Faerie Law

In this post, I compare several concepts of Australian Aboriginal cosmology to specific topics in western spiritual practice, focusing in particular on faerie queens and related beings. In making this comparison, I am not claiming in any way that westerners should start aping Australian practices. I would argue instead that we can glimpse western practices now lost, forgotten, or broken by holding up several threads from European faerie lore to compare them with those of cultures which have persisted despite the British Empire’s depredations and which remember Ice Ages.

I would also argue that “recovering” these western practices is likely more the prospect of reconstituting and renegotiating them. These processes cannot succeed through aping Australian practices as the practices in all cases emerge out of human and more-than-human cooperation in specific localities and geographies, which are themselves amongst the more-than-human agencies involved.

I also have to say that there’s no way I can do justice to the Australian Aboriginal concepts I will be pointing to, let alone to the cultures and their complexity. I invoke these concepts primarily to defamiliarize many ideas that have gone unexamined in the ways I want to consider them here, and in many cases, I will choose to rely on the Australian terms (or at least their English language equivalents).

Finally, this post builds on material presented by Gordon White at Rune Soup for the Magical Geography and Spirits of Place Premium Member Course, and I am accordingly indebted to him for helping me see faerie queens (and more) in what feels like a radically more real way.

Dreaming, Law, Ceremony, Country

From September 2017 to February 2018, the National Museum of Australia curated an exhibition titled Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which “took visitors on a journey across the Australian desert in an Aboriginal-led exhibition about the epic Seven Sisters Dreaming.” In the exhibition catalogue, writer Kim Mahood writes that

Throughout the Central and Western deserts [of Australia, the tale of the Seven Sisters includes] flight and pursuit, as the sisters flee the unwanted attentions of a sorcerer who pursues them relentlessly…The violence of his obsession thwarts his attempts to approach the women ‘proper way’, and manifests as a landscape that seethes and ripples with sexual desire, rendered unstable by a force that is both a primal sex organ and a relative of the Ancestral snake that lives in waterholes and creeks—dangerous, unpredictable, everywhere.

The Jukurrpa, or Dreaming, is an active continuous time, an animating presence in the land, reactivated whenever country is traversed by its keepers, or song or ceremony performed. The Jukurrpa stories are the connective threads that weave the landscape into a tapestry of places and events, committing knowledge to memory by embedding each component of the story in a particular place, and recording it in song. The natural features of the landscape are the raw materials of narrative.[1]

The Seven Sisters are associated with the asterism known as the Pleiades in the west, and the Aboriginal songline of the Seven Sisters earths that celestial narrative into the landscape. Indeed, the myth of the Seven Sisters is always ongoing, re-enacted as their songs and ceremonies are performed by living Aboriginal peoples.

The Dreaming is often seen as “the creative period from the time immemorial” during which “Aboriginal ancestors travelled the country.” These Ancestors

established the code of life which today is called The Dreaming or The Law…passed on for countless generations of people through the remembrance and celebration of the sites which were the scenes of ancestral exploits. Song, dance, body, rock and sand painting, special languages and the oral explanations of the myths encoded in these essentially religious art forms have been the media of The Law to the present day…Through The Dreaming the law is prescribed for the land and its inhabitants.[2]

Ceremony can be understood in terms of the rituals that can activate The Dreaming in a place and/or time, and the “Ancestral Spirit Beings [like the Seven Sisters] had themselves performed ceremonies on their travels and left songs, dances and other rites to be followed to ensure the continued existence of the world and all its life forms.” Furthermore, performance of ceremony linked one directly with The Dreaming and those Ancestors, and “re-enacting the creative deeds of the Ancestor Spirit Beings” allowed participants to enter “into the very being of those ancestors.” In performing the same ceremonies, one enters a mutual relationship with the Ancestors and The Dreaming, and so “‘re-creates’ the world.”[3]

For these reasons, the continued vital status of “country” requires inhabitants to continue re-enacting these ceremonies—and thus re-activating Law and The Dreaming—in order to regenerate country. In this sense, human participants co-create a living, enchanted world. If one fails to do so, or if the ceremony is lost or broken, then presumably one winds up with, well, broken country.

Faerie Queens of Faerie Countries

I’ve long had an interest in faerie queens, not counting my own experiences with them (or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, or Shakespeare’s), but as I was reading through Sorita d’Este and David Rankine’s The Faerie Queens: A Collection of Essays Exploring the Myths, Magic & Mythology of the Faerie Queens, I began comparing much of what I was reading with that unbroken, persisting through empire, Aboriginal perspective. I already knew much of the information about faerie queens, but in re-reading, I wound up reading with newer eyes.

In noting the persistence of several classical and pre-Christian goddesses and spirits as faerie queens, d’Este and Rankine argue that

The old gods and goddesses do not disappear, rather they assume forms accessible within the dominant religion of the time, or are ‘assimilated’ into contemporary folklore.  So it is that many of the old gods became viewed as saints, whereas others defined their own interaction with humans by remaining in the liminal wilderness places – like the faerie queens.  To our ancestors, the inherent power of nature and her denizens was an accepted part of life, particularly in forests, on mountains and by water sources, favourite places of the faerie queens.[4]

I will disagree with their assessment on the continuance of these beings as saints—I rather think that those new saints also chose how to define “their own interaction with humans”—but I want to point to what is in many ways a pagan, neo-pagan, or polytheist truism: many of the pre-Christian (and Christian, even) spirits exist as or began as spirits of place, in the “forests…mountains and…water sources” of western Europe.

They point to how the herbal and medicinal practices of medieval and early modern Europe often involved addressing spiritual agencies as vectors for disease transmission or onset, including such things as “’elf-shot’ and ‘elf diseases’.” D’Este and Rankine go on to suggest that

Where there are elves or faeries, so too we might expect to find their queens, and it can thus be suggested that the faerie queens were already present well before the Middle Ages…The worship of some of the ancient goddesses like Diana did not disappear under the onslaught of the Christian church in its early growth pangs through the Dark Ages.  This period seems to be the one where the goddesses assumed the role of faerie queens, when the elves, wights and nature spirits of the Celts, Saxons, Norse and other cultures became conflated with the dryads, fauns and nymphs of the Greco-Roman world…By the Renaissance the evolution of the faerie from the ancient world was an accepted idea, proliferating through art, architecture and poetry, and also found in the writings of such major figures as Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene) and William Shakespeare (various works).  In his translation of The Aeneid (1573), the English lawyer and author Thomas Phaer (1510-1560) emphasised the popular opinion of the link between the dryads and nymphs of the classical world, and the faerie queens of the Renaissance: “The woods (quoth he) sometime both fauns and nymphs, and gods of ground, And Fairy-queen did keep, and under them a nation rough.”[5]

Faerie queens have apparently long been linked with dryads, nymphs, and spirits of place, and I can’t help but also think of the queens as akin to the “spirit masters” described by the Runa in Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think, who in the spirit world of the forest (and the dreams of the Runa) appear as humans (or at least human-like) while the wild animals of the waking world and the wild forest seem as domesticated versions of the animals and as a well-tended garden.

Just as the spirit/dreaming world of the Runa and their forest is the domain of the spirit masters and other spirit beings, including the dead, and just as the Aboriginal peoples co-create country with the ancestral spirits in The Dreaming, so too does something similar seem to have been happening in pre-modern Europe. However, I think it’s tempting to view “dryads, nymphs, and spirits of place” as somehow different from the beings involved with the Runa and Aborigines.

I suspect part of the problem is that Western European culture very much associates proper names with our faerie queens, and those names take on very singular import in our imaginations: Titania, Mab, Micob, Sibylla, Kalé (who was also Saint Kalé for quite a while, too), Diana, Hekate, and so on. I wonder how much people were seeing spirits of place, from within human perspectives, as expressions of archetypal goddesses. I think we should consider how the names and titles of goddesses are probably what’s more often witnessed. Were our ancestors (and us) witnessing archetypal eruptions—whether as fractal images or instantiations of these archetypes or as individual members of “choruses” of, for example, “beauty” (such as Callisto, Artemis Kalliste, Kalé)? At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the Seven Sisters remain the same Seven Sisters along their songline, though their names and details and ceremony can vary from region to region in Australia. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that just because a faerie queen (or similar figures, such as, I would argue, Black Madonnas and several saints) has a famous name amongst humans, there’s nothing necessarily saying that “Hekate” in one region is some overarching Hekate, except in how she participates in some larger Hekatean chorus.

In this regard, I can’t help but consider Marcus Matawhero Lloyd’s descriptions of encountering guardian spirits of place on his hikoi for water in New Zealand and how the spirits could seemingly reach into his mind to find images or other forms with which to clothe themselves as they made themselves known to him. To what degree have powerful spirits of place—faerie queens, in other words—reached into the minds of humans to find names and forms that the humans would respect, fear, or even adore? D’Este and Rankine observe that “As perceptions changed, influenced by literature and social changes, so inevitably perceptions changed and other influences crept in” as experiencers encountered faerie queens and their entourages.[6] That is, our experience of faerie queens is always perspectival and constrained by whatever images and concepts we have access to.

Faerie Law and Ceremony

I would argue that the Aboriginal concept of The Law exists—or existed—in Western European forms at some point in the past. Or, more accurately, such Law still exists, but once upon a time, Western European peoples were far more familiar with it. We retain its fragments in our grimoires, the PGM, in the scraps of cunning and magical lore that have passed down, and, to borrow from Sarah Anne Lawless, in faerie tales.

For example, the herbal lore of healing or preventing elf-related illnesses reflects an understanding of the negotiation of the human and more-than-human worlds in Western Europe. Alas, this wisdom and tradition is now mostly locked in ancient manuscripts, such as Leech Book of Bald (900-950 CE) and the Lacnunga (C10th-11th CE).[7] I would argue that such lore include memories of Western European Law and ceremony for living with (and surviving) our faerie neighbors.

Meanwhile, the association of faerie queens with lands of the dead—as ruling the country of the dead, with many of the local dead being encountered in faerie environs—points to a deeper and often ill-considered relationship between the waking, mortal human experience of our geography and what the faerie queens are ruling just out of human sight.

Indeed, the faerie queens exert authority and rulership over country, both that explicitly faerie country and the human perception of it—both of which are different perceptions of the same country/territory. Humans who can use song and ceremony[8] to activate The Law and The Dreaming—at least, a Western European instantiation of it—will likely fare better than those who fail to do so.

But, the connection can go deeper. D’Este and Rankin point briefly to Holda: “The Germanic faerie queen/goddess Holda was said to keep the souls of newborn children and those who died unnamed in a lake.”[9] I cannot but help think of Timothy Knab’s A War of Witches, describing native Mexican experiences of their underworld and how persons who die in particular locales join the court of the spirits who rule those locales, so that dying in a river puts one under the dominion and in the domain of the lord of rivers or of a specific river. In Holda’s case, something very similar appears to have been in play with her myths, and likely similar situations exist with other beings in Western Europe.

The queens could also sponsor witch cults and covens, and in some locales, like Scotland, faerie queens were more popular witch patrons than the Devil. D’Este and Rankine point to two examples in addressing this aspect of the lore, for faerie queens were often

the power to whom the witches gave service and acknowledgement.  So, e.g. “In Rye in 1607 Susan Swapper (accused of witchcraft) confessed that she had met the Queen of the Fairies and had been told that if she knelt to her the Queen would give her ‘a living’ (Gregory 1991, 36).” The well known Scottish witch, Isobell Gowdie, even claimed to have gone into a faerie mound for her meeting with the esteemed Faerie Queen, as Latham recounts (1930): “When Isobell Gowdie ‘went in to the Downie-hillis’ where she met the Queen of Fairies, ‘the hill opened, and we cam to an fair and lairge braw rowme, in the day tym.’”[10]

What I’m seeing in these accounts is of witches discovering and enacting sufficient ceremony while living on country in order to form relationships with the spirit master—or faerie queen—of that country.

Another thread I want to pull on here in terms of Law is of the faerie queens as sources of sovereignty. D’Este and Rankine enumerate several examples, from Irish faerie goddesses like the Morrigan to faerie brides like Melusine and several of the royal women from Arthuriana. Of course, most of these faerie (sacred) marriages seem to turn out poorly:

The love between mortals and faeries seems to be forever doomed to end in tragedy, as the interaction between the two commonly involving a taboo which must not be transgressed.  As a rule, such interspecies romances do not end well, even though they may contain periods of happiness.  Both Melusine and her mother Pressine were fated to have doomed romances, with taboos which were broken by their husbands.  In the case of Pressine it was not to be disturbed when she was resting in bed, and for Melusine not to be seen on a Saturday when she transformed into her half-serpent form.  Melusine’s husband Raymondin lost his queen by breaking her taboo, and ended his days as a hermit living in a cave, away from everything and everyone he had loved.  In contrast, for Thomas the Rhymer, who honoured the taboo of not speaking whilst in Elphame, he was rewarded with the blessing (or some might say curse) of being only able to tell the truth, and the gift of prophecy.[11]

Just as broken ceremony produces broken activation of The Dreaming and therefore broken country, so too do kings violating their faerie brides’ taboos (or Law or ceremony) break their lives and their kingdoms. In addressing how one can avoid running afoul of faerie, d’Este and Rankine seem to err on the side of the human perspective of the relationship:

Only when a mortal gives up everything does he seem to find happiness in the faerie realm with her faerie queen lover, as with the Cornish faerie queen Morveren and her lovers, perhaps reminding us of the origin of the word faerie being in the Latin ‘Fata’ (Fate).  To embrace the love of the faerie queen is to honour taboos and surrender to fate, and accept the transformations she brings.  This power across realms is a potent reminder of their enduring sovereignty over the liminal places…[12]

I suspect that the faerie queens’ and general faerie association with “Fate” is a Western European memory of Law. If one wants to do well by a faerie queen, one needs to “give up everything,” or, I would argue, live on country and live according to Law, with proper ceremony, not trying to force country and faerie queens to conform to human, archonic, town  (rather than country) forms. Such forms break ceremony and thus the geas, taboos, or whatever else that leads the faerie queen to rescind her favor. The capriciousness of faerie may be less innate them being capricious than our own lack of proper ceremony and knowledge of Law.

When ceremony is done right, Law is invoked, and power can result. These “sovereignty goddesses” who are faerie queens bestow sovereignty upon kings who popularly “marry the land,” all “King Arthur Style.”

If you want a different, non-Aboriginal example of Law and ceremony done well, then I would point to Egypt. For example, as Jeremy Naydler examines the Sed festivals, he points to how Pepi II “is…shown being suckled by goddesses…He [later] stands before the gods of the land.”[13] The Pyramid Texts go on to describe ceremonialized union with a goddess of place:

Similarly, utterances 220 and 221 [of the Pyramid Texts] describe a ritual involving the crown of Lower Egypt, in which the crown is removed from its shrine and addressed as a goddess by the officiating priest and then by the king. The king says to the crown:
Ho crown, great of magic!
Ho fiery serpent!
Grant that the dread of me be like the dread of you;
Grant that the fear of me be like the fear of you;
Grant that the acclaim of me be like the acclaim of you;
Grant that the love of me be like the love of you.
Set my ‘aba scepter at the head of the living,
Set my sekhem scepter at the head of the spirits,
And grant that my sword prevail over my foes![14]

Naydler argues that the Sed festival is a recurring ceremony that re-enacts the king’s spiritual re-birth and re-coronation in order to, I argue, activate Law and Dreaming to make Egypt’s country thrive and prosper. Like the Aboriginal peoples walking a songline and joining with their Ancestors in re-enacting the stories of the creation of the world, so does the pharaoh walk the same paths and perform the same deeds as the pharaohs of Egypt’s First Time. And the Sed festival very explicitly figures a ceremony with a female spirit of place—embodied in the crown of Lower Egypt.

Tudor Queens

There’s a definite imperial thread amongst some faerie queens. Faerie kings are a thing, but the queens seem to be the bestowers of sovereignty. Elizabeth I and company worked to try to make her a living, visible faerie queen. I’ve pointed to the British mythology and more that she invoked in her coronation procession, and Mary didn’t do that, nor did Henry VII, Henry VIII, or Edward VI. Their coronation processions tended to involve aristocrats and clergy riding about in a precisely delineated order of rank, though Mary’s did include the odd subject dressed as an angel sounding a trumpet at her approach.

It looks like the Henries typically included the Welsh Red Dragon in processional imagery, which they adopted as their own. I can also find very interesting processions for queens, specifically Queen Elizabeth (Lady Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s consort) and Anne Boleyn. They had riverborne processions, on the snaking Thames, which already has associations with Isis (and thus associations with throne), and both processions featured fire-breathing dragons (presumably the Welsh Red Dragon), with the queens dressed in white and represented virginally. Anne Boleyn ceremonially mastered the fire-breathing dragon and the fire-breathing “monsters” accompanying it that were included in her river-born procession.

I smell centuries-old (Tudor) ceremony happening here.

English queens’ bodies have always been routes to kingly sovereignty. For example, Wace’s Roman de Brut emphasizes that Arthur and Guinevere “produced no heir nor could they have any children,” and “It was a great loss that he had no children.”[15] In Wace’s account, Modret not only usurps Arthur’s throne, but he also claims Guinevere. Georges Duby has argued that, from the ninth century onwards, queens had “the obligation of maternity…as mater regis, mother of the future king and of all his progeny to the end of time.”[16] In regards to the later romance tradition, Peggy McCracken argues “the queen’s conception of an illegitimate child threatens the proper succession of the throne…[since the] queen’s child is born into the royal family, whether or not her husband is the father.”[17] Beyond the literary and mythical, during Mary’s and Elizabeth’s reigns, there were legal arguments (though contentious) that, were a man—any man—to sire a male heir on a queen (regnant or consort), then he might as well be king:

The custom that confirmed the husband of a noble heiress in his possession of her dignity upon the birth of a child was applied to the crown in the mid-1550s, in Mary I’s reign.  In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, then, marriage promised a solution to the problem posed by female rule. It offered a means by which Protestant rectitude and Tudor royal blood could be conjoined (through the marriage of either queen) and a king constituted, ambiguously through the marriage itself or through issue.[18]

Such a man has done that kingly job of producing an heir, and at that point, the queen’s body becomes the throne upon which the king-to-be mounts.

Given that Britain’s faerie queens are probably still on Thames country, I have to wonder if Henry VII’s and son’s queenly processions were attempted mythical synchs—ceremony—to link that Thames-as-Isis-as-Throne, or to link a British faerie queen, with the queens consort. Elizabeth I’s coronation becomes more interesting at this point to me. Just as her mother ritually demonstrated mastery, command over the Red Dragon, Elizabeth’s procession sees the giants of British country recognize her power and authority and legitimacy even as the broader campaign of making her a visible, living Faerie Queene goes on for decades. I wonder how much they may have fashioned a faerie queen, or were preparing, consciously or not, for a British Empire Faerie Queene in death, her imperial ambitions carried into the grave, her descendants and heirs aligned with British ceremony.

Featured Image: Briton Riviere, Una and the Lion

[1] Kim Mahood, “The Seething Landscape,” in Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, edited by Margo Neale (Canberra, A.C.T.: National Museum of Australia Press, 2017), 32. Emphases mine.

[2] Colin Bourke and Helen Cox, “Two Laws: One Land,” in Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies, edited by Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke, and Bill Edwards, 2nd edition (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006), 56-7.

[3] Bill Edwards, “Living the Dreaming,” in Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies, edited by Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke, and Bill Edwards, 2nd edition (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006), 56-7.

[4] Sorita d’Este and David Rankine, “To See a Garlanded Lady: Or ‘How to Recognize a Faerie Queen When You Meet Her…’,” in The Faerie Queens: A Collection of Essays Exploring the Myths, Magic, and Mythology of the Faerie Queens, edited by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine, Kindle edition (Avalonia: London, 2013), locations 458-63.

[5] D’Este and Rankine, locations 474-89.

[6] D’Este and Rankine, location 648.

[7] D’Este and Rankine mention these books specifically (locations 466-7).

[8] Consider the faerie connection to music and art, in general, but also consider how trivial the difference between spoken rituals and “song” can be.

[9] D’Este and Rankine, locations 532-3.

[10] D’Este and Rankine, locations 614-24.

[11] D’Este and Rankine, locations 653-60.

[12] D’Este and Rankine, locations 663-6. The etymology of faerie is a bit more complicated than they present here, for, per the OED, that fate association was transformed with the -erie suffix into a noun-form that pointed to enchantment and having magical powers. Of course, the power they wielded was presumably over fate.

[13] Jeremy Naydler, Shamanic Wisdom in the Pyramid Texts: The Mystical Tradition of Ancient Egypt (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005), 115. Emphases mine.

[14] Naydler, 119-20.

[15] Wace, Roman de Brut:  A History of the British, translated and edited by Judith Weiss, revised edition (Devon:  University of Exeter Press, 2006), 243, 335.

[16] Georges Duby, “Women and Power,” in Cultures of Power:  Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth-Century Europe, edited by Thomas N Bisson (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 71.

[17] Peggy McCracken, The Romance of Adultery:  Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 18.

[18] Anne McLaren, “The Quest for a King:  Gender, Marriage, and Succession in Elizabethan England,” Journal of British Studies 41.3 (Jul 2002): 267-8.

3 thoughts on “Faerie Law

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