Monday, October 27, 2014

Christianity and Magic #3: Faerie

So, I’ve talked about maleficium and natural magic, but there’s a third form of ancient magic that needs to be addressed. What on earth should Christians do with fairies and fairy magic?  As strange as it sounds fairies have been a part of western culture just as long as magic has. They’re odd creatures really. They were definitely not pagan gods, they were never worshipped, but they were also something different than an animal. Belief in the fairies, the little people, the fair folk, stemmed from a radically different view of the earth and of space. We already talked last time about how the main view of the earth until the Enlightenment held that it had some form of life of its own, but there was also a belief that it held its own share of spiritual creatures.
This is a really weird view, and it’s difficult for the modern mind to grasp, but the ancients and the Medievals didn’t believe in space. Aristotle taught in his Physics that nature abhorred a vacuum, that there was always something everywhere. Now, you translate this to a European Christo-pagan setting fairies start to fill up some spaces quite nicely.  ‘Cause, see, there was also this guy named Plato (channeled through a man named Plotinus, introduced through a Christian lens mainly through St. Augustine) who held the belief in something called a Great Chain of Being. When this idea was adapted by early Christians the belief held that between God and man there are a whole bunch of other beings (or things that have being), and below man there are more things that have being. A super simplified image of this concept would look like this: 
God >> Angels >> Man >> Animals >> Plants >> Rocks. Or like this:

Things have more being the more spiritual they are, and less being the more material they are. So, you combine the two ideas, Great Chain of Being and Nature hates a vacuum, and you start to get a picture of a world where things like fairies can exist.

The example chain that I gave you would have been considered ridiculously simplistic. For example, there are actually different classes of angels, each created for a different purpose, all forming a sort of intermediary chain between man and God. The spiritual world was teeming with life, just like the material world was. So, then you have man in this Chain, filling up spiritual and physical space. We're these strange hybrid creatures in this cosmos teeming with this great diversity of being that leads all the way up to God – ultimate Being. It’s a bizarre idea, there were even theologians who asserted that there needed to be a specific number of human converts to Christianity before this world could come to an end – both to fill the perfect number of humans that God desired to fill heaven, and to replace the fallen angels. Read Anselm’s Cur Deus Hommo, it’s weird. But this doesn’t explain fairies very much yet.

Ok, so, given this kind of a world, where every inch of the spiritual and physical universe is filled with something, faerie was considered part of that something. Faerie wasn’t a creature, it was a place that existed on earth, but also not on earth, and its creatures were both otherworldly and tied to this planet. Faerie isn’t really something you can define with much accuracy, and neither are faeries, but I can make some sweeping generalizations about what all of this was believed to be. Faerie was a place where the fairies lived and it was a place that human beings were not supposed to go to. It was not a bad place, or an evil place, it was just a place that human beings did not belong. Faeries themselves were not evil creatures, they were not demons, rather they were more like sentient expressions of nature. They had their own magic, their own lives, and their own rules that they were bound by. They weren’t good either. Just like you didn’t actually want to go to faerie, you didn’t want to meet one of its inhabitants. Faeries are not sweet little things with butterfly wings like you see in all the Victorian paintings, 
This is sweet... it's also not a traditional fairy.
they were unpredictable creatures who ruined crops, stole children, made travelers lose their way, killed people and dyed their hats in the blood, and so on. Faerie magic was a magic of illusion, of trickery, of harm sometimes, but also potentially of great help. If a faerie took a liking to you it could make sure your crops grew, or your house was protected, or that you recovered from an illness. Faerie magic was a lot like natural magic. The magic of herbs resided in the herbs, and the magic of faeries resided in the creatures themselves. They too were creatures of God, they lived along side man, but had nothing to do with his spiritual destiny.
Things like this were Faeries, and they didn't like you

What should we make of these things? Honestly, I’m not sure. On the one hand some authorities in the church considered them to be folk superstitions, and believed that any alleged interactions people had with them were probably with demons. On the other hand there were authorities in the church who believed they could exist. Scientifically speaking, of course, there’s no evidence that these things exist, there’s also a lot of evidence that Aristotle was wrong. Nature does not abhor a vacuum, there are empty spaces. Faeries aren’t necessary to fill the gaps. But, I see no reason for Christians to adopt anything other than a traditional attitude toward the mention of faeries. People weren’t seeking these things out; in fact most fairy lore is teaching people how to avoid these things or how to make them leave you alone. Maybe fairies are real (while science hasn’t proven their existence, it certainly hasn’t disproven it either), or maybe they are just demons preying on the superstitious, but there certainly has never been a traditional desire to seek them out, and I see no reason to change.

However, I believe there’s a difference between Faerie as a dubious reality and humanity’s interaction with the fairy tale. In my next post I’ll argue that not only are fairy tales not spiritually dangerous, but they're actually spiritually and morally edifying! Don’t throw your Grimm Brothers and Disney films out just yet J

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