What Are Fairies?
Welcome back to The Wonder of Childhood. In the April issue, I promised that I would do a bit of analysis on a fairy tale each month. But before we begin this, let’s explore the whole arena of “elementals” or what are commonly referred to as fairies. Are they real or “just a fantasy for children?”
Rudolf Steiner actually speaks of elementals – supersensible beings connected with the elements of the earth – quite a bit. Yes, he considers them “real.” Steiner also talks a lot about ancient human consciousness when the physical world of planet Earth was shadowy to the human mind, but its spiritual reality was very real. He calls this state of awareness “atavistic clairvoyance”. This was a primordial ability to perceive the spiritual world that faded over eons of time as humankind descended farther and farther into the physical plane and materialistic consciousness. Stories involving Nature Spirits go back in oral tradition as far back as can be remembered and exist in all cultures on earth. There are people who claim to still perceive them or at least sense their presence, although this is very rare in today’s world unless one follows a spiritual path such as Rudolf Steiner’s to develop new organs of spiritual perception. For Steiner, it was essential that people take up this work to develop our spiritual organs, or chakras in a conscious way. The time of ancient “natural” or atavistic clairvoyance has long past. To try to return to such a primordial state would be to try to ignore all that humanity has gained in conscious knowledge and understanding and would be truly dangerous to an individual’s mind and soul. Artificial means, such as drugs, hypnosis or other paths that seek to bypass or short circuit the conscious mind can lead to psychiatric and even physical disorders.
All this being said, one can easily examine for oneself the idea of the existence of a spiritual aspect of the natural world that is not perceived by our “normal” physical senses. Here, we will take the position that there is a spiritual reality to the Earth and Nature as the basis for a brief overview and description.
We usually talk about the Four Elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water. To these I would add a fifth – Spirit or Life. This fifth element is usually embodied in the idea of Mother Nature, a guiding principle of life on Planet Earth. Besides these four “earthly” elements there are the plant and animal kingdoms, also felt to be under the care of Mother Nature. There are countless stories of “flower fairies” – thought to be small beings intimately connected with the plant world either generally or specifically. There are stories of “gnomes” of the caretaker variety. Some help care for plants while others are said to care for animals in natural environments. There are “larger” beings such as Nixies or Naiads, spirits of bodies of water (wells, rivers, lakes) and Dryads, spirits of trees and forests. There are mischievous or “negative” elementals such as imps, brownies and trolls. There are great Devas – spirits of mountains, landscapes and weather. Every spot on Earth is thought to be alive and imbued with a spiritual element that is accessible to a developed human consciousness. Stepping into the world of the “fairy” or “folk” tale of any culture is to begin to explore and encounter this elemental world, at least through the Imagination.
It is fascinating to note that young children seem to respond to hearing about fairies without needing a lot of explanation. The young child goes through stages that recapitulate the consciousness of ancient times – dreamlike, fluid and even in some cases able to perceive spiritual beings such as fairies and angels directly. One should be careful not to interfere too much with these early stages. It can be very harmful to the child to be met with denial or accusations of lying or “making it up.” It can also be damaging to their natural development to try to artificially encourage this nascent ability – to try to get them to “show off” their clairvoyant or “psychic” abilities. Warm, calm and quiet acceptance of what the child shares from his or her heart is the best approach. A simple, “You saw that? How wonderful.” Is mostly all that is needed. Handling the perception of “negative” elementals is another subject which would require its own discussion. Basically, it can be helped by countering with stories of “good” elementals and angelic beings.
So, let’s look at the basic four elements of Nature and their corresponding “elemental beings.” Rudolf Steiner gives us the most wonderful descriptions and explanations of these elementals in the lecture series published as “Man As Symphony of the Creative Word.” You can read this in full at Rudolf Steiner Archive if you wish:
These lectures go into even greater depth and breadth on this subject and many others concerning life on our beautiful planet. I will take the following descriptions from this lecture:
The Plant-World and the Elemental Nature-Spirits
The World-Word is not some combination of syllables gathered from here or there,
but the World-Word is the harmony of what sounds forth from countless beings.
2nd November, 1923
“When spiritual vision is directed to the plant-world, we are immediately led to a whole host of beings, which were known and recognized in the old times of instinctive clairvoyance, but which were afterwards forgotten and today remain only as names used by the poet, names to which modern man ascribes no reality. To the same degree, however, in which we deny reality to the beings which whirl and weave around the plants, to that degree do we lose the understanding of the plant-world. This understanding of the plant-world, which, for instance, would be so necessary for the art of healing, has been entirely lost to present-day humanity.”
Earth – The spirits that work in the earth are called Gnomes.
“Plants send down their roots into the ground. Anyone who can observe what they really send down and can perceive the roots with spiritual vision (for this he must have) sees how the root-nature is everywhere surrounded, woven around, by elemental nature spirits. And these elemental spirits, with an old clairvoyant perception designated as gnomes and which we may call the root-spirits, can actually be studied by an imaginative and inspirational world-conception, just as human life and animal life can be studied in the sphere of the physical. We can look into the soul-nature of these elemental spirits, into this world of the spirits of the roots.
These root-spirits, are, so to say, a quite special earth-folk, invisible at first to outer view, but in their effects so much the more visible; for no root could develop if it were not for what is mediated between the root and the earth-realm by these remarkable root-spirits, which bring the mineral element of the earth into flux in order to conduct it to the roots of the plants. Naturally I refer to the underlying spiritual process.
These root-spirits, which are everywhere present in the earth, get a quite particular sense of well-being from rocks and from ores (which may be more or less transparent). But they enjoy their greatest sense of well-being, because here they are really at home, when they are conveying what is mineral to the roots of the plants. And they are completely enfilled with an inner element of spirituality which we can only compare with the inner element of spirituality in the human eye, in the human ear. For these root-spirits are in their spirit-nature entirely sense. Apart from this they are nothing at all; they consist only of sense. They are entirely sense, and it is a sense which is at the same time understanding, which does not only see and hear, but immediately understands what is seen and heard, which in receiving impressions, receives also ideas.
* * * * *
We gaze down into the depths of the earth not to seek there below for abstract ideas about some kind of mechanical laws of nature, but to behold the roving, wandering gnomes, which are the light-filled preservers of world-understanding within the earth.”
Water – The spirits that enliven the element of water are called Undines.
“Once the plant has grown upwards, once it has left the domain of the gnomes and has passed out of the sphere of the moist-earthly element into the sphere of the moist-airy, the plant develops what comes to outer physical formation in the leaves. But in all that is now active in the leaves other beings are at work, water-spirits, elemental spirits of the watery element, to which an earlier instinctive clairvoyance gave among others the name of undines. Just as we find the roots busied about, woven-about by the gnome-beings in the vicinity of the ground, and observe with pleasure the upward-striving direction which they give, we now see these water-beings, these elemental beings of the water, these undines in their connection with the leaves.
* * * * *
They wish to remain in a condition of metamorphosis, in a condition of eternal, endlessly changing transformation. But in this state of transformation in which they dream of the stars and of the sun, of light and of warmth, they become the chemists who now, starting from the leaf, carry the plant further in its formation, after it has been pushed upwards by the power of the gnomes. So the plant develops its leaf-growth, and this mystery is now revealed as the dream of the undines into which the plants grow.”
Air – The spirits that ensoul the element of Air are called Sylphs.
“To the same degree, however, in which the plant grows into the dream of the undines, does it now come into another domain, into the domain of those spirits which live in the airy-warmth element, just as the gnomes live in the moist-earthly, and the undines in the moist-airy element. Thus it is in the element which is of the nature of air and warmth that those beings live which an earlier clairvoyant art designated as the sylphs. Because air is everywhere imbued with light, these sylphs, which live in the airy-warmth element, press towards the light, relate themselves to it. They are particularly susceptible to the finer but larger movements within the atmosphere.
* * * * *
Their task is lovingly to convey light to the plant. And just as the undine is the chemist for the plant, so is the sylph the light-bearer. The sylph imbues the plant with light; it bears light into the plant.
Through the fact that the sylphs bear light into the plant, something quite remarkable is brought about in it. You see, the sylph is continually carrying light into the plant. The light, that is to say the power of the sylphs in the plant, works upon the chemical forces which were induced into the plant by the undines. Here occurs the inter-working of sylph-light and undine-chemistry. This is a remarkable plastic activity. With the help of the upstreaming substances which are worked upon by the undines, the sylphs weave out of the light an ideal plant-form. They actually weave the Archetypal Plant within the plant from light, and from the chemical working of the undines. And when towards autumn the plant withers and everything of physical substance disintegrates, then these plant-forms begin to seep downwards, and now the gnomes perceive them, perceive what the world — the sun through the sylphs, the air through the undines — has brought to pass in the plant. This the gnomes perceive, so that throughout the entire winter they are engaged in perceiving below what has seeped into the ground through the plants. Down there they grasp world-ideas in the plant-forms which have been plastically developed with the help of the sylphs, and which now in their spiritual ideal form enter into the ground.”
Fire – The spirits of flame are called Salamanders.
“After it has passed through the sphere of the sylphs, the plant comes into the sphere of the elemental fire-spirits. These fire-spirits are the inhabitants of the warmth-light element. When the warmth of the earth is at its height, or is otherwise suitable, they gather the warmth together. Just as the sylphs gather up the light, so do the fire-spirits gather up the warmth and carry it into the blossoms of the plants.
Fructification takes place below in the earth during the winter, when the seed comes into the earth and meets with the forms which the gnomes have received from the activities of the sylphs and undines and now carry to where these forms can meet with the fructifying seeds.
You see, because people do not recognize what is spiritual, do not know how gnomes, undines, sylphs and fire-spirits — which were formerly called salamanders — weave and live together with plant-growth, there is complete lack of clarity about the process of fructification in the plant world. There, outside the earth nothing of fructification takes place, but the earth is the mother of the plant-world, the heavens the father. This is the case in a quite literal sense. Plant-fructification takes place through the fact that the gnomes take from the fire-spirits what the fire-spirits have carried into the seed bud as concentrated cosmic warmth on the little airships of the anther-pollen. Thus the fire-spirits are the bearers of warmth.”
A garden is always
A secretive world
Its magic is hiding
In buds tightly furled
Behind every flower
And fragrant green grass
There lives a wee fairy
Who laughs as we pass
We have to walk softly
And sit for a while
To listen for footsteps
As soft as a smile
Some day, if we’re lucky
The fairies we’ll spy
And hear their sweet singing
As Spring passes by
Poem by Christine Natale
Photo by Danielle Epifani of Margaret’s Garden, Berkeley, CA
Christine Natale discovered Rudolf Steiner and his work at age 16 through a summer job in the Biodynamic Gardens at the Threefold Community in New York. After two years of community college in the area, Christine embarked upon a two year journey with her mentor, Rene Querido. Lucky enough to be in a small training class, Christine was able to intern at the Sacramento Waldorf School from the first of December through June with full block training experience in almost every grade and Kindergarten. Christine taught for about ten years, primarily in the Kindergarten, with one year taking a combined Fourth and Fifth Grade. During this time, she has given many lectures to the public, produced puppet theater and festival productions, co-directed young schools and been an active resource for Waldorf parents and their children.
More recently Christine has been focused on her writing. She has produced an extensive collection of children’s stories and articles on Waldorf Education and is in the process of self-publishing them. Christine brings a variety of skills in all of the arts, such as Waldorf Watercolor Painting, Crayon Drawing (and its interpretation), Handwork, Music, Drama, Puppetry, Storytelling and much more. She has a broad and deep base of knowledge of Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education, as well as a good familiarity with other educational systems and methods and an ability to draw connections and to build bridges of understanding for people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Christine’s Book of Fairy Tales can be found here. Christine’s Blog, Straw into Gold can be found here.
Wonderful! Thank you <3
Thanks so much Christine and Lisa. Agreed, a fine article! And much to consider in deepening our understandings! I particularly appreciated reviewing the passages you picked out by Steiner. Earth: “They are entirely sense, and it is a sense which is at the same time understanding, which does not only see and hear, but immediately understands what is seen and heard, which in receiving impressions, receives also ideas.” This had me thinking about a passage I read today regarding the youngest child’s dependence on having their senses beautifully nourished by their environment. It spoke of how the young child is not able to meet the world through thoughts, but meets themselves through the impressions they receive through their senses. In some ways, interesting to consider how it is these young children who are said to be able to see these very same beings! Your piece really inspired me yesterday to share my enthusiasm with the children of some of our conversations and I have been clearing the yard so that we can make some fairies places. I asked the children, “please do tell me what the fairies look like, I am afraid most grown ups have lost their ‘magic’ eyes. In turn, I will tell the nature spirits in the garden about you.” I also have been noticing- quite remarkably that we introduced a new native plant to the garden this Spring- Yellow Eyed Grass. I watch this little flower open when the sun passes over it’s way and a few hours later it closes when the sun fades. Really remarkable to see the breathing in of light and the relationship to the sun and light in this way. I will make sure to thank the sylphs.*
Thank you Danielle for your comment and for the lovely descriptions of your own gentle interactions with both the children and the elementals you have in your care.
I love, love, love this! Especially this quote: “It can be very harmful to the child to be met with denial or accusations of lying or “making it up.” It can also be damaging to their natural development to try to artificially encourage this nascent ability – to try to get them to “show off” their clairvoyant or “psychic” abilities. Warm, calm and quiet acceptance of what the child shares from his or her heart is the best approach. A simple, “You saw that? How wonderful.” Is mostly all that is needed.”
So true! We must not be overly sympathetic when speaking about the elementals, simple objective response is perfectly appropriate. I have worked with Waldorf EC teachers that gush and gush about fairies and gnomes and it just seems to destroy their natural perception. One would not gush about the air we breathe or the daylight, just as the elementals are as such for the little ones.
Thank you! I will share this often on my FB page as I believe it should be read a lot!
Thank you so much for your response! I am sorry that it has taken years for me to reply. I actually forget about the comments section. I share the link to the article sometimes but don’t re-read it.
I hope that in the meantime we have connected on FB and if not, that we will.
Thank you for this . I will be sharing it with or teacher.
Please add me as a recipient of your writing.
Thank you also for your response! I truly have not looked to see! I apologize. I don’t have a website yet, but I am on Facebook and you are invited to friend me.
This is a wonderful article. And such a beautiful poem at the end. Thank you for sharing your insight it is so very helpful to me.
Thank you for your response! Thanks to Lisa for alerting me to the comments! You are invited to friend me on FB. If you would like to send me an e-mail at Golden3000997@cs.com, I will send you links to more stories, articles and poetry.
Best Springtime wishes,
If it’s valuable to you, please link to this translation of Ursula Burkhard’s book, “Karlik,” which describes her life with the elemental world. https://karlikblog.wordpress.com/
Thank you so much Stephen! I am just starting to read this. Already with tears! I will post more after I have read it all.
Thank you and may God Bless You for this great gift!
Love and gratitude,
Those interested in Christine’s article may also be interested in this translation of Ursula Burkhard’s *Karlik*, not available in English before now: https://karlikblog.wordpress.com/
Please feel free to share this link or link The Wonder of Childhood to it, if it’s of interest. Best, Steve
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