 

Don't get me wrong.  I am quite the skeptic, a big fan of James Randi and Christopher Hitchens.  All of this is fantasy, right?  The only scientists who believe in fairies are pseudo-scientists.  

But there was a time in the past when credible scholars did give credence to the possibility of the existence of faeries.

It was the time of rampant mysticism, the revival of the occult, the heyday of séance and mesmerism.  Nikola Tesla performed feats of magic with electricity, letting a million volts arc visibly through his body in public displays.  Science fiction dawned with writings about living monsters being created from dead tissue and explorers finding giants and dinosaurs far beneath the earth.  (Could one argue that Urban Fantasy was the original form of science fiction?)

During this era, almost nothing was known about the realities of our world.  Knowledge we now take for granted was merely conjecture.  The airplane had not been invented.  The nature and composition of the moon and the planets were pure speculation; Venus was thought to be populated by intelligent life.  Penicillin had not yet been discovered, nor were there adequate means for storing food long term, nor were phones common, nor did electric appliances exist.  It was a time of discovery and invention.  Wide-eyed scientists left no stone unturned in looking for the next big breakthrough.

This was the zeitgeist during which scholars legitimately studied faeries.  

Some of the most credible people of the time, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) participated in fairy investigations, and the now-defunct Fairy Investigation Society had members like Walt Disney.  No one knew and few suspected that the Cottingley Fairies were a hoax.

Anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz thankfully took the time to travel all the Celtic countries around the turn of the 20th Century.  He gathered the dying and complex lore of a people who genuinely believed in fairies.  They lived their daily lives with superstitions that acknowledged the pervasive and ever-present fae, the way today people operate with knowledge that the internet exists.  Set out the milk, make a sigil before milking the cows, do not refer to them by name lest they hear.  That's the hill where the fair folk keep their fort, and do not disturb that clump of trees.

These were not tales that begin "Once upon a time in a land far away," but rather "I saw the good people and hundreds besides me saw them fighting in the sky" which was said to cause the 1847 famine, and "my husband...often saw the gentry going down the hill to the [sea] strand."

These stories are documented exhaustively in Evans-Wentz's book, "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries".  They are accompanied by a number of scholarly theories and conclusions drawn from the author's experience and these first-hand accounts.

In Part II of The Science of Faeries, I will describe the major theories and schools of thought that explain the gentle folk.  Some are more scientific than others.  Of course I will detail Evans-Wentz's favored theory, which is my own personal favorite, which I partially base my stories on.  I will also describe my own encounter with a fairy. 

The Science of Faeries Part II and Part III...  

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