The Truth We Don’t Know About Fairies, Leprechauns, UFOs, ETs & Other Entities
Do you believe in fairies and leprechauns? What about UFOs and ETs? Most people would say no to the first question but would hesitate to give a flat-out yes or no to the second. Fairies, elves, gnomes, trolls, ogres—all those quaint folklore characters—are out of fashion these days, whereas serious belief in extra-terrestrial creatures and extra-sensory perception is becoming more mainstream all the time.
What are we to make of this odd fact? What kind of reality, if any, are we dealing with? Do we have more reason to believe in ETs than in fairies? Does it matter?
No Respect for Elves
The critters in the “Fairy & Elf” category are not taken seriously; they’re not given scientific-sounding labels like “paranormal phenomena.” Nobody founds or funds university chairs to study them, except insofar as they have psychological or literary interest.
Investigators don’t try to find them. They don’t set up double-blind experiments—like J. B. Rhine’s ESP tests in the 1930s at Duke University—to work out mathematically whether people who see leprechauns are seeing something that’s out there in the real world, nor do they use surveyor’s tools to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Chemists don’t come rushing to examine the ground where somebody saw a circle of fairies dancing, to see whether its composition is different from that of the surrounding soil—which is what happens when somebody calls the police or the media to report that a glowing, saucer-shaped object just departed from his backyard, leaving a circle of suspicious color and texture and maybe even some burn marks.
The U.S. government, in case you didn’t know, is spending heaven knows how much of our tax money on planning for a possible Close Encounter or Visitation (and I’m not talking about the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary) or maybe an invasion by small people with large heads, dark eyes, and advanced weapons. There are already political hawks and doves taking sides about whether or how we should wage this very hypothetical war. Gazillions for extra-terrestrials but not a penny for leprechauns: Is that fair?
Even the Vatican is getting into the show, setting up observatories, listening for messages out of the blue, and hiring scientists who assure the world that ETs almost certainly exist, though these same scientists are a little skittish on the question of whether there is a God. (He may evolve into existence one day if we’re patient enough.) I suspect that some of these people may be Jesuits, but I don’t want to know. The Catholic Church is understandably anxious to convince the world that the Galileo trial (or rather, the mythic version of it that passes for history) is not the norm for the Christian relationship with science. It never was, but in the public mind one good myth outweighs a heap of facts.
No Proof For or Against
But hold on a minute: Isn’t it simply that that We Now Know that fairies and elves don’t exist?
Not really. Nobody has ever proven that elves or leprechauns or unicorns don’t exist. There’s nothing about their supposed nature that makes their existence impossible or self-contradictory. And proofs of a negative (“fairies do not exist”) are rather scarce. The sighting and capture of one tiny female creature with diaphanous wings and long hair, peeking out of a crater on the far side of the moon, would blow the whole argument.
And who’s to say nobody will ever sight that creature? After all, we’re always being told that there most probably is life, and even intelligent life, all over the cosmic expanse, some of it a couple of billion years ahead of us in scientific progress, despite the fact that we’ve been shouting out into the void for decades now and nobody has so much as left a word on our voicemail.
And there are more people than you think—respectable people with high salaries and impressive letters after their names—who believe that spacecraft of extra-terrestrial origin have actually landed and communicated in some way with earthlings and even taken some of them for a tour of their ship, despite the fact that nobody has been able to produce a single artifact of non-earthly manufacture. Betty and Barney Hill, the celebrated New Hampshire “abductees,” reported that Betty asked the ETs for an artifact and they immediately handed her a book made of strange material and filled with exotic symbols. Unfortunately, they took it back just before she stepped out the door and went home. (Darn it! We were so close.)
So it’s not really a matter of hard evidence; it’s more a matter of our categories and the questions we ask at a particular time in history. Strange things happen: at one time we attribute them to folklore creatures; at another to spirits, good or evil; at yet another to phenomena explainable by the empirical sciences.
We Find Evidence for What We Hope For
One reason for modern disbelief in fairies and their cousins is that people have a vague idea that all those folklore creatures have been explained away psychologically. The only trouble with that theory is, you can use the same arguments against the scientifically respectable creatures just as easily. “Wishful thinking” pretty much sums up all the arguments, and it’s a notoriously two-edged sword. There are probably just as many twenty-first-century people hoping to see a UFO as there used to be nineteenth-century people hoping to see a fairy, and we do often “get” what we hope for.
Or your explanation may go a little further—beyond Freud and into the wilds of Jung. Maybe these creatures are archetypes rising up like marsh gas from the collective unconscious (whatever that may be). Fine, but isn’t a starship full of creatures from the heavens also an archetype? And the scientist a slightly updated archetype of the magician with his esoteric knowledge?
Now please ask yourself, as I have been asking myself: What would happen if somebody—say, some bored millionaire—decided to fund a serious scientific study of elves, fairies, unicorns, and similar out-of-fashion preternatural beings?
You don’t have to wonder; I’ll tell you what would happen: The scientists would find evidence.
Yes, they would. Some of it would be a tad ambiguous and cause controversy, like J. B. Rhine’s conclusions about ESP, but they would find it. I believe they would find just about as much evidence, and of about the same quality, as has been found for . . . you name it: precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, strange aircraft doing maneuvers impossible for earthly vessels—that is, not quite enough evidence to establish their existence, but not enough to absolutely rule it out, either.
What I don’t believe they would find is an actual live fairy, or even a dead one that could be autopsied. But there would at least be pictures—photographs that could withstand investigation by experts in photo-fakery. There would be other sorts of evidence, too, such as eyewitness accounts by honest and reliable people, the kind of evidence that stands up in court, if not in a research lab.
And as for the lack of really hard evidence—the corpus delicti—that could be explained by the traditionally understood nature of these creatures: they’re good at hiding; they don’t like to be discovered; they’re shy. Similarly, the lack of artifacts from UFOs can be explained by the fact that the ETs don’t want us to know about them; and the ambiguous results of ESP research can be explained by the skepticism of the onlookers, which interferes with the vibrations or auras or whatever the subjects are trying to tune in on.
These are logical, reasonable answers, not evidence of stupidity or mental illness, no matter how frustrating they may be to people who like everything wrapped up in tidy, quantifiable packages. Anecdotal evidence is evidence, after all, and sometimes it’s all we can expect, given the nature of the quarry we’re seeking, which is to say, beings who by their nature slip between the cracks of our categories.
Something in Between
But I do believe there would be evidence. I can’t prove this strange contention; I only present it as a possibility that, once entertained, has a way of opening up new regions of thought. What kind of universe do we live in, anyway? Are we sure that serious, well-educated people of our time are less “superstitious” than our ancestors? Or could it be that our ancestors were on to something? Might there be creatures who appeared as fairies or elves in the nineteenth century and as ETs in the twentieth and twenty-first? Could it be that some of these beings, or some creatures very like them, do exist, or once existed, or exist in strange modes that are unfamiliar to us, or are in hiding somewhere? (Not in the sub-basements of the Pentagon, though; my credulity has its limits.)
We Christians believe in angels, after all, and in all kinds of miracles, though they can never be proven to the satisfaction of somebody without faith. Our whole religion is based on the truth of one Man’s miraculous Resurrection, and the arguments for that event, though strong, are not completely airtight; God didn’t mean them to be.
Well then, could it be that these strange creatures are simply evil spirits, appearing in illusory bodies? No doubt many are. We’re accustomed to categorizing all evil spirits as fallen angels, but there may be a whole hierarchy of beings ranging from lower forms of non-material life up to the angelic, as our earthly animals range from one-celled organisms up to the highest primates. (I came across this idea somewhere but I can’t remember where. Maybe a reader will recognize it and let me know.)
What if there is something between earth and heaven—between the world we know (or think we know) and the higher realm of Spirit—which breaks through to us occasionally in the form of extraordinary graces, visions, or miracles? And if such in-between creatures, neither material nor spiritual, do exist, along with various forms of psychic knowledge and power like ESP, we might want to ask something like the same questions we ask about the putative extra-terrestrials: What is their nature? Where do they come from? What do they have to do with us, if anything? Are they on our side? Are they hostile? Or neutral? (Is “neutral” even a possibility?) What are their intentions, if they have intentions?
And as for the alleged preternatural powers, are they real, and if so, are we allowed to use them, and if so, under what conditions? Above all, what does the Judeo-Christian revelation have to say about them?
A Need for Guidance & Discernment
All kinds of things are coming out of the woodwork these days. It’s too late to shove them back in by saying they’re all fakes or illusions on the one hand or devils from hell on the other. After all that has been poured off, there’s a little sediment left in the bottom of the test-tube.
What about ghosts? They open up theological questions. What about those instances of apparent telepathy that are so common between family members or close friends, especially in times of extreme stress? As an ESP researcher pointed out, most people believe in the possibility of telepathy simply because most people have had a personal experience that didn’t seem explainable by any other hypothesis—which is not a bad reason to believe in something.
My own instinct is to leave these things alone, and that’s exactly what I tell my children and my students. They’re too dangerous, and even an innocent interest can gradually draw us into regions that are plainly diabolical.
But there are two practical reasons against that approach for adults: One is the necessity of evangelizing the New Age people—a task barely begun—and the other is pastoral concern for Christians who are already drawn in and need guidance. There is a great need here for discernment of spirits, both the supernatural gift of discernment and the theological principles. The psychic needs to be separated from the spiritual. “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul [psyche] and spirit” (Heb. 4:12).
Prudent, well-taught Christians—people who would walk out of a party if somebody set up a Ouija board even “just for fun”—nevertheless have questions that they hesitate to bring to their pastors. Here’s a sample:
• Where do I draw the line in using alternative medicine? What if the healing technique is morally neutral but the healer is a Wiccan or a neo-pagan?
• Is it wrong to use methods of prayer or meditation that come from Eastern religions or from shamanism? How can I judge a particular method?
• Is it wrong to practice astrology as long as I don’t use it for divination, or blame “the stars” for my own faults? Is it true the Catholic Church has never definitively denounced astrology per se? What exactly is divination anyway?
• What if there is a pattern in my life of what looks like preternatural knowledge or power? Can I consider it a gift of God? Is it all right to accept it when it happens but wrong to try to call it up deliberately? Or should I just pray that God will take it away if it’s not from him?
• I would like to help bring an ex-Christian New-Ager back to the fold, and I don’t want to be too negative about his beliefs and experiences. How far can I go in agreeing with him without denying my faith?
• What is the relationship between psychic gifts and the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–14?
Three Sound Warnings
A while ago I met an Eastern Orthodox Christian who offered to do my horoscope. He used to practice astrology in his pre-Christian days and was convinced there was no problem with continuing, since he never tried to use it to predict the future.
I thought it would be interesting and could see no harm in it, but when I checked it out with my spiritual director, he got that tough-love look in his eye and absolutely forbade it. He gave me three excellent reasons:
1. It would cause scandal to my children and others.
2. It could draw me gradually into definitely forbidden practices.
3. It would do me good to mortify my curiosity.
Those three warnings should be enough for most of us. We’re all going to end up in one of two places, heaven or hell. This whole in-between realm is temporary and belongs mostly to the psychic rather than the spiritual, and even at its most innocent, it can be one hell of a distraction.
So unless you have some special pastoral or evangelistic need, I would advise caution. If you happen to see a fairy ring in the grass, step over it and walk on. •
The most common paranormal belief I encounter as a public librarian—which job is sort of a stakeout at the cultural crossroads—is in ghosts. According to a 2005 CBS News poll, 48 percent of Americans believe in ghosts and 45 percent don’t. Women are more likely to believe than men, and people between 18 and 45 more than their elders.
These numbers make sense to me. The city in which I work has several famous ones, and people commonly believe they inhabit houses where someone has been murdered. Whenever someone asks me for the human history of a particular address, often with a rather sheepish expression, it normally means they believe they may have encountered a ghost in their home.
Although it appears that belief in ghosts is likely to increase as exposure to serious Christianity and appreciation for hard empiricism decreases, I’ve heard too many credible accounts of ghostly phenomena from people I believe to be truthful and mentally healthy—and who weren’t out looking for ghosts when they encountered them—simply to disbelieve that there is something real behind them. The right questions then, seem to me strictly empirical: First, do such phenomena exist apart from the imaginations of their detectors? (I am willing to believe that they do.) Second, what, precisely, are they? And third, depending on the answer to the other two, what is to be done about them?
It is true that at present the study of paranormal activity is considered (at best) on the far margins of respectable science, but that could change in a moment. I admit to some cynicism here: Most scientific research is funded by the government, and the appointment of one true believer to a strategic post in a major funding agency would provide strong incentive for respectable science to become significantly more “inclusive.” It was not in the Nazi era alone that science might be expected to follow political power’s interest in the supernatural. Major federal grants to the Ghostbusters for the development of better ektoplasmatrons always lurk just around the corner. In the nineteenth century, spiritisms of various hues were very popular among the cultural elite, and there are high levels of sophistication among the searchers for extraterrestrial intelligence today.
My own guess is that perhaps the next great flush of popular occultism will originate in Jungian quarters. I suspect that what we have with upper-level Jungians is garden-variety concourse with demons, who present themselves as archetypes of that mysterious region called the collective unconscious, or as ancient spiritual beings, full of wisdom and power. We hear much of spirit-guides from other sources now, but mostly from the strange and the uncredentialed. Jung is and shall be, I suspect, the most notable bridge between science and the occult in the psychological realm. I also expect that we will before long see a reawakening of freemasonry of the more mystical variety, now in comparative desuetude, which will revive the cult of the old masonic god of many names.
It seems to me that Marilyn Prever’s conclusion is right, that Christians are in general to stay clear of things that needn’t concern them—indeed, the power of the resurrected Christ has blessedly delivered us from malign spirits, so we may be free, not only from fear of them, but even from preoccupation with them—but we (pastors especially) are sometimes called to gain an understanding of the “paranormal” to deal intelligently and obediently with certain of its phenomena.
This dealing, however, if I understand the gravamen of Scripture on the point, generally involves commanding whatever-it-is in God’s Name to depart to its own place, whether it is a talking serpent, a tempter in the desert, or a legion speaking from within a tormented man. This also is how I would deal with “ghosts,” whatever they are, for the dead are not to be sought among the living any more than the living among the dead. •
Marilyn Prever (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired homeschool teacher, mother and grandmother of a large family, whose articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, Second Spring, and other publications. She lives in Claremont, New Hampshire, with her family, and they worship at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.
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