TRUE THOMAS lay oer yond grassy bank, And he beheld a ladie gay, A ladie that was brisk and bold, Come riding oer the fernie brae. Her skirt was of the grass-green silk, Her mantel of the velvet fine, At ilka tett of her horse’s mane Hung fifty silver bells and nine. ~ Extract from The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer
The tale of True Thomas, or Thomas the Rhymer, is an old one from the wild borderlands of Scotland (in the North of the UK), though working with faeries and otherworldly spirits is certainly older. The earliest recorded version of Thomas’ story is recorded in a manuscript dating from around 1430-1440, and Thomas of Erceldoune, of whom the tale is written, lived two hundred years before that. The ballad which his story is most often told through nowadays was recorded in the early 1800s, and it keeps many of the key images from the earlier manuscript, demonstrating the strength of those images and their value as signposts to encounters with the fae.
“Thomas the Rhymer” is the story of how a bard gained the gift of prophecy from the Fair Folk, and it begins on the bank of a river, under a tree (most often hawthorn), where the Queen of Elfland comes across a sleeping Thomas. She takes him away, across vast rivers and past apple trees. He is taken into her service for seven years and warned to not speak a word whilst he is in Faeryland. At the end of his service to the Queen she gives him the gift of the tongue which cannot lie.
In these images we can find doorways to magical states and magical lands, guidance for developing a relationship with the fae folk and a structure through which we can build our own practices.
What are Faeries? Clues from the Queen
In all my time working with them I’ve come across a great many explanations for what they might be or how they may have come into being.
The description of the Queen in “Thomas Rhymer” as a beautiful lady in green silk, on a fine horse with bells in it’s mane gives us a few clues as to the nature of faeries. The green colour shows her role as part of the green world and the land, her horse shows her power and the bells ring with the music of faeryland. Beauty and music are signs of the way in which faery magic enchants us and conjures a sense of wonder – which encourages an openness to the world. It also reminds us that they are quite capable of showing us what we want to see in order to gain our trust. The specific location and Thomas historical status illustrate that the Fae are often connected to specific, real, places, even while they travel, and the river and the hawthorn tree are also notable as water is often a gateway to faeryland and the hawthorn is said to guard the entrance with it’s thorns, whilst the beauty of it’s blossoms open us to the sense of wonder required for travel between the worlds.
From both my experiences and the stories in which they feature I have come to the conclusion that the fae not simply one kind of being, but are a collection of related beings and powers, or spirits and energies, who embody (but are not limited to) the magic of the land and the natural world. They can be guardians of places, they are most often part of the green world or the water or stones, and they are very closely related to spirits of the dead. As spirits without bodies they are shapeshifters and so appear differently at different times, they are not limited as we are but they have a definite consciousness. They appear to me to have grown out of the earth and the land, much as we have. They make choices, have names and hold their own ethics and rules which differ from ours.
The categories of “spirits” are impossible to define with any absolute authority, however, as the lines between spirit beings do not seem to be as clear-cut as we like to describe them. There are tales of how the fair folk were once fallen angels, or gods, and some may be becoming deities again… The spirits of the land are often considered of a different ilk, and yet they share commonalities, and our own ancestors can sometimes be found among the elves. Some traditions describe elemental spirits as faeries, and others use the term to indicate the spirits of plants.
The common thread is that they are spirits; the magical, untamed, others who hold the magic and wisdom of the otherworld in ways which are reflected in their form. They are mutable and powerful, and, if we’re really lucky, they might just lend their power to our cause…
This is an extract from my online Folkloric Faery course, including both theory and plenty of practice. and there are currently spaces on the beta testing cycle available! Come join us!
You also can read more of my earlier thoughts on the magic of faery and how we can cultivate it in ourselves in my book Pagan Portals: Your Faery Magic published in 2015 by Moon Books.
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Over to you in the comments. How would you describe faeries?
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