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The People of the Mounds
In the year 1920, with the Great War not long over, the leading Theosophist Edward L. Gardener unexpectedly received two photographs that excited him greatly. They had been taken by two young girls—Elsie Wright, 16, and her friend Frances Griffiths, 10, both cousins in the village of Cottingley near Bingley, Yorkshire, England, using an old Butcher Midg Magazine camera that belonged to Elsie's father. What the pictures showed was truly amazing. Taken in 1917, the badly developed prints seemed to show Frances Griffiths playing with what looked like tiny people with gossamer-like wings—the traditional children's book image of the fairies. Both girls claimed that they had met with the fairies in Cottingley Glen (Cottingley Beck) and that the little people had danced for them. Elsie's father, Arthur, was extremely suspicious of the first photo of Frances surrounded by dancing fairies, and when the girls later produced a second photo, he forbade Elsie to use his camera to photograph fairies again. Elsie's mother, Polly, was not so sure. She had embraced some of the teachings of Theosophy and was more inclined to believe in the existence of supernatural beings than her more skeptical husband.
Theosophy was a combination of religious philosophy and metaphysics that had originated with Madam H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1896). Its central tenet was that the Great Soul of the Universe sought to help Mankind through various means—including major world religions; sometimes by very esoteric practices. This had given rise to Spiritual Hierarchy, a number of mahatmas or leaders living in a remote area of Tibet with whom Madam Blavatsky was in direct contact through supernatural means. Although it is not clear if Polly Wright fully believed in Theosophy, she probably believed enough to accept the existence of supernatural beings such as fairies, and she believed her daughter. It was she who sent the photos to Gardener for his opinion in 1920.
The quality of the prints that Polly Wright had sent were relatively poor (they had been taken more than three years before and not by an expert hand), and they seemed faded, so Gardener sent them to a photographer friend, Harold Snelling, to see if he could enhance them and produce prints that were of sufficient quality to prove their authenticity. Gardener was now convinced that the photographs were genuine. Snelling did a more-than-adequate job in reprinting the photos, and his images are still in use to this day. They show Francis in the background with a troop of Tinkerbell-like fairies dancing in front of her on some tree branches. These were the images that had alarmed the dubious Mr. Wright when he (a keen amateur photographer) had developed the film. However, both Elsie and Francis were adamant that they had met the fairies in the Glen and that they were the trooping spirits of the countryside. The fairies were kind and gentle and very much like those that they read about in their children's books. The photographs were sent for analysis, and although a number of photographers passed them as genuine, the laboratories at Kodak photography—the major U.K. photographic company of the time—refused to authenticate them.
Perhaps the affair of the Cottingley fairies would simply have remained as a curious footnote had it not been for the involvement of a particular individual. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the legendary fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, was a friend of Gardener and also a well-known Spiritualist of the time. As such he was a firm believer in supernatural beings. In 1920 as a regular contributor to the publication, he had been asked by The Strand Magazine to write an article on fairies for its Christmas edition. Around this time, Gardener passed him the photographs, which had been taken in Cottingley. Doyle was convinced that they were genuine, but passed them to a renowned psychical researcher, Sir Oliver Lodge, who suggested that they might be fakes. He thought that perhaps Arthur Wright, who was a skilled photographer and had often experimented with new techniques, had somehow managed to transpose a picture of a troupe of costumed dancers onto the photograph in order to back up his daughter's claim. Conan Doyle, however, was still convinced that they were genuine and that they were spirits of the landscape, just as the girls had claimed. He arranged for the prints of the photographs that had been enhanced by Snelling to be published in The Strand where they were greeted with astounded interest. However, the common consensus was as before: they were traditional dancers who had been somehow superimposed onto the plate containing the image of Frances Griffiths, perhaps by Arthur Wright. It was also known that during World War I, Elsie had worked in a local photographic studios preparing photos of fallen soldiers for loved ones from plates, and she may have had some knowledge of the superimposition process.
Gardener suggested that if the children were well connected to the fairies then further photographs might be taken, which would settle the matter once and for all. He especially wanted to take a picture of one of them flying with its gossamer wings. The photo shoot was arranged during the school holidays in August 1920 when both girls would be available. Frances Griffiths traveled up to Cottingley from Scarborough where she had gone to live with her parents after the First World War while Edward Gardener traveled from London to Bradford and then on to Cottingley. With him he brought two dozen secretly marked photographic plates.
The experiment lasted from Thursday until Saturday with the girls calling the fairies and with Gardener ready to photograph whatever appeared. They took several photographs but none of any note except one that showed an ill-defined figure that nobody could make out. It certainly bore no resemblance to anything in the previous photographs, and Gardener was not sure if it wasn't some sort of natural phenomena. Conan Doyle, however, remained convinced, and in 1922 he published a book entitled The Coming of the Fairies, which included a photograph (supposedly taken in 1920) showing Frances with a fairy seated on the branch of a tree beside her. This is often judged to be the clearest photo yet, and although it showed the fairy clad in traditional garb, there were suggestions of a rather substantial body beneath the clothes. Moreover, both Conan Doyle and Gardener attempted to contact the fairies by holding several séances, none of which were successful.
Although interest in the Cottingley fairies remained high among Spiritualists, the girls themselves had begun to grow weary of all the attention. They were growing much older anyway—too old for fairies. Probably the final straw came in August 1921 when the noted clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson traveled to Cottingley in an attempt to contact the fairies. There were no photographs taken this time, although Hodson claimed to have seen the good people (although he later admitted that he was guided by Elsie). Much later, both Elsie and Frances admitted that they had tricked Hodson in order to make him appear foolish. It seemed that they had a somewhat malicious attitude toward many of those who believed in them. They wanted little to do with the whole business, refusing all interviews until much later.
In fact, after a period at Bradford Art College (where she studied, among other things, photography), Elsie emigrated to the United States after marrying a local engineer. She was to stay there throughout World War II, only returning to England in 1947 at the end of hostilities. Frances continued to live with her parents in Cottingley for a time before marrying a soldier, Sidney Way, and moving to Ramsgate in 1928. They very seldom spoke about the fairy episode. When they did, it was to assent that the photographs were in fact genuine and that the fairies in them had been the embodiments of nature.
However, in 1981 both women were interviewed for Unexplained Magazine by the writer Joe Cooper. Frances continued to maintain that they had indeed met the fairies and continued to do so until her death in 1986; Elsie (who died in 1988), however, admitted that they had been faked. They had carefully cut out drawings of fairies from books and had placed them on hat pins, so that they could be photographed. She went on to say that she had been too embarrassed to admit to it at the time because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's involvement. She hadn't liked to contradict such a great man. (In this statement she said more than her father, Arthur, who publicly derided Conan Doyle at the time, saying that it was strange how such an educated man could be taken in by a girl who had been bottom of her class in school.) But she would later partially retract her statement (perhaps in the face of some adverse reaction) and state that the photograph used in Conan Doyle's book was in fact genuine. This was the position she maintained until her death, but by now many people were highly skeptical. In a final twist to the story, the original photos showed up again in January 2009 during the filming of the popular BBC Television program Antiques Roadshow in Belfast when Frances Way's (formerly Griffiths) daughter and granddaughter brought the plates in to be valued. Both of them were asked in front of television cameras as to whether the photographs were genuine, and both were convinced of their authenticity.
Despite Elsie Wright's confession, the affair of the Cottingley fairies has continued to fascinate and intrigue many throughout the years, perhaps because of Conan Doyle's involvement, or because it appeals to a desire in all of us for the photographs to really be genuine, and for there truly to be good little people lurking out there among the foliage. But how true was the girls' assessment (and the assessment of others) that those creatures they "saw" were indeed the spirits of nature, that they were benign and willing to reveal themselves to humans? For many centuries—long before Elsie and Frances went down to the Cottingley Glen—people have believed that someone or something lurked out there in the hills and woodlands of the countryside, just beyond the line of human sight.
In ancient Greek mythology, for example, many clusters of trees and woodlands were said to be haunted by nature spirits known as dryads. The name came from the ancient Greek drys meaning oak, although the root word is older—derew—an extremely ancient Indo-European word meaning "tree." These were, in fact, the embodiments of the trees themselves and were probably the remnants of ancient vegetative gods, which had been worshipped since earliest times. They were also perhaps the forerunners of what the Cottingley fairies were perceived to be. However, the Greeks were not alone in believing that trees were inhabited by such beings, for the idea of men living in the trees and the woodland undergrowth appears in the mythologies and cultures of a number of ancient peoples.
Although the dryads and similar beings are generally portrayed as placid creatures, living and dying with the individual growths with which they were associated, this was not necessarily the case. In many ancient cultures these creatures actually protected the trees and bushes and took revenge on those who violated or desecrated them. Such an idea was prevalent in Celtic belief to such an extent that even today in Ireland (and in some parts of Scotland), certain trees will not be touched for any purpose. A few years ago I spoke to an old man who lived near the small town of Kilrea in County Londonderry, who had worked in his youth as a surfaceman (a man who looked after and maintained rural roads). He told me that on one occasion, he had accidentally cut down part of a whitethorn tree (a growth sacred to certain sprites) that was growing in a roadside hedge. The next morning he had awoken to find that his spine had been twisted whilst he slept, and it remained so ever since. The doctors were at a loss to explain it, and eventually said it was some major spasm or seizure that he had suffered. However, he had no recollection of such an event. He never worked since, and when I spoke to him he was staying in a retirement home for the disabled. The event was, in his mind, unquestionably put down to the intervention of the "fairies" or the spirits of the tree into which he had accidentally cut.
It was, in many parts of Ireland, also considered extreme ill-luck to bring branches bearing the flowers of the whitethorn tree into a house for decoration. To do so was to bring the spirits of the tree—the "fairies"—into the building, or else they would follow the flowers in. Once in a house they would create mayhem both to the individuals there (sickness, financial misfortune) and to the building itself and the property therein (damage, rot). Far from being placid tree-dwelling fairies, they were believed to be wild and feral creatures who held a certain antipathy toward humans and toward human ways. Thankfully they largely ignored Humankind, except when their trees or foliage were damaged or desecrated. Then they would take extremely savage reprisals against the perpetrators and/or their families and loved ones. They were certainly to be respected and feared.
The idea of these tree creatures, in fact, forms the basis of the 1931 ghost story by the noted writer M.R. James (1862–1936)—The Ash Tree—in which venomous spider-like creatures inhabit a ghastly tree and subsequently invade a nearby house. Such creatures may also have their origins in Greek myth—James may have used a type of being known as the "meliae" as his model. These were ash-tree spirits that the writer Hesiod (eighth century BC) tells us sprang from a mixture of blood and semen when the god Chronus castrated Uranus in Greek myth. Although the name meliae is derived from the Greek word for "honey," they were not terribly friendly toward Mankind and may have taken delight in predicting individual deaths (making them the forerunners of the Fates for some folkorists). Hesiod, in his major epic poem Works and Days (written around 700 BC), goes on to state that a race of men sprang from the meliae—suggestive, perhaps, of an aboriginal race about which the classical writers knew.
The idea of an aboriginal race—perhaps possessing knowledge and skills which the "mainstream" races did not, and perhaps continuing down through the ages in some form or another—was to be found in many cultures. In most instances such groupings remained hidden away from the eyes of ordinary folk, forming secretive communities in relatively remote and inaccessible places. In fact, in societies such as Iceland, there is a long tradition of the huldufolk—"hidden people" or "hidden communities"—who coexist alongside standard settlements, but have very little to do with them. They are reputedly highly secretive in their ways and are the last remnants of an old race that existed in Iceland—and throughout the north—before the coming of the Irish monks, who initially settled in the country, or indeed before the Viking settlers.
Huldufolk and Alfar
According to a tradition promulgated by the monks, the origin of the huldufolk goes back into early biblical times. When they dwelt in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had a number of children who were regularly inspected by God to make sure they were upstanding and pure. On one occasion, some of the children became very dirty, and, rather than let God see their uncleanness, Eve hid them away in a remote part of the Garden. God, who knew all things, realized that they were there and made a pronouncement—"What Man has hidden from God, God will hide from Man." The dirty children were ancestors of the huldufolk, so when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, so were the huldufolk, who were then driven north to live away from others in the frozen lands of snow and ice. They seem to have settled in parts of Iceland and in the Faeroe Islands.
Originally, the huldufolk were described as being tall and reasonably handsome, with little differentiation between them and humans (they were the children of Adam and Eve, after all), but later descriptions depict them as much smaller, more misshapen, and with rather strange and pointed ears. They are now described by another name—alfar (the nearest equivalent being elves). However, there still appears to have been some sort of confusion in Icelandic folkloric terms between the huldufolk and alfar. A rule of thumb once common in Iceland was that the alfar didn't drink coffee or eat bread, whereas the huldufolk did, because their food was closer to that of humans. Nevertheless debate still raged. The famous Icelandic folklorist Jon Arnason (1819–1888) asserted that the two terms were the same, but that alfar was a somewhat derogatory term. The German ethnographer Konrad von Maurer (1823–1902) suggested that the term alfar was a way to avoid calling the huldufolk by their proper name, because this implied that they were less than human. (A similar thought is employed in Ireland where it is unlucky to refer to "fairies" except on Tuesdays "when their heels are to you." The term that is used here is "the Good People.") An ethnographic survey conducted in 2006, however, found that few Icelanders made any distinction between the two.
Excerpted from Dark Fairies by Bob Curran, Gina Hoogerhyde, Ian Daniels. Copyright © 2010 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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I am continually impressed by Dr. Curran's work & it seems there is always another book to anticipate. Dark Fairies, like his previous works, is extremely readable, well researched & interesting. I am glad to see that editing has once again become a priority for New Page Books, my only criticism of previous works was an excessive amount of typos & misspellings. Anyone interested in fairies, monsters, and eerie creatures of the world will be pleased by this book which Dr. Curran manages to keep quite readable for the general public while putting quite a bit of academic research into it. I have already pre-ordered "Man-made Monsters," the next book to be released by Dr. Bob Curran.
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Posted March 30, 2011