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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Spirituality and Modern Sacred Prohibitions

I've talked before about the way that spirituality can sometimes end up affecting the way we live our lives in a blog called 'Reshaped Living' and I think it's important to understand the way that personal gnosis can directly influence us. Another way that spirituality can influence our lives is with the taking on of spiritual prohibitions or directives, which may be related to our spirituality in a wider sense or may be specific to us and come from an initiation or intense spiritual experience.

We see personal prohibitions or directives in many different religions including mainstream monotheistic ones, particularly around food where a religion might declare a certain food off limits for followers of that religion, or in turn might require the consumption of something. In historic Irish paganism these prohibitions and directives would be called geasa (singular geis), although it should be understood that geasa were not taken lightly. Except where they are specific to a role, like kingship, they were for life and once in place remained in place until the person died.

  A geis is something the you either must do or must not do in order to maintain your luck and health, and breaking a geis means certain doom usually orchestrated by Otherworldly powers. We can find a wide array of examples of geasa in Irish mythology from those placed on kings when they took the crown to those of a more personal nature that might might be given at birth. A prohibitive example might be taken from Da Derga's Hostel were Conaire isn't supposed to invite a person alone into a place he staying in after sunset, while in contrast a directive geis would be seen with Fergus's requirement always to accept hospitality offered to him. Geasa are never, in stories, taken on by a person but are always placed on a person by an outside force or power. They also in many examples relate to an individual's spiritual connection to an animal, other being, or group; we see this in Conaire's geis not to hunt birds to whom he was related through his Otherworldly father, Cu Chulainn's not to eat dog meat since he was connected to that animal through his name, and Diarmuid's not to hunt the Otherworldly boar that his fate was bound to.

Some people argue that geasa only apply to kings, heroes, and other very rare important people based on the examples we have from mythology but I think there is a strong argument from folklore that the idea behind geasa was applied to many people across demographics in different ways. Although I might not call them geasa in the modern world the underlying concept of something that must be done or not done to maintain one's luck and health remains true. Yeats relaying an anecdote about a fairy doctor relates specific habits and dietary restrictions, such as not drinking alcohol or eating meat, which were strictly adhered to and had clear spiritual overtones. Cultural or communal prohibitions, such as not disturbing fairy mounds, also argue for a wider application of this concept.

In modern spirituality a person might acquire such a sacred prohibition when they achieve some type of initiation; for example when I became a priestess of the Othercrowd I was given a prohibition not to cut my hair. Interestingly I know several people who have a similar prohibition against hair-cutting for different spiritual reasons in paganism. Such a thing could come from the person initiating you, from the Gods in whatever form you feel such messages come, or may be a standard thing in your tradition for that type of ceremony. Becoming a priest or priestess in particular often seems to come with a sacred prohibition or prohibitions for people. As with the older concept, these prohibitions are generally permanent and cannot be transgressed without serious consequences for the person, and so should not be taken lightly or viewed as something to jump into getting.

A sacred prohibition can also come in the modern world through pure personal gnosis, although I will personally caution here that in these cases because of the gravity of these prohibitions I always recommend double or triple checking the message. This can be done by asking a neutral third party - someone who has no stake in the answer - who is good at divination or channeling to see if they get the same or a similar message. To use myself as an example again (because I don't like using other people as examples without permission) I also have a prohibition from Themselves not to enter into a Christian church or any place where active Christian worship is being conducted*; as I have no dispute with Christianity myself this prohibition surprised me and I was careful to get it verified before accepting it as genuine. People may have prohibitions through personal gnosis that could include an array of different things but the most common ones I have seen or heard of relate to food, drink, hair, or the need to always do or say something specific at certain time or place.

Sacred prohibitions in the modern world are not a subject we discuss often, nor are they an aspect of modern spirituality that is often focused on. Yet the core idea of having a spiritual prohibition or directive is not uncommon in my experience and is something that I not only have myself but also that I know many other people who have. These prohibitions or directives can impact a person's life in ways that may include social aspects, and I think for that fact alone it's worth wider understanding and consideration.

*I have my suspicion as to why this is, and I think it relates to a long standing animosity between some of the Daoine Maithe and the new religion. Emma Wilby discusses some aspects of this in her book 'Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits' but it boils down to the way the Church tried to demonize the Good Neighbors, and the way that hostility became two-sided over time.

Yeats, W., (1888) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Selling Your Soul to the Fairies

Most of us are familiar with the idea of classical witches selling their souls to the Devil, but there is another concept we see as well in folkloric sources: a person selling their soul to the fairies. The implication in the wider narrative is that the soul is being pledged to the Queen of Fairy but it is rarely spelled out as such. This is usually done as a combination of a required renunciation of the person's previous faith and either a pledge of loyalty to the Good People or else a more formal agreement to give over one's soul to them, with the implicit understanding that ultimately one's loyalty then is owed to the Fairy Queen or King. We see this in examples from the Scottish witch trials where an agent of the Fairy Queen approaches a person and offers them things they would want, often good luck and success, in exchange for the person giving up Christianity and swearing loyalty to the fairies instead.

Cemetery, Kildare, 2016  copyright M Daimler 

The idea of a person selling their soul is seemingly ubiquitous in Christian accusations against early modern witches. It hinges on the belief that the soul could be offered by a person to non-Christian powers in exchange for worldly benefits to the person, with the understanding that this would cost the person their potential salvation within Christianity. Although most well known in relation to diabolism, this concept is seen as well in witchcraft trials relating to those who dealt with or worked with the fairies. Emma Wilby argues in her book 'Cunning folk and Familiar Spirits' that while we might be tempted to see the idea of selling the soul to fairies as a later Christian distortion of tradition it does reflect genuine beliefs surrounding those who dealt with fairies and the much older ideas in the culture that to deal closely with fairies was understood to represent accepting a fate bound to them (Wilby, 2005). These older fairy beliefs were likely vestiges of pagan practice, held over by the initial approach of the Church to fairies as beings that fell into an ambiguous area, but shortly before the witch hunts began in Scotland there was a shift in the ecclesiastical view to seeing fairies as more clearly demonic and including them, sometimes interchangeably, with the Devil and demons (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). This was a significant shift in perspective in Scotland, although we do not see a similar shift in Ireland where fairies remained in that grey area between good and evil, clearly outside of the main accepted belief system but persisting as powerful beings with connections to the dead and the pagan Gods.

At this point I think we need to look at exactly what we mean with the phrase 'sell your soul' and unpack the concept, particularly separating it from the embedded negative connotations. The expression is, of course, one that comes to us from a Christian context and implies trading one's soul, implicitly to a negative entity, in exchange for worldly benefits. However this idea hinges on the wider belief that one's soul has already been given to the Christian God and that selling your soul elsewhere is bad because it means giving up the benefits that would otherwise come from that God. But I think there's a valid argument that commitment to any God or religion is just as much of a 'sale' of the soul, in that one is committing oneself to that specific deity in exchange for specific benefits, and with an understanding that there are specific requirements one will have to live by. What makes selling your soul to the Devil, or the fairies, or pagan Gods, negative is more about perspective coming from one religion to another than anything else. Ultimately what we are discussing here is not that different from a person dedicating themselves into any religion, or to any deity, except that whereas the promises of Christianity hinge on the afterlife entirely the promises of the fairies involve both the mortal life and the afterlife.

Next I think we need to look at what we mean by 'soul'. This may sound simple but it's actually a bit more complicated because there isn't any clear agreement on what a soul actually is, or even if it is one holistic thing. For some cultures the soul is comprised of multiple parts which can be separated, while others see the soul as one unit, the animating force that inhabits the body. Generally in the older material when we see the soul discussed what is meant is the consciousness of a person that contains their personality; the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably. However even in the fairylore material we see the idea that a person can be away with the fairies, that a part of their spirit can be in Fairy while the rest of them remains here, hinting at the possibility that even this conscious soul can be divided or at least focused in two places simultaneously (Wilby, 2005, Evans-Wentz 1911). It is possible then that in any case where we see a person committing their soul to something or someone they are only pledging a part or aspect of the soul, possibly that which is is the unique personality, and that other parts may go elsewhere. I am not going to dictate to anyone how to view what a soul is, I will only say here that what we see discussed in the texts and folklore is something separable from the body which retains the essence of the person's character in life. When you pledge your soul and the time comes for that to be collected your body is left behind and it is this part of yourself that's taken*.

There is a formulaic approach to selling one's soul to the fairies which involves first renouncing your old religion or God and then overtly promising one's self to the new. This is not done spontaneously by an individual but usually at the specific request of the fairies or at the urging of a specific fairy, often the person's existing fairy familiar. Emma Wilby discusses this at length in chapter 6 of her book 'Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits'** mentioning examples from the  Scottish witch trials where we see the renunciation and promising pattern. This is not a a bargain that only favors the fairies, however, and we always see the person offered something valuable in return. Cunning woman Joan Tyrry claimed she learned her healing skill from the fairies; Jean Weir was given a small piece of wood by an envoy of the Fairy Queen which allowed her to spin unusually quickly and inexplicably fine quality yarn ; Bessie Dunlop was offered gear and goods (Wilby, 2005). It is worth noting that the narrative of selling the soul to the Devil is largely absent from English witchcraft trials (Gregory, 2013) and that such confessions and connections specifically to Fairy were unique to areas with strongly ingrained existing fairy beliefs and were notably absent in other places.

Renunciation - In these examples we find the fairies, usually through the intermediary of a fairy familiar sent to the person, asking for an explicit renunciation of the person's 'Christendom' and baptism, although there were also examples where they required the person to keep making a show of going to Church or even encouraged them to be sure they were adequately devout. There are also cases where the renunciation was implicit rather than explicit, such as we see with Alison Peirson, who was never asked to verbally renounce Christianity but was instead asked to agree to be faithful to a green-clad fairy that appears to her, in exchange for his good favor; her responding yes to his request was perceived as an implicit renunciation of her other religion (Wilby, 2005). In the cases of implicit renunciation a person agreeing to be faithful to or to act as an agent of the fairies - in effect skipping to step two - was viewed as carrying with it the inherent rejection of the person's previous pledges to any other faith.

Promising - After the person's previous religion or God was renounced they were required to pledge their loyalty to the fairies, usually in the form of a fairy familiar or envoy. Bessie Dunlop promised that she would be 'loyal and true to [her familiar Thom] in any thing she could do', and Alison Peirson swore to be faithful (Wilby, 2005). In one singular account Joan Willimot was asked to promise her soul to a fairy woman, which she did (Wilby, 2005). Those who made these oaths would later be taken to Fairy and presented to the Fairy Queen, or Queen and King, or at the least would be regularly urged to go to Fairy if they refused to leave this world. It is possible that this travel to Fairy marked the final sealing of this agreement, something that may be supported by Wilby's assertion that to travel to Fairy was to give one's soul, implicitly, to the fey folk for the time one was there. Those who had sworn loyalty to a fairy or to the fairies more generally would have fallen into the ultimate hierarchy of Fairy itself and owed their loyalty to the monarchs of the group they were dealing with.
In some cases the person might be formally presented to the Queen of Fairy, while in others, such as Isobel Gowdie, the Queen might give the person a gift from her own hand, or as in the case of Andro Man might have sex with the person (Wilby, 2005). All of these actions can be viewed as fully committing oneself - one's soul - to Fairy generally and to it's monarch specifically.

This renouncing and promising was sometimes noted to follow a specific ritual format where the person would place their hand on the sole of one foot, and place the other hand on the crown of their head (Wilby, 2005). This can be seen as a pledging of the person's entire self - of everything between one hand and the other - to the powers they are speaking to. This also shows an important difference from the similar soul selling ritual in diabolism which usually involved the person giving blood to the Devil, or later signing their name in blood.

It is clear that the common belief of the time was that those who dealt with fairies and went with them into Fairy, particularly if negotiation was involved, understood that their soul could end up in Fairy when they died (Wilby, 2005). This is not a surprising idea given how complicated the relationship is between the fairies and the dead; it was a well ingrained belief that sometimes a person who died had actually been taken into Fairy and we see a wide range of anecdotes supporting this. Reverend Robert Kirk was believed to have been taken by the fairies, possibly for writing too much about them (Briggs, 1976). Evans-Wentz in the 1911 text 'A Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' includes several stories of people thought to have died in various manners who were then seen or believed to have become part of the company of Fairy. The idea then of consciously committing oneself to that fate wouldn't have seemed outlandish, especially for those who were dealing with fairies and were already aware that it was a possibility simply because of their existing interactions with the Otherworld. We don't see this explicit giving of the self or soul to the fairies in the Irish material but arguably we do see the implicit giving occurring, particularly with the witches and bean feasa who were said to have leanánn sí.

The final question that should perhaps be asked here, is why the Fair Folk would want to enter into these bargains. They offer practical advantages to the human in the human world in exchange for that person's sworn loyalty and for a commitment of the person to the fairies. These particular bargains are specific to the class of people later termed witches and cunning folk, so it is likely that there were specific reasons why these people were seen as desirable to the fairies, however in a wider sense the pattern of fairies taking people is well established. Looking at these stories gives an idea of why the Good People might want to take human beings, and ultimately the answer always comes down to pragmatic uses of one sort or another. In the more common stories the people taken were brides, young men, nursing mothers, babies, musicians, and people who were considered especially beautiful or well mannered. In some cases, such as the musicians, the person might only be taken temporarily to entertain the fairies with their skill. Some Irish witches and Fairy Doctors were said to have been taken by the fairies for a period of seven years before being returned to the human world with great knowledge and magical skill, while others were often known to be away with the fairies while still living in mortal earth, as we see of their Scottish witch counterparts. In most other cases however the taking was permanent and the person's fate might be less pleasant, with various forms of servitude and use as breeding stock being common and sacrifice, such as in the Lowland fairies teind to Hell, not being unheard of.

Ultimately when we consider the evidence for people dedicating themselves to the fairies through transactions which involved an explicit or implicit renunciation of the previous faith and pledging of loyalty to the Good People, we see what amounts to the conversion to a new religion. Although couched in negative terms because these narratives come to us from a religion that saw these fairies as evil spirits and was being repudiated by these witches and cunning folk, the actual pattern followed and promises involved are little different than those of any person converting from one religion to another. The only major difference, and the most significant, is that the world of Elphame is no land of eternal bliss and rest for the soul but another life entirely, and the fate of the soul once there was not necessarily positive, although no religion necessarily guarantees an entirely positive afterlife.

Hylas and the Nymphs, Waterhouse, public domain
*Generally anyway. In the vast majority of examples the physical body is left behind and the spirit goes to Fairy and is transmuted there, however there are some anecdotal examples where the body is also taken. For brevity I am only focusing here on the soul and situations where the soul is being taken; for a more thorough discussion of wider examples see changeling lore.
**Wilby also discusses later 19th and 20th century Scottish examples were a practitioner might make an agreement with fairies for a specific amount of time; in these cases the deal is not a permanent pledging of the self but a temporary partnership. In these later examples the terms were agreed in a contract with the Good People offering specific services or knowledge in exchange for payments, and with the terms lasting for a prescribed period of time (Wilby, 2005).

Wilby, E., (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Henderson, L., Cowan, E., (2007) Scottish Fairy Belief
Gregory, A., (2013) Rye Spirits: Faith, faction and fairies in a seventeenth century English town

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fairy Taboos - # 1 Saying Thank You

I'd like to do a series focusing on specific geasa, or taboos, that relate to how humans interact with fairies. These are things that you either should do or should never do when dealing with the fey folk. I'm hoping that doing this as a series of shorter posts might be more engaging for readers and make the points easier to remember than having a wall of information thrown at you.

I thought it would make sense to start with one of the ones that I tend to mention almost everytime I teach anything relating to the Good People - never say thank you. This is also one of the hardest ones for many people to get used to, especially if you have had it ingrained in you to always say thank you.

I have to be honest, I don't remember where I learned this one. I have wracked my brain but I can't remember where I may have read it or who might have told me about it originally. As far back as I can remember it has just been a rule I lived by: you speak politely and you never say thank you. When I initially tried to track down where I'd heard it and came up empty I started to wonder if I'd made it up, however further research did provide some validation.

Anecdotally I have met a variety of people across demographics who share this prohibition, not only with strictly Celtic fairies but also with less clearly culturally defined one. I also found a reference in Katherine Briggs Dictionary of Fairies to this taboo. This is something that we can see directly with some specific fairies like brownies and pixies who will become enraged if thanked verbally.

Why is this a taboo? It is hard to say as folklore offers no clear explanation, but we can offer a few suggestions. One school of thought is that saying thank you implies that the Daoine Uaisle are in some way lesser than you and serving you, which offends them - and is why they react with anger. Another thought is that saying 'thank you' is seen as acknowledging a debt owed, and it is never a good idea to owe an unspecified debt to any of the Good People. It is also possible that saying thank you, or overtly acknowledging what They have done for you, is problematic because they prefer not to have that sort of attention or focus on themselves.

What then is one to do if one feels the Other Crowd have done something helpful or kind? Briggs suggests that, "no fault can be found with a bow or curtsy" (Briggs, 1976, p196). I have found that a gift returned for a gift works well, as does a general expression of gratitude for the event or item itself (not the giver). Saying things like 'I am so glad that this worked out this way' or 'I am so happy that this is here' for example.

Briggs, K (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Embracing Joy in Spirituality

I talk often, I know, about the work that goes into my spirituality - and I think that's fair enough because it is work and we shouldn't underestimate that. But there's joy in what we do as well, or their should be, its just easier often times to focus on the effort instead of the fun.

When I first began on my spiritual path I think I had the idea that it would all be fun and adventure, that witchcraft was a plunge into the numinous every few minutes - and that the numinous was always a good feeling. As time went on of course I realized that this wasn't the case, that spirituality is as often frustrating as it is fulfilling, that it can be rewarding but it can also be real work. I also realized that the numinous can be take-your-breath-away-scary just as much as it can be ecstatic. Sometimes it's both at once.

As time goes on though I found that it was easy to start focusing more and more on the work and the effort, and the joy got lost sometimes. There are, as the saying goes, dark nights of the soul and there are also points I think were we get so caught up in what we are trying to build or connect to that we lose sight of why we are doing it. Trying to make our ritual perfect eclipses being in the moment of the ritual itself. Trying to get every detail of a spell correct obscures that feeling of being surrounded by magic. Trying to invoke and connect to Gods or spirits becomes such an overwhelming focus that experiencing those same Gods and spirits when they show up gets lost.

It's easy to forget as we go along and our spirituality becomes more challenging or more tedious that it's also supposed to be enjoyable. It is work and effort but it's also joy and ecstasy. We seem to lose that over time, or at least I know that I can struggle with it. I overthink things, and I can take things too seriously if they matter a lot to me. Which means that with my religion and my magic it's easy for me to get so caught up in the need to do it well as an aspect of offering it to the Gods and spirits that I forget to enjoy it in the moment.

One of my best memories of a ritual happened about 20 years ago. A few friends and I were doing a Lughnasadh ritual at one of my friend's houses, and that friend had a daughter who was around three. All the adults were trying to be very serious, making sure we had all the stuff together, deciding who would handle what, and all that. And we get going and it's a good enough ritual, very by the book 'pagan standard', but when we get to making offerings the little girl takes her share of the bread we had to offer and starts skipping around the space, tossing bits of bread very enthusiastically into the air to share with the spirits. It was adorable, and everyone started laughing; then the adults started doing it too. The whole energy changed from somber to light hearted in an instant.

Ultimately spirituality is about both effort and enjoyment. We should work at what we are doing so that we can be good at it, and we should take what we are doing seriously, but it shouldn't all be serious and it shouldn't all be work. There should be joy and enjoyment in there as well. I often say, and it's true, that my spirituality has its share of blood, sweat, and tears but it also has laughter and has layers of ecstasy. Not in balance, but in turns and shifts and unexpected moments. And those moments of joy are invaluable and are just as important to my spirituality as the effort and study and practice.

Don't stop doing the work, but never forget to have fun along the way.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Excerpt from 'Travelling the Fairy Path'

I have a new book coming out in September of this year, called 'Travelling the Fairy Path' so today I'd like to offer an excerpt from it. Its going to focus on the more experiential side of my own spirituality but it also includes some discussion of things I've learned from the folklore, with a chapter on the ballad material. This excerpt is from that chapter. 

The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice [the Queen of Elfland’s Nurse]
The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice is the story of a human woman taken by the Queen of Fairy to be a nursemaid. It gives us a unique look at one of the common reasons that the Fey folk were known to take new mothers, from the mother’s point of view. [I'm including the complete ballad below with the language updated to modern English].

I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
And a cow low down in yonder glen;
Long, long will my young son weep
For his mother to bid him come in.
I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
And a cow low down in yonder fold;
Long, long will my young son weep
For his mother to take him from the cold.
       * * * * *
'Waken, Queen of Elfland,
And hear your nurse moan.’
‘O moan you for your meat,
Or moan you for your money,
Or moan you for the other bounties
That ladies are want to give?’
‘I moan not for my meat,
Nor moan I for my money,
Nor moan I for the other bounties
That ladies are want to give.
But I moan for my young son
I left at four nights old.
‘I moan not for my meat,
Nor yet for my money,
But I mourn for Christian land,
It’s there I gladly would be.’
‘O nurse my child, nurse,’ she says,
‘Till he stands at your knee,
And you’ll win home to Christian land,
Where glad it’s you would be.
‘O keep my child, nurse,
Till he goes by the hand,
And you’ll win home to your young son
You left at four nights old.’
       * * * *
‘O nurse lay your head
Upon my knee:
See you not that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
       . . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
‘And see not you that broad road,
Down by yonder sunny hill?
That’s the road the wicked go,
And that’s the road to hell.’
(modified from Child, 1898)

The ballad opens seemingly from the human woman’s point of view, as she talks about how long her son will cry over her loss. The next verse picks up with the Queen of Elfland being awoken by someone telling her that her nurse is weeping; the Queen then asks if the nurse is hungry, wanting to be paid or wanting some other small gift. The nurse replies that she wants none of those things but is crying for her baby son who she left as a newborn and for mortal earth. The Queen replies that if she nurses the Fairy Queen’s son until he ‘stands at [her] knee’ and ‘goes by the hand’ – one may assume is walking on his own – then she will be returned to her own son. Then, as we saw previously in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, we see the Queen comforting the nurse by telling her to lay her head on the Queen’s knee and showing her a vision of two roads, one to heaven and one to hell. Obviously since they are already in Fairy she doesn’t show her a third road, perhaps not wanting to show her the way to escape back to mortal earth.
It is interesting that we see here again the idea of the different roads or paths and that again they are being shown to a mortal by the Fairy Queen herself. In Thomas the Rhymer this vision was called a ‘wonder’ and it was also used to soothe a person who was upset. To me this indicates that the idea of the roads has some significance worth considering. In both poems the road to heaven is described as the less attractive and more difficult and the road to Hell is more pleasant looking and ‘broad’.

The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice is a more obscure poem but it is valuable because it shows us another side of dealing with the Fairy Queen and fairies more generally. The new mother has been taken by the Fey folk but her unhappiness does seem to matter to them and the Queen makes some attempt to comfort her, although at no point is her freedom immediately offered. She is however promised that when certain conditions are met, in this case nursing the Queen’s child for a specific period of time, she will be returned to mortal earth and her own child. There is also the implication in the Queen’s words, asking the nurse whether she is moaning about money, food, or gifts, that imply she was willing to pay for the services in other ways as well. Only when the nurse explains that she doesn’t want those things but is upset about her baby son and her home is she offered her eventual freedom. This however suggests that negotiation is an option even with the Fairy Queen. 


Travelling the Fairy Path will represent the third, and I anticipate final, book in my Fairy Witchcraft series. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Movie Review: Bright

This is a first for me, a movie review, but I really want to do this one for two reasons: I hardly ever find decent urban fantasy as a movie and the mainstream critics have eviscerated this one which I think deserves a response. As an author of urban fantasy this genre is one that is obviously very close to my heart and I have been excited since I first saw ads for Bright because it looked like something beyond the usual, tepid, tv fair that I've seen so far. I'm not going to name names but let's just say that I haven't ever found any small screen material in the genre that held my attention. Suffice to say Bright did, and I think it deserves a review from someone who loves the genre but isn't a professional movie reviewer.
This may contain mild spoilers, so you've been warned. That said, here's my review of the Netflix movie Bright.

Bright starts out slow, with the initial half hour or so letting the audience get to know the two main characters and acclimate to their world. The particular setting is Los Angeles in an alternate reality where magic is real and Otherworldly beings not only live side by side with humanity but form a fully integrated part of society. There is no 'telling' in this movie, no voice over exposition to explain to the audience why the world is the way it is. We are simply thrown into it. The film uses the opening sequence brilliantly, I think, to explain some basics of the world using background shots and street graffiti. I applaud this choice, as I think it would have been a mistake to over explain the world or have too much set up. We are given just enough to grasp the concepts and follow along as the movie continues and the world further establishes itself. The film also does something that I am personally a huge fan of and do in my own writing which is to shift human racial issues to interspecies differences, although I will add that its clear from subtext in the movie that human racial issues haven't disappeared either. The orcs are lower-class species, humans are somewhere in the middle, elves are at the top, fairies are flying rats, and there are hints of other species including centaurs, dragons, and others* that make the world complex. Its clear although not explained in depth that within both the orcish and elvish culture there is actual culture and also conflict. The world of Bright then is multilayered and contextual.

The two protagonists are well done and well played by Will Smith, as veteran cop Darryl Ward, and Joel Edgerton, as rookie orc cop Nick Jakoby. Jakoby is a first in this world, an orc who became a police officer and there is an integral tension to his position surrounded by people prejudiced against his species. Jakoby himself with his boundless optimism and enthusiasm is the perfect foil to Ward's character, who is counting down to being able to retire and start collecting his pension. There are layers to the relationship between the two that involve perceived betrayal, actual betrayal, and hurt on several levels and I thought that was well built for this kind of movie. I've seen it described in multiple places as a 'buddy cop film' but for me it wasn't that at all, but an exploration of what happens when two 'good' people are thrown together and forced to trust each other despite themselves. I liked that Jakoby's character never stopped reaching out to Ward, and that Ward never relented to the end, and I think from my own perspective there were aspects of Jakoby's behavior that should have been viewed as coming from orc culture, including his loyalty to his partner despite it all and his desire to be a hero.

Leilah is what every movie antagonist should be: merciless, relentless, and utterly dedicated to her own cause. The film doesn't waste much time fleshing out her character, but I felt like that worked in this case; it added a level of dread to have the antagonist be, in many ways, a blank slate. The protagonists don't know anything about her except that she wants what they have and is willing to kill anyone who gets her in her way to get it. There is never any sense that she can be negotiated with or avoided - she is like a force of nature. It was refreshing to see an antagonist treated this way. She is a beautiful monster and the movie lets her be exactly that, without trying to soften her or justify her deadliness.

The Magic Task Force was a nice concept within the world, and I liked the implications that there were things behind the scenes than even the audience wasn't aware of. In a situation where you have a few good people and a lot of obviously bad people, it was interesting to have the Magical Task Force as an ambivalent unknown factor. I also appreciated the implication that there were elves in law enforcement in some way as that added depth to the world.

There was just enough foreshadowing early, particularly with the sword wielding Shield of Light member to make it clear there was more going on than just an orc cop getting bullied or Ward being stuck with a partner he didn't want. I liked that there were human and orc gangs, and there were good and corrupt cops, and I also thought the orc church was awesome. Much of the world building here, as I mentioned, was subtle and simply presented as part of the reality of the movie which allowed the viewer to be immersed in the world without being overwhelmed with explanations. There was just enough backstory and exposition in dialogue, without making the story drag.

I enjoyed the humor of the movie, which had some great one-liners as well as some good dialogue overall. There are points, especially in the beginning, that the pacing is a bit off and the tone wobbles - for example Ward's daughter seems to really like Jakoby when he shows up at their house, yet in the next scene she's angry at her father and saying that her mother says Jakoby is going to get Ward killed and she wishes her father wasn't a cop. That seemed off balance and strange. I'll also admit I didn't like Ward's wife's character at all, but that may be because she wasn't established enough and came off as flat.

There were a few plot holes that I do wish the writers had taken care of. Why did the wand make Tikka sick but not the other untrained Bright who used it? Why didn't Tikka speak English to them in life-or-death situations when yelling at them in Elvish was obviously a wasted effort? But overall I think that it was a fairly cohesive story and that it was effective at tying up its own loose ends. There was nothing in the story itself that I found badly done and the details I mention are fairly small.

I think there's a lot to like in this movie, and I enjoyed that it was solidly an urban fantasy but wasn't afraid to toss out at least a few of the popular tropes. The elves are powerful, but they are also elitists and clearly dangerous. The orcs are physically strong and clearly socially limited to menial tasks for the most part, but they aren't stupid or evil. There's no clear line between good and bad here, just people trying to survive. The special effects were good but not excessive. As urban fantasy movies go this may be the best one I've seen.
I'd give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

*there's a point in one scene where a human looking character blinks a nictitating membrane sideways across her eyes, indicating she isn't actually human, but I have no idea what she is supposed to be. Which I liked.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Why Do Elves Have Pointed Ears?

It's generally assumed in Western culture today that elves, and more widely many types of fairies, have pointed ears and the image has become so ingrained in popular culture as to be a trope. Yet why do we picture elves and fairies with pointed ears, when most descriptions from European folklore^ emphasize how human-like these beings appear?

Arthur Rackham illustration, public domain
When we look at descriptions of fairies, under different names, from folklore we generally find their human-like appearance being emphasized. In the 'Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer' Thomas initially mistakes the Fairy Queen for the Virgin Mary; in the 'Ballad of Tam Lin' Janet has to ask Tam Lin to clarify whether he is truly a fairy or was once mortal, indicating that there's no obvious physical indicators of his nature (Acland, 2017). As Andrew Lang says: "There seems little in the characteristics of these fairies of romance to distinguish them from human beings, except their supernatural knowledge and power." (Wimberly, 1965). Yeats, in the late 19th century relates this description of a Fairy woman given to him by a woman in Ulster: "She was like a woman about thirty, brown-haired and round in the face. She was like Miss Betty, your grandmother's sister, and Betty was like none of the rest, not like your grandmother, nor any of them. She was round and fresh in the face..." (Yeats, 1902). In all of these examples and others across folklore we see fairy people being described without pointed ears and notably with a very human-like appearance, usually the only indication of their Otherworldly nature comes through their actions, demeanor, an energy or feeling around them, or a perception people have of them as such.

So where then do we get the idea that elves and fairies have pointed ears? The answer is a bit convoluted and requires looking to the way that Christianity depicted demons, the way that Greeks described satyrs, and finally Victorian art.

The concept of elves and fairies with pointed ears in Western culture is likely rooted in Christian demonic imagery. This is because Christianity in seeking to explain the existence of elves and fairies fit them into the cosmology as a type of demon or fallen angel, which logically led to people imagining demonic characteristics onto fairies. As far back as 1320 we can find depictions of demons with pointed ears, usually along with other physical deformities, especially animalistic features (Bovey, 2006). These pointed ears and horrific appearances are in sharp contrast to the way that angelic and divine beings are depicted, emphasizing through physical depiction the hellish nature of these demonic beings. Whereas the saved souls and angels are emphatically human the demons are just as emphatically inhuman with their obvious animal features, including their ears. This is likely an intentional device to make the demons unappealing and frightening, in opposition to the relatable human-like angels. In folklore we also often see fairies described with animal features, including tails or webbed feet, as well as physical deformities like hollow backs; although fairies are just as often described as beautiful as they are grotesque. Because Christianity chose to depict demons in the way that it did and because they explained fairies in their cosmology as a type of demon or fallen angel, and because fairylore itself described fairies as having physical features that could fit the later Christian descriptions of demons there was a certain inevitability in the artistic depictions of the two types of beings blending together.

Although it may be understandable as to why Christianity chose to show demons as horrific in artwork, pointed ears inclusive, this does beg the question of why Christianity chose to depict its demons this way when in the Bible they are described as fallen angels, and angels are certainly not horrifically animal-like in appearance. Although some angels can look disturbing based on how they are described in the Bible - cherubim for example have four wings that are covered in eyes - most are simply referred to as 'men' without any further detail, implying that while they were not human they also weren't exceptionally strange looking (KJV, 2017). In fact in stories where they show up some people may recognize them for what they are but others often do not, which we see in the story of Lot and his angelic visitors in Genesis 19; this at least implies that they can pass as human. The Bible also makes it clear that Satan and his servants - read demons - masquerade as angels and servants of light which would seem to contradict the idea of demons having a grotesque appearance (KJV, 2017).

Looking further back though we see that there were some beings in Greek and Roman mythology that did have animalistic features and potentially pointed ears, including beings like satyrs. Satyrs were described with ears that could be either donkey like or goat like in shape, and in artwork this is easily perceived as pointed (Atsma, 2017). In the King James version of the Bible there are references to satyrs*, which may be a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a type of spirit (Jackson, 2017). Even though a mistranslation is likely in that case it speaks to a cultural perception that related satyrs to demons. The word in question that is being given as satyr is sa'im which may be a corruption of the Hebrew seirim. In old testament demonology the seirim was a being that blended attributes of a goat and demon, based perhaps on the practice of representing a demon by a symbolic animal with similar attributes (Rodriguez, 2017). Satyrs, with their goat-like features and wild natures were an easy target to later be shifted into the bad-guys of the new religion, particularly with the goats already existing symbolism as an animal of the wilds connected to infertility and danger. It is likely then that the classical depictions of satyrs influenced that later Christian depictions of demons.

Puck, 1629 woodcut from 'Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests', public domain

Early depictions of elves and fairies in artwork show them in line with folklore depictions, that is mostly human like in appearance although they may be either beautiful or ugly and were sometimes shown as very small. As we enter into the Victorian era we begin to see elves and fairies shown with pointed ears, probably based on popular imagery of Puck which in turn drew on demonic imagery that was drawing on the depictions of satyrs (Wright, 2009). Puck was a popular folkloric figure that had long blended fairylore and demonology, understood as a type of fairy, individual being, and also a name for the Devil (Wright, 2009). This blurring of fairylore and Christian cosmology was fertile ground for artwork and laid the foundation for a wider understanding of fairies through this lens; the artists of the Victorian era slowly refined the concept so that what began as pointed ears only on the most wild of fey beings eventually spread to pointed ears even on the delicate winged nature sprites. By the 19th century artists began depicting elves and fairies with pointed ears almost exclusively. By the 20th century we see these descriptions entering written media with both prose and poetry describing elves and fairies with pointed ears. Even Tolkien tentatively described his Hobbits with slightly pointed ears and his Elves, at one time* with pointed or leaf shaped ears (Dunkerson, 2017). The concept has now become ubiquitous, spreading throughout popculture and into folklore, so that it is simply taken as a given that elves and fairies have pointed ears. More recently I have noticed a shift particularly in anime and rpgs from the smaller leaf-shaped ears of Victorian art and Tolkien to excessively exaggerated, elongated ears that stretch above or beyond the head and are more reminiscent of donkey ears in shape.

How does this all result in a modern view of elves and fairies with pointed ears? We seem to see a pattern where satyrs were, at least in part, the basis for later depictions of demons and then in turn demons influenced the perception in artwork of what fairies looked like, with the idea that fairies were a kind of fallen angel. Although in folklore we don't find many descriptions of fairies' ears and particularly not of their ears being pointed, we begin in the Victorian period to see them shown this way by most artists. These pointed ears, along with some other animalistic features, become the tell-tale signs of a being's Otherworldly nature, often in art combined with wings*. Pointed ears became a quick way to signal to a viewer that the subject of a piece wasn't human even if they seemed so in all other ways, or in other cases to emphasize their inhuman nature.

For whatever its worth, I personally haven't seen many Otherworldly beings that do have pointed ears. Your experiences may vary.

'La Belle Dame sans Merci' Waterhouse, public domain

^I'm focusing specifically here on Western culture and European folklore because I am not well versed enough in other areas of folklore to speak to the ear-shapes of fairies throughout the world. Although that would be an interesting topic to discuss the research involved is beyond the scope of this blog at this time. I would tentatively suggest based on what I know of specifically Japanese and Chinese folklore as well as Native American folklore that it's likely most fairies have round ears as when in a human-like form they are generally described as being able to pass as human or otherwise looking human, however I cannot say so with certainty without a great deal more research.
*for example, Isaiah 34:14: "The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest." - KJV Bible
*the wings come from the theater and the need to signal to audiences that an actor was playing a fairy, although I suspect this too is rooted in the later connection of fairies to demons.
*in fairness he did seem to later pull back from this description and its an open ended debate as to whether his ultimate intention was for his elves to have pointed ears or not.

Bovey, A., (2006) Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts
Acland, A., (2017) Tam Lin Balladry
Rodriguez, A., (2017) Old Testament Demonology
KJV (2017) Official King James Bible online
Jackson, W., (2017) What Are the Unicorns and Satyrs in the Bible?
Dunkerson, C., (2017) Do the Elves in tolkien's Stories Have Pointed Ears?
Yeats, W., (1902) Celtic Twilight
Wright, A., (2009) Puck Through the Ages
Mikl, A., (2004) Fairy Paintings in 19th Century Art and Late 20th Century Art: A Comparative Study
Wimberly, L., (1965) Folklore in the English & Scottish Ballads
Atsma, A., (2017) Satyroi