FANTAST IN FOCUS: DANIEL HARMS
“They are either not mortal, or their date of life is indeterminately long; they are of a nature superior to man, and speak with contempt of human follies. By night they revel beneath the light of the moon and stars…”
-from The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries by Thomas Keightley (1850).
Like a capricious princeling, the literary fairy is typically puckish and vindictive; reigning over or guarding ill-defined territories and kingdoms. Magical power is his birthright, an inborn, phantom technology that enables him to (like a Harlequin) transmogrify scenery or (like the deus ex machina) pluck characters out of difficult situations. His inconstancy makes him an unreliable ally but, if he’s down for the job, he can be a wellspring of unadulterated puissance.
In the Early Modern era, a peculiar tradition arose which sought to tap into this “fay-power”. A few magicians armed with special grimoires began to focus their ceremonies exclusively on fairies, eschewing the angels and demons of the Goetia and Kabbalah. Daniel Harms, a New York-based librarian and Cthuliana mythographer, has been studying and cataloguing this abstruse form of magic for several years. Along with Joseph Peterson, he’s playing a central role in the recovery of fairy rituals, scouring the Bodleian, British, and Folger Shakespeare libraries for lost manuscripts. We spoke to Dan to learn more about his research.
The Custodian: When and why did you start researching fairy magic?
Daniel Harms: I’d been studying works of ritual magic for years, especially printed works thereof. When I turned to the manuscripts, I soon realised that the texts edited by [Samuel Lidell MacGregor] Mathers, [Aleister] Crowley, and [Arthur Edward] Waite were only part of a broad and incredible corpus. In particular, I was intrigued by a manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library, most notable for its frequent conjurings of fairies and its curious illustrations. It’s probably one of the most stunning works on magic ever written, and I was privileged to work on it with James Clark and Joe Peterson to create The Book of Oberon.
This has led to a broader survey of fairies in the manuscripts and printed works of ritual magic. I should add that this study is in its early stages, so I have a great deal still to learn.
C: What was the Elizabethan view on fairies and their power/habitation?
D: I don’t think we can say there was a particular view on fairies. This was a period where the belief in fairies seemed to experience a fluorescence, while at the same time undergoing considerable scrutiny. Reginald Scot argued that fairies were creations of Catholic nurses to scare children, while [King] James I saw them as delusions of the devil. Even among believers, there was considerable fluctuation in how they conceived of these beings. You had a culture which shared both saccharine views of tiny, harmless fairies, and rituals in which fairy kings and queens appear in majesty.
The trouble is, no one really sat down to systematically consider fairies until a century later, when the Reverend [Robert] Kirk composed The Secret Commonwealth, and it’s uncertain how much of the earlier fairy lore made it into his work. People found fairies to be humorous, phantasmal, demonic, or dangerous, with each one of these perspectives creating an aversion to further investigation. Even Kirk really seems to be more intent on writing about second sight than the fairies.
But I don’t want to be accused of leaving your question unanswered! Fairies had the power to bring wealth and poverty, fortune and misfortune. They could smite people or bring them good luck. Their habitation was varied – you could find them in wildernesses or at old burial mounds, but some were creatures of hearth and home. What they seemed to shun were places with large numbers of people – but even that was not an absolute.
C: Generally, who were the practitioners of fairy magic and what were their sources?
D: I’d say you have two different categories of practitioners about whom we can discuss. The first were the local wise folk, many of whom claimed to have gained their power and knowledge through encounters with fairies. For such people, the initial encounter with these beings occurred without being sought, with the fairy offering magical ability in return for a price. The practitioner would often work within a usual repertoire of healing, locating stolen goods, and breaking witchcraft. The most famous example of such a “fairy doctor”, to appropriate an Irish term, is Mary Parrish, who seems to have conducted a loving relationship with the MP Goodwin Wharton. We find other examples in the pamphlets and trial records of the era – John Walsh, Susan Swapper or Swaffer, Anne Jeffries, and others.
The second category were the learned magicians, who utilised written texts in mixtures of English and Latin in order to call up these spirits. They were educated, and thus likely male for the most part, but we know relatively little about them as a group. Their texts survive, usually consisting of rituals to call fairies mixed with lists of demons and charms. These individuals sought out fairies in order to obtain love, knowledge, treasure, or invisibility. Most of these books are filled with procedures culled from other manuscript and printed sources. We have very few accounts of the results of any magical experiments, save for those of John Dee and Gilbert Humphrey, who didn’t have much to do with fairies..
Most of the evidence for our first group comes from trial records, and the manuals serve as our proof for the second group. This does raise the possibility that we might have overlap between the two in some cases. For example, Mary Parrish once employed a grimoire in her work before she lost it.
C: How did the rituals differ from other forms of grimoire magic?
D: I’m writing a book chapter about this right now, so I don’t want to give too much away. What I can talk about is what I call the “table ritual”, a procedure that appears in pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy. (To give credit where it’s due, Claude Lecouteux describes a similar rite as “the meal of the fairies”, but he never gets into the ritual magic material for his analysis.)
In brief, the magician goes into an isolated place, where he sets up a table, with tablecloth, knives, goblets, bread, and water. The exact items differ, but the ritual follows the same pattern. He is then joined by three women, who sit at the table and eat. Sometimes the magician sits with them, drawing a magical circle in the ground around his end of the table. Then they provide the magician with what he desires – answers, a ring of invisibility, or even sex.
We have a number of variants, with one prominent one being the inclusion of three white-handled knives. Given that most people would have carried their dagger for eating with them, this indicates that the people for whom the table is set are high status. The same motif of three white-handled knives left on a table is also present in poetry from centuries before, so we may be looking at a custom that extends far beyond ritual magic texts.
This is very different from the attitude in other types of ritual magic, with their protective diagrams on the ground, the strict separation between the magician and the spirit, and the ritualized threats of punishment. And a similar rite carries over into later published grimoires. If people are interested in more details, I talk at length about this in The Faerie Queens anthology from Avalonia.
C: What are your thoughts on the spirit Oberon? He seems to share some characteristics with the Greco-Roman god, Pluto. In fact, in Merchant’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer calls Pluto the King of Faerie.
D: You also have Sir Orfeo, the Middle English poem that retells the story of Orpheus, but with the unnamed king of the fairies taking the place of Pluto. (And Pluto is one of the knight’s ancestors, just to complicate matters)…
I do believe there are similarities in the mythology, as both are beings connected with the underworld, riches, food taboos, and the like. The ritual texts, however, feature “Oberion” as a spirit who seems closer to the demonic than the fairy. Most of the procedures to summon him are much closer to the traditional infernal model, including a circle, long conjurations involving Christian themes, and so forth.
I’m not sure whether that is helpful or not regarding the Pluto connection! I do think that the world of popular belief in spirits from the period was much more nuanced and complex than the teachings of the theologians.
C: What are you working on now?
D: As it turns out, Llewellyn and I are just finishing up a contract for our next book, a manual of sorcery from the Bodleian Library, that includes rituals for demons, fairies, ghosts, and other creatures. It’s not as long as The Book of Oberon, but I think that should translate into a lower price as well. There are some exciting pieces in there that I believe your readers will appreciate.