- Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion by Dennis Gaffin
Toward the end of his introduction to Running with the Fairies, Dennis Gaffin lays out his intentions for the book: to “elevate fairyology to a respected branch of the anthropology of religion and of religious studies”; to encourage other scholars to study “spirits and god-like beings in European and American religion and spirituality”; to present a model of “participatory anthropology”; to show that “some of the features of fairy mystical experience,” which might be categorized as phenomena belonging to “indigenous ‘others,’” are actually part of Western experience; to “explore the relationship between the anthropology of religion and the transpersonal psychology of religion”; and to interrogate the “relationships between belief and knowledge in discourse on religiosity, spirituality, and mysticism” (22–23). An assessment of how the author fairs in realizing some of these goals—establishing “fairyology” within [End Page 160] the study of religion and situating experiences with fairies within a broader cultural context—offers useful insight into the book as a whole.
Is Fairy Faith, as Gaffin describes it, a legitimate subject for scholars of religion? Certainly, anyone interested in new and emerging forms of spirituality might find something of interest in the author’s own experiences with “fairy energy” (33) and the accounts of his informants. But one of the most striking features of this quest for legitimacy is Gaffin’s effort to distinguish his Fairy Faith from New Age movements and belief systems. There is an implied disdain for people who, for example, might consult Healing with the Angels Oracle Cards, but the fairies Gaffin describes have a great deal in common with spirit guides, power animals, and—yes—guardian angels as they are envisioned and experienced by contemporary seekers. He is dismissive of writers who conflate fairies with aliens and poltergeists, but his own description of “mystical Fairy Faith” could apply to innumerable modern belief systems: “The mystical Fairy Faith, in its mild-mannered ways, provides an avenue for both psycho-spiritual development and a unique, increased attachment to God and Nature” (24). This sentence works just as well if we replace the phrase “mystical Fairy Faith” with “goddess spirituality” or “shamanistic practice.”
The offhand denigration of New Age beliefs is just one element of Gaffin’s strategy for establishing Fairy Faith as a “legitimate” set of beliefs. The author also strives to situate his own experiences and those of his informants within the context of world religion and Western mystical tradition, and he aligns himself with other writers he identifies as “fairyminded” believers, such as William Butler Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz (91). To note similarities between fairies and such entities as nymphs and djinni is unremarkable—in fact, Gaffin might have added depth and nuance to his presentation if he had read the opening chapters of Diane Purkiss’s At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things (2001) (a book not listed in the bibliography). Instead, the author turns to Paracelsus: Gaffin’s “quintessential” fairy is an “elemental” of the air, whereas “earth fairies include elves and leprechauns whose energy is heavier than the lighter, airy sylph fairies” (97).
At this point the student of traditional fairy lore is confounded. For Gaffin and his informants, fairies are ethereal entities best understood as “messengers, representatives, embodiments, partial manifestations, or aspects of God, the Creator, or the Source” (25). Gaffin’s fairies occupy a space in between the human and the divine, but their liminal nature is one of the only features these fairies share with their folkloric counterparts. Gaffin acknowledges this in passing references to how fairies have been understood in the past, but his engagement with the rich history of fairy belief is superficial and unpersuasive—to the extent that informed readers who come to this book hoping for a [End Page 161] sophisticated introduction to contemporary Fairy Faith will likely lose all confidence in the author. An example: While...