The question was recently asked (to a group) on social media, ‘do you believe in fairies?’, but it is one I have been personally asked many times over the years. I write about fairies* in an experiential sense but also quite a bit in a more clinical and scholastic sense, and I think sometimes people see the folklore references and citations and wonder if my approach is entirely from an outside perspective. The simplest way to summarize my approach to belief in fairies is with this quote (switching out fairies for gods):
“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” – Terry Pratchett
I have had experiences that lead me to understand fairies the way I would geysers, or squirrels, or cicadas – I know they exist, although I may or may not encounter them regularly. So it seems odd to me to say I believe in them, as it would to say I believe in geysers, but I understand that in common parlance people say ‘believe’ because fairies aren’t considered an objective phenomena.
Like many things, including ghosts, which fall outside scientific study but may be widespread in cultural material, fairies tend to draw a range of responses from people from unrelenting skepticism – no evidence will convince the person – to excessive superstition – everything is blamed on them, despite evidence to the contrary. I try to maintain a middle ground and retain my understanding of fairies while also looking at all the likely possible explanations. If I hear strange music, before I assume it’s fairies I rule out possible human and technological sources, for example. Occam’s Razor is a useful approach to have with this, in my opinion.
Having said that, I realize that the first response many people may have to a claim in belief in fairies is to say that any individual’s experiences can be a mistaken interpretation. Of course that’s true of absolutely every human experience because humans are receiving sensory input through physical mechanisms that can make errors and filtering that input through their own mental perceptions, expectations, and schema. That’s just how humans work, and it’s why eyewitness testimony to events can vary from one person to another in a group who all witnessed the same thing.As much as we like to believe that there is an absolute reality out there that we are seeing, from a human point of view we live in a consensus reality. This is something acknowledged in psychology, where a diagnosis is supposed to take into account a person’s cultural background and the beliefs considered normative in that culture. In other words it’s not considered delusional to believe in fairies if you come from a culture that believes in them, because that belief informs your reality.
My reality includes fairies as both a cultural concept and an experienced subject. Like my experiences with anything else, some of these encounters have been brief, shallow, and in passing while others have been deeper, more involved, and more complex. But for me part of what helps move the subject from a belief to a known is that I have had shared experiences with others in a group and have people I trust who have also had their own unique experience, including people with no previous strong belief or understanding of fairies. Another thing that helps make this more objective to me is things which have occurred that were tangible phenomena, things that moved or appeared with no human-world explanation. For me it’s simply too much over too long a period to even question the reality of it anymore.
My fascination with studying and understanding folklore is rooted in my perspective on fairies. I suppose I am far from unique in this, but for me the impetus driving me is a need to contextualize my experiences in some wider system, in that cultural consensus reality. My life can sometimes hit high tides of strangeness and the folklore and wider fairylore helps me feel grounded in it all. The modern US can be very skeptical and proud of its unassailable rationality towards fairies, yet these beliefs persist and these encounters persist even among people without a strong framework to understand them in. There have been concentrated attempts to infantilize and eradicate fairy belief for hundreds of years in English-speaking cultures, yet the belief persists and that says something profound to me.
I know that fairies exist and so I am comfortable saying that, yes, I believe in them. But on that note I will leave you with another Terry Pratchett quote:
“[Granny said]…when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you’re believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble.’
‘But all them things exist,’ said Nanny Ogg.
‘That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ‘em.‘”
*I am using the term fairy here to mean any and all beings of the Otherworld.