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The Folklore of Fairy Rings and Crop Circles

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

I recently took a visit to the Crop Circle Exhibition and Centre at the Mill Cafe in Pewsey near Avebury, Wiltshire since I had celebrated the Summer Solstice in Europe's largest neolithic stone circle at Avebury. This monument contains three stone circles and rather bizarrely a road also runs through it since in the early Middle Ages a village was built at the site. It was constructed over several hundred years and it has been suggested that the central cove was created in 3000 BC, the inner stone circle was built in 2900 BC, and the outer circle and henge was built in 2600 BC. Many crop circles have appeared around Avebury and in Wiltshire - it seems to be a very sacred site with many ley lines passing through.

The solstice ceremony at Avebury, June 2019.

The largest megalithic stone circle in the world - Avebury contains three circles (image from Wikipedia.)

At the Crop Circle Exhibition and Centre I was amazed to note that there are many legends which show parallels between fairy rings and crop circles and I felt to record some of those stories here from the centre:

“The first descriptions of what we would today call ‘crop circles’ can be found in undated legends, folk-lore and fairy tales. Most interestingly, such stories sound amazingly similar whether told by native American tribes or appearing as part of the European folklore.

The German fairy tale “The Twelve Swans” is one example for a variety of numerous similar tales: “Long time ago there was a farmer who had three sons. One year the farmer had been richly blessed with rain and sunshine, and each morning he went to the field and feasted his eyes on the golden-yellow wheat. But one morning some of this crop was flattened into a circular area. Much anger overcame the farmer, but when he took a closer look, he was more surprised. Because in one way the wheat was pressed down but in the same way it was not. It looked just as if it was only flattened by very light feet, and what did the circular pattern mean?

When told about it, the oldest of his three sons said: “We will solve this mystery soon.” And in the evening he went to the field and kept himself awake. After the bell rang eleven o’clock a thunderstorm raged as if the sky wanted to burst. The young man got scared and he ran home. The other day again a similar circle was found in the crop and now it was up to the second son, but to cut a long story short, he did the same as his elder brother. Then it was up to Hans, the youngest of the three. He went to the same place and sat down there on the third evening. Again the bell just rang eleven when the sky turned pitch black, but Hans sat as still as a stone and waited. Soon the storm faded and the stars shone clearly in the sky. From afar a quiet sound arose, as if it was caused by wings. Out of the sky twelve white swans flew down into the field where they became twelve maidens, who laid down the feathered gowns. They played and danced miraculously on their snow-white feet all around in a circle. They were not spirits, because the stems bent under their feet to the ground and sometimes even broke. But could humans float in such a way? One of their garments was lying not far from Hans. He had heard from his grandmother of the powers a man would gain who actually make the garb of a swan maiden his own (…)””

'Come, now a Roundel' (1908, from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham, an English book illustrator - note the fungus growth in this fairy ring.

The following is a speech by Titania, the fairy queen in Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream:

"Come, now a roundel and a fairy song; Then, for the third part of a minute, hence; Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds, Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings, To make my small elves coats, and some keep back The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep; Then to your offices and let me rest.

The Fairies sing

You spotted snakes with double tongue, Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen; Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong, Come not near our fairy queen. Philomel, with melody Sing in our sweet lullaby; Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby: Never harm, Nor spell nor charm, Come our lovely lady nigh; So, good night, with lullaby. Weaving spiders, come not here; Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence! Beetles black, approach not near; Worm nor snail, do no offence. Philomel, with melody, & c."

'La Danse' (I) by French artist Henri Matisse (1909) - the painting was commissioned by a Russian businessman and features five dancers in a circle.

'Where Rural Fays and Fairies Dwell' by Walter Jenks Morgan (1900)

"The date and origins of these orally-passed on folktales is hard to pinpoint yet with the arrival of written documents, these events began to be recorded and crop circles became apart of history. The oldest document reporting a crop circle is a report for a witch trial from 1590 in the French region of Lorraine. “It is extensively described in Chapter 14 of the book ‘Daemonolatria’ written by Nicolas Rémy (Remigius), who was the Crown Prosecutor at the City of Nancy and prided himself in having been in charge of bringing more than 800 witches and wizards to the stake. The event itself happened on 24th July, 1590 in the small village of Assenecout near Sarrebourg, when a group of men and women was blackened for having danced with the devil leaving a “trampled circle in a field that showed traces of cloved feet in the ground.” The presence of the actual circle convinced Remigius that the accusation against the group was true and the accused were very likely burnt at the stake. As the circle is not described any further, one can only speculate if this event was related to modern day crop circles or if it was indeed a place where a ritual was celebrated." (From the Crop Circle Exhibition and Centre.)

"Only a few years later the English naturalist Robert Plot (1640-1696), Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, came upon some strange markings he called ‘fairy rings.’ While most of the rings Plot described in his ‘Natural History of Stafford-Shire’ do refer to circular markings caused by fungus growth some of his own illustrations suggest that he was also aware of cases of a more intricate geometrical quality similar to today’s crop circles. Even if his explanation of what has caused the ‘fairy rings’ has to be judged as ‘contemporary science,' it was the first academic attempt to make sense of the strange markings in the fields. It should be noted that in the old days the term ‘fairy rings’ seems to have been used not only to describe the result of fungus growth that discoloured and wilted grass, but also for rings and circles of ‘flattened’ plants." (From the Crop Circle Exhibition and Centre.)

'The Fairy Ring' by English painter Walter Jenks Morgan (c.1870-1880) - note the ring of mushrooms. Naturally occuring fairy rings are arcs or circles of mushrooms which appear in forest, grassland or rangeland and usually the fungus mycelium appears in the ring or beneath the arc and they are detectable by the fungal spore pods (sporocarps), dead grass or a ring of dark green grass.

An image from Plot's The Natural History of Staffordshire (1686)- Plot hypothesized that such formations were created by "the effects of Lightning, exploded from the Clouds most times in a circular manner; perhaps for this very reason by the ancient Naturalists called fulmen discutiens: which though of a viscous sulphureous consistence, yet taking fire and violently breaking the Cloud wherein it was pent, must naturally expand it self every way obliquely, for the most part in a uniform conical manner so as at due distance to become a Circle... " and he believed these circles would often occur on "arable grounds, but chiefly in wide and open pastures whether meadows or uplands where trees or hedges interrupt least."

Plot's drawings included spirals, circles and squares within rings. He studied various formations in his report and no firm conclusions were made, he also made suggestions of connections between the circles and fairies: "And here perchance by the way it may be no great digression, to enquire into the nature and efficient cause of those Rings we find in the grass, which they commonly call Fairy circles: Whether they are caused by Lightning? or are indeed the Rendezvouzes of Witches, or the dancing places of those little pygmy Spirits they call Elves or Fairys?"

A crop circle near Dean Farm in Surrey, June 2019. I visited these corn fields with my brother who used the drone footage which had been taken and posted online as a map to navigate through the field - it was such a great idea, I don't think we would have found it otherwise because there was no high point from which to see the circle.  The aerial footage can be seen here and the circle was reported on the 21st June:

"The discussion on the ‘Origin of Fairy Rings’ was taken further in 1792 when the contemporary British ‘Gentlemen’s Magazine’ featured a series of letters on the topic. Again some of the described ‘fairy circles and rings’ appear to have much more in common with ‘crop circles than with fungus growth: “There are also several other rings in a large upland pasture belonging to the same farmer, but none so perfect as this, which may, perhaps, be attributed to the irregularity of the surface, IT BEING LAID DOWN IN LAYS…”” (From the Crop Circle Exhibition and Centre.)

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