Magical realms exist in every culture, places inhabited by otherworldly beings where space and time stands still. The prolific accounts of these worlds throughout history begs the question, do they exist and if so where are the entrances to these alternate dimensions or underworlds? Fans of the recent Netflix series 'Stranger Things' will relate to the concept of 'the upside down', a mirror of our own world but dark and inhabited by demons.
This great article from Mysterious Worlds discusses such places. It has always made me wonder why these mystical realms appear easier to get to than to get back from. And even if you do return from your brief visit to find that 7 years have passed in a matter of minutes, what guarantee is there that you've returned to the right dimension?
Writing in his recent work, Sky Shamans of Mongolia, Kevin Turner tells us that the three worlds or realms of the Mongolian Darkhad shaman don’t consist of a traditional upper, middle and lower world but are instead overlapping dimensional realities, more in line with a holographic outlook. These places are populated by deities, spirits and ancestors. In Irish lore it is the land of Tir na Nog where a race of supernatural beings is said to reside, although this otherworld adapts itself to incorporate the afterlife, the Summerland of Wicca, as well as shamanic realms according to other interpretations.
Often these dimensions are seen to be accessed across an ocean, leading many to associate Tir na Nog with the mythical island of Hy-Brazil, an island that was said to rise from the sea every seven years and which was populated by a race of advanced antediluvian beings.
However, the realm of fairy or the crypto-terrestrial is more often encountered through places considered sacred or having an alignment of some kind in relation to auspicious days in the yearly cycle, such as solstices, equinoxes and new moons. In many legends passed down from oral traditions the liminal moments at dusk, between sunset and moonrise, are when the ethereal forms of these beings are best seen.
Trapped in Magical Realms
Perhaps one of the most famous anecdotes relating to this is that of the Rev Robert Kirk who was a Scottish scholar and clergyman. His book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies was published in 1691 and collected many instances of encounters with these elemental creatures and what a person could do to either avoid or come in contact with them.
At this time the Inquisition was still in full force across Europe so Kirk’s interest in what some saw as Demonic entities put him at odds with many of his religious colleagues. Some, in fact, speculated that Kirk himself might be a changeling sent by the devil in order to corrupt the faith of his parishioners and to lead them back to ancient pagan ways. Kirk was also a seventh son which lent him an aura of the otherworldly, as this was a particular sign of association with second sight and affiliation with the fairy folk.
One summer evening, Kirk, while out walking, collapsed and died upon a fairy hill. Or so it seemed.
In the days following his funeral, a cousin of Kirk’s had a strange dream in which the reverend pleaded with him to rescue him from fairyland. Kirk told his cousin in the dream that he was not dead at all but was in a magical swoon caused by his supernatural captors.
Kirk had promised his cousin that he would be able to appear for just one moment at the baptism of his child and when this occurred his cousin was to throw a ceremonial knife over his apparition. This would have the effect of releasing Kirk from the fairies’ spell.
At the baptism it is said that when Reverend Kirk appeared his cousin was so shocked that he forgot the instructions about the knife and Kirk then vanished, doomed to live in fairyland for eternity.
Altered Time and Space
This concept of eternity and that time can run faster or slower in these realms has been part of fairy myth for thousands of years. The Japanese legend of Urashima Taro is a good example. In this story a fisherman visits the supernatural undersea kingdom of Ryugu-jo and discovers that the three days he spent there had been three hundred years in his homeland.
Ryugu-jo has some specific architectural symbolism relating to the earth’s cycle in that each side of the kingdom was said to be a different season. Perhaps we are seeing an association with the solstices and equinoxes once again, which in themselves have a history of being doorways for the legendary beings like the fairies and various elementals to appear through.
The elves and fairies of Scotland and Ireland, for example, would use certain magical doorways or stone circles in which to appear depending upon the time of the year. Each magical doorway was associated with a particular season.
There is a potential connection to the Heb Sed shamanic rituals of ancient Egypt in this context as each ceremonial area would be used once then a new structure would be constructed for the following festival.
The communication with ‘star gods,’ along with offerings in return for wisdom also has parallels to folkloric interactions with the Sidhe (Irish and Scottish fairy folk) or energetic forms of various cultures. Sometimes, a ritual site would have to be left for a time in order to allow its energy to replenish and so the gods could be reached again in further ceremonies.
Another interesting connection is how the Pharaoh would be considered dead but still living during this ritual; the priests would consider him outside of time and having travelled to the Duat, the immaterial realm of spirit.
The term ‘time outside of time’ is also one of the popular translations of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime. Specifically, this description is better understood as ‘eternal, uncreated’ and refers to a dimension where all mythical heroes and ancestors exist and have always existed. Although there are many regional differences, all of the connotations relate to an immaterial, timeless place outside of the physical world.
Indeed, there are mythical fairy-like mediators in Aboriginal lore called the Mimi who are said to have taught the first Aboriginal tribes many skills. The Mimi were said to be so thin that a strong wind might break them and they could be contacted by approaching sacred stones or mountains in the correct manner. These places were doorways to an immaterial dimension that existed outside of the human world.
Often the Mimi would play tricks on humans if they or their magic places were not respected. There was a type of shamanistic process for contacting the Mimi properly and this was usually carried out by ‘Men of High Degree’ who were the shaman of the aboriginal tribes. In his ground-breaking work, Aboriginal Men of High Degree, A.P. Elkin describes these men as “supernormal, usually super-sensory, and are derived from two sources: first, the cult-heroes of the craft-sky and totemic heroes, spirits and ghosts, who may be all the one; second, the long line and hierarchy or order of medicine men, which leads back to the same heroes of the dreamtime.”
However, the role of women in mediating with the Mimi was also extremely important. There were certain tasks and requests that could only be asked by a woman and where the context of ‘high degree’ was outranked. Writing in Wise Women of the Dreamtime Johanna Lambert explains, “That which is subtle, ambiguous, interconnected, intangible and beyond reason or logic emerges from the realm of the Universal Feminine and is the basis of what has been called “magic or “the occult”.
The Magic Arrow
The Mimi, like fairies and elementals in all other cultures, were unpredictable and could punish a human as often as rewarding them. They were thought to steal food, trip up unsuspecting travellers, and even shoot magic darts—which is a tantalising connection to many shamanistic practices.
The magical arrow is also associated with Abaris the Hyperborean, a figure said to have emerged from a mythical land “beyond the north wind”. Abaris was said to be able to commune with spirits, heal the sick and travel through the air on a magic arrow. Other connections to Apollo and Pythagoras hint at the shamanistic journeying technique of incubation, best recently described by Peter Kingsley in his work, In the Dark Places of Wisdom.
When we look past the particular cultural interpretations, which change depending upon religious systems and societal developments, what we find beneath the many different fairy and shamanistic encounters are strong hints of a universal otherworldly experience. And although we find many accounts of strange lands with the help of fairies and spirits, it’s worth remembering that sometimes it is also at their insistence!
By David Halpin
Kevin Turner. ‘Sky Shamans of Mongolia’. Published by North Atlantic Books (April 12, 2016) P.71.
Hayao Kawaii. ‘Dreams, Myths and Fairy Tales in Japan’. Published by Daimon Verlag (Jan. 1 1995). p. 107.
A.P. Elkin. ‘Aboriginal Men of High Degree: Initiation and Sorcery in the World's Oldest Tradition’. Published by Inner Traditions; Original ed. edition (Nov. 1 1993). p 38.
K. Langloh Parker/ By Johanna Lambert, ed. ‘Wise Women of the Dreamtime: Aboriginal Tales of the Ancestral Powers’ Published by Park Street Press; Original ed. edition (July 1 1993). P. 89.