Fairy Ointments and The Nuts of Knowledge
Published in Psychedelic Press volume XVII, 2016
The Fairy Reverend Robert Kirk
In the village of Aberfoyle in the Scottish Trossachs there is a hill called Doon Hill, also known as the Fairy Knowe or Dun Sithean, the hill of the fairies. Atop this hill stands the Minister’s Pine, an ancient pine tree. Local tradition maintains that the Reverend Robert Kirk (c.1644-92), ‘the fairy minister’, remains locked within this tree, for he did not die but was stolen by the fairies and imprisoned there as punishment for telling too much. Kirk had ascended the hill daily, and it had been noted locally that he also made regular twilit visits to the hill, where he would lie down with his ear to the ground, listening deeply... What he heard and saw emanating from caverns deep within the hill formed the primary research material for his book The Secret Commonwealth - the first ‘scientific’ study of Second Sight and the Otherworld of the fairies. Second Sight is a faculty that was taken for granted in all Highland communities at the time, enabling one to see future events, and also, according to Kirk, to see the fairies and enter their Otherworld.
Kirk was known as a ‘walker between worlds’. His work inhabits a liminal space between Christianity and pre-Christian belief, and Kirk’s role could be seen as continuing the shamanic legacy of the Celtic druids, bards and seers.
Second Sight itself is a shamanic phenomenon, and there are strong shamanic aspects to most stories of journeys to the Otherworld of the fairies. These tales point beyond simple storytelling to the old religion of the Celts, where deities and nature spirits can be accessed at specific nemetons. Robert Kirk often calls the fairies ‘subterraneans’, highlighting their inherent presence within the landscape, and wrote that ‘There Be manie places called Fayrie hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover’.
If you read John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900) and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands (1902), or W.Y. Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911), you will find that there is a marked distinction between fairy stories and fairy encounters. Fairy stories usually have an ethical, moral, or social function, as well as providing entertainment. Fairy encounters, however, can take the form of a mystical vision, a ‘UFO abduction’ type of encounter, or an hallucinatory experience with a subjective, personal significance. The Highland fairies, The Sídhe, far from being the diminutive fluttering entities of Victoriana, are majestic, otherdimensional, luminous beings of formidable power.
Kirk’s interest is not in the fairy tale but in the nuomenology of the fairies as superdimensional entities: ‘These sith,'s or Fairies, they call sluag[h] maith or the good people[...] are said to be of a midle nature betwixt man and Angell (as were dæmons thought to be of old); of intelligent studious Spirits, and light changable bodies (lik those called Astrall) somewhat of the nature of a condens'd cloud, and best seen in twilight.’
Evans-Wentz highlights the transdimensional attributes of the fairies, being simultaneously the product of mind, the spirits of nature, and the figures of ancient Celtic myth. He connects fairy sightings with universal experiences of other planes of consciousness, the fourth-dimensional plane, or what might today be seen as a kind of quantum reality: ‘There seems to have been always and everywhere (or nearly so) a belief in a race, neither divine nor human, but very like to human beings, who existed on a ‘plane’ different from that of humans, though occupying the same space. This has been called the ‘astral’ or the ‘fourth-dimensional’ plane [...] These beings are held to be normally imperceptible to human senses, but conditions may arise in which the ‘astral plane’ of the elementals and that part of the physical plane’ in which, if one so may express it, some human being happens to be, may be in such a relation to one another that these and other spirits may be seen and heard.’
Tales and songs from the Gaelic oral tradition reveal a strong local belief in the reality of this Otherworld and its inhabitants. Often this belief is so strong that it determines the situation or orientation of a house, the time and place for the sowing of crops, or the route of a path or road. It seems that in the pre-modern Highlands, all visionary and hallucinatory phenomena, indeed, anything weird or paranormal, were usually attributed to the fairies and their ilk.
The Irish writer WB Yeats wrote to Evans-Wentz about the Celtic fairy kingdom, stating confidently ‘I am certain that it exists, and will some day be studied as it was studied by Kirk.’ Evans-Wentz stresses that the Otherworld of the fairies can be accessed by us today as much as in the past. He concluded that 'the living Fairy-Faith depends not so much upon ancient traditions, oral and recorded, as upon recent and contemporary psychical experiences, vouched for by many “seers” and other percipients among our witnesses'.
Voluntary Second Sight
Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth is predominantly about Second Sight, and it is in the context of this phenomenon that he investigates the Otherworld of the fairies. For Kirk, as a Church of Scotland minister, Second Sight could be presented as an antidote to atheism. For him, the fairies inhabited a space between mortal humans and angels, and his belief in them did not appear to contradict his biblical world view. At that time, however, our modern distinctions between science, religion and magic did not apply. Commenting on the intriguing drawings and doodles found in Kirk’s student notebook, Kirk scholar Michael Hunter emphasises ‘Kirk’s commitment to a mystical view of the world, and his familiarity with the symbolism of the learned tradition, and not least of hermeticism. In view of what we know of Kirk’s later interests, it is even tempting to see the two figures at the bottom as shaman figures.’
The English natural philosopher Robert Boyle’s investigations into Highland Second Sight were an important precursor to Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth. Boyle had funded Kirk’s translation of the Psalms of David into Gaelic, and Kirk would have met Boyle and encountered the heady intellectual milieu of the early Royal Society when overseeing the printing of that text in London. He wrote The Secret Commonwealth after this visit, apparently investigating on first-hand terms what Boyle and his contemporaries could only study from secondary observation.
Traditionally, Second Sight is a genetic condition which usually comes upon the individual involuntarily. It is generally undesired, and is characterised by the precognition of some future event, often a death. However, Kirk locates Second Sight firmly within what we would now term a shamanic context, defining it as any ability to access other dimensions or attain alternative states of consciousness.
As a seventh son, Celtic tradition would presume that Kirk already had the Second Sight, yet it is clear that he also knew of ‘artificial’ means by which one could gain it. Crucially for us, Kirk makes a fundamental distinction between genetic and voluntary Second Sight. He says that ‘Men of the Second Sight (being design’d to give warnings against secret engyns) surpass the ordinary vision of other men; which is a native habit in some, descended from their ancestors, and acquired as an artificiall improvement of their naturall sight in others; Resembling in their own kind, the usual artificiall helps of Optic Glasses (as prospectives, Telescopes, and Microscopes) without which ascititious aids, those men heer treated of, do perceive things, that for their smalness, or subtilty, and secrecy, are invisible to others, tho daylie conversant with them; They having such a Beam continually about them, as that of the Sun; which when it shynes clear only, lets common eyes see the atoms in the air, that without these rayes, they could not discern’ Here, Kirk appears to be validating ‘artificial’ means for attaining Second Sight by comparing them to the use of microscopes or telescopes as artificial aids to viewing things that are not normally visible. What was this artificial improvement of natural sight by which one could gain Second Sight, according to Kirk?
Robert Kirk knew that witches had access to certain ointments that could facilitate Second Sight: ‘yet it were more fasable to imput this Second Sight to a qualitie infused into the Eye by an unction: for Witches have a sleepie ointment, that when applyd, troubles their fantasie, advancing it to have unusual figures and shapes, represented to it, as if it were a fit of Fanaticism Hyprocondriack Melancholly, or possession of some insinuating Spirit; raising the Soul beyond its common Strain.’
But it was not just witches who used such consciousness-altering ointments, and often such ointments are specifically connected to the fairies. The fairy scholars Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan accept that the ‘ability to see fairies after rubbing a magical ointment on the eyes is a common motif.’ A large number of folkloric accounts associate these fairy ointments with childbirth and midwifery. Midwives are traditionally associated with the Otherworld, not only as overseers of that liminal space at the threshold of life, but also because of their acquaintance with certain magical ointments that granted them access to the Otherworld. Many old Highland tales tell of a midwife who is called to attend a birth – sometimes the birth of a fairy – and gets a drop of ointment on one of her eyes. After this the person can close their normal eye and see fairyland through the single bewitched eye. Usually the fairies return and ruin the magical eye.
Robert Kirk devotes a substantial part of his text to such instances of voluntary Second Sight, usually in the context of childbirth and midwifery. He writes of ‘a Woman ‘taken out of her Child-bed, and having a liveing Image of her substituted in her room, which resemblance decay’d, dy’d, and was buri’d, but the person stolen returning to her husband after two years space.’ The woman declares that she ‘perceiv’d little what they did in the spacious hous she lodg’d in; untill she annoynted one of her Eyes with a certain unctione that was by her, which they perceiving to have acquainted her with their actions, they fann’d her blind of that Eye with a puff of their breath; she found the place full of light without anie fountain or Lamp from wenc it did spring.’ Here we clearly have an ‘unction or ointment’ associated with childbirth that acquaints us with the actions of the fairies. The ointment is often provided by the fairies themselves, but there are severe punishments for its unsolicited use: ‘But if anie Superterraneans be soe subtile as to practise sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their Misteries (such as making use of their ointments, which, as Gyge’s ring, makes them invisible or nimble, or cast them in a Trance, or alters their shape, or makes things appear at a vast distance, &c.) they smit them without pain as with a puff of wind, and bereave them of both the natural and acquired sights in the twinkling of ane eye [...] or they strick them dumb.’
Another minister, the Reverend Dr Patrick Graham in his Sketches Descriptive of the Picturesque scenery of Perthshire, tells another strange version of this tale. It is interesting that the woman learns how to make the magical potion from the fairies themselves, and is punished for using it. He also highlights a traditional link between fairy powers and druidic magic:
“A woman, whose new born child had been conveyed by them into their secret abodes, was also carried thither herself, to remain, however, only until she could suckle her infant. She one day, during this period, observed the Shi’ichs busily employed in mixing various ingredients in a boiling cauldron; and, as soon as the composition was prepared, she remarked that they all carefully anointed their eyes with it, laying the remainder aside for future use. In a moment when they were all absent, she also attempted to anoint her eyes with the precious drug; but had time to apply it to one eye only, when the Daoine Shi returned. But with that eye, she was henceforth enabled to see every thing as it really passed, in their secret abodes: she saw every object, not as she hitherto had done, in deceptive splendour and elegance, but in its genuine colours and form. The gaudy ornaments of the apartment were reduced to the naked walls of a gloomy cavern. Soon after, having discharged her office, she was dismissed to her own home. Still, however, she retained the faculty of seeing, with her medicated eye, every thing that was done, any where in her presence, by the deceptive art of the order. One day, amidst a throng of people, she chanced to observe the Shi’ich, or man of peace, in whose possession she had left her child; though to every other eye invisible. Prompted by maternal affection, she inadvertently accosted him, and began to inquire after the welfare of her child. The man of peace, astonished at being thus recognized by one of mortal race, demanded how she had been enabled to discover him. Awed by the terrible frown of her countenance, she acknowledged what she had done. He spat in her eye, and extinguished it forever. The deceptive power, by which the men of peace are believed to impose on the senses of mankind, is still termed, in the Gaelic language, Druid-‘eachd; founded, probably, on the opinion entertained of old, concerning the magical powers of the Druids. Deeply versed, according to Caesar’s information, as the Druids were, in the higher departments of philosophy, and probably acquainted with electricity, and various branches of chemistry, they might find it easy to excite the belief of their supernatural powers in the minds of the uninitiated vulgar.’
Scottish occult researcher Lewis Spence acknowledges that ‘Very numerous in the annals of fairy lore are those stories which recount how human midwives were frequently called upon to attend fairy ladies in childbed.’ He tells us another fairy ointment tale, which also features an antidote to its enchantments. Again, it features a midwife, whom a fairy lad tricks into entering fairyland by shapeshifting into a horse. The midwife is summoned to the fairy queen, who is impressed that the midwife had taken pity on her in the form of a large yellow frog at harvest time. ‘She was to use a certain kind of soap there which would give her to see things as they actually were [...] At first the interior of the knoll seems like a palace, but after she had applied the soap to her eyes, it revealed itself as a pit of red gravel, while its inhabitants showed up as withered atomies.’
These stories make plain the belief that certain substances could transport one to fairyland, and that antidotes to their psychoactive effects were also known.
Investigating the links between midwives and psychoactive substances leads us to some intriguing clues about what these substances might have been.
It is well known that extracts from the fungus ergot, which grows on rye and other grains, had been used by midwives for centuries to speed up contractions in childbirth. Its use was largely discontinued by the end of the 19th century, as its side-effects were deemed too dangerous for medicinal use. It is also well known that ergot contains lysergic acid, from which the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesised LSD in 1938. Hoffmann had been researching ergot’s specifically non-uterotonic medicinal properties when he incidentally spawned his ‘problem child’.
Recent research suggests that ancient people from various religious systems and mystery traditions worked with psychoactive preparations of ergot as a vision-inducer, from Egypt to Greece, India and the Middle East.
Ergot was often present in bread, either deliberately or by accident, leading to mass outbreaks of ergotism, the symptoms of which (including hallucinations) were known as the diseases St. Anthony’s Fire and St. Vitus’ Dance, which were relatively common in the middle ages.
So it seems highly likely that midwives had access to some kind of ointment of ergot for use as a uterotonic, and also for incidental use as an entheogen. Hence the presence of numerous tales of midwives’ Otherworld journeys. It seems plausible that Kirk, having this knowledge, used such an ointment himself in order to gain Second Sight.
There are many other tantalising references in Gaelic literature and tradition to foods and ointments that give special knowledge, Second Sight or the ability to see ‘hidden things’ such as the fairies, or to enter the Otherworld. At the start of the twentieth century, Celtic historian J.A. MacCulloch acknowledges the possible use of such intoxicants, from Egypt to Ireland, to attain god-like knowledge: ‘this idea is widespread. The Babylonian gods had food and water of Life; Egyptian myth spoke of the bread and beer of eternity which nourished the gods; the Hindus and Iranians knew of the divine soma or haoma, and in Scandinavian myth the gods renewed their youth by tasting Iduna’s golden apples[...] it makes them of like nature to the gods[...] As various nuts and fruits were prized in Ireland as food, and were perhaps used in some cases to produce an intoxicant, it is evident that the trees of Elysium were, primarily, a magnified form of earthly trees.’
Today, the ‘magic mushroom’ or Liberty Cap mushroom (Psilocybe semilanceata) is the prime indigenous Celtic entheogen. There is a popular belief amongst psychonauts that Liberty Caps were used by druids, seers, witches, wizards and mystics down the ages. There tends to be a uniquely Celtic aesthetic to the Otherworld to which they transport the tripper, full of spirals and jewelled knots in complex patterns of incredible beauty, and oft peopled by elven or fairy-like entities. For many initiates, it is tempting to conclude that these mushrooms were responsible for the familiar motifs in what we now call Celtic art, such as carved symbol stones and carpet pages, with their plenitude of complex repeat patterns, interlacings and whirring spirals, as well as being responsible for a lot of fairy encounters. It is also common for magic mushroom eaters to believe that they have been imparted with special knowledge of some sort, which cannot be articulated when back in this world, except through the secret language of myth and symbol. We have no written evidence, however, of deliberate magic mushroom use before the twentieth century in Scotland. Only a tiny fragment of plant lore has survived the relentless persecution of the Christian church, so this knowledge of fungal sacraments may also have disappeared. Given its nature, it may have been a well-kept secret, guarded from the uninitiated by ritual and taboo.
In Ireland, the Liberty Caps are known as ‘pookas’, denoting the mushrooms’ association with puck, the mischievous trickster earth-sprite. Magic mushroom researcher Andy Letcher agrees with Mike Jay, that the most likely reference to knowledge of the mushroom’s entheogenic properties lies with the Irish ‘Pooka’ complex. Jay shows how this has led to an entire subculture based largely on informed speculation: ‘If there was any source where it’s possible that these scenes of mushroom enchantment had any pharmacological basis, it would be within the Irish tradition, where the Gaelic slang for mushroom – “pookie” – associates it closely with the elemental nature spirit Pooka (whence Puck). “Pookie” remains the Irish drug culture slang for magic mushrooms.’
In his hunt for the ‘Irish soma’ Peter Lamborn Wilson finds a possible reference to the Pooka complex in Scottish Gaelic: ‘Pooka as a mushroom name could also be related to the word for “bee” – Scots Gaelic beacan – which in a slightly different form (beacán; variants are buíocán and bocán) also means mushroom in Irish. This would connect the mushroom with honey and mead, and thus again with the soma motif. Another Gaelic name for mushroom is ballag-bhuachair, “little member or limb” or “little penis of cowshit.” Ballag is phallus... Psilocybe mushrooms love cow-pies...’
Shaman Fishing – Cracking the Nuts of Knowledge
In Irish mythology, the Tuatha Dé Danann were the old pre-Christian gods and goddesses, who now inhabit the Otherworld as The Sídhe, or the fairies. They were closely aligned with the heroes of Celtic myth, spanning the whole Celtic world. One well-known Gaelic story from The Boyhood Exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill (‘Finn MacCool’) tells of how the mythical Celtic hero Fionn gained his magical knowledge by sucking his thumb after scalding it in the Druid Finnegas’ cauldron. The cauldron contained the famed and hard-won Salmon of Wisdom who had been eating the Nuts of Knowledge. It was forbidden that anyone but the druid consume any part of it, as it imparted ‘special knowledge’ to anyone that ate it. This gnosis was incidentally passed on to the young Fionn when he had innocently sucked his scalded thumb, and he could not hide the ‘fire in his eyes’ from his druid master. Whenever Fionn thereafter placed that thumb in his mouth, ‘unknown things’ came to him. I have often wondered what these Nuts of Knowledge were? Why the thumb motif? It is clear that this is a symbolic reference to some sort of substance that imparts divine knowledge or gnosis.
Liberty Caps and hazelnuts both appear in the autumn, and the Liberty Cap mushrooms’ distinctive nut-brown pointed caps actually resemble hazelnuts:
On immersion in water, after a while a hazelnut will become soft, just like a mushroom cap. They even taste similar. In other words, once cooked in water, they become indistinguishable from each other.
It seems plausible that these nuts of knowledge may have been Liberty Cap mushrooms cooked with the salmon, thus rendering the meal vision-inducing. We can imagine the druid going ‘gathering hazelnuts’, when he is in fact secretly collecting magic mushrooms. Their similarity to little thumbs poking up from the grass may explain the ‘thumb of Fionn’ idea.
Further crucial clues are found in linguistic connections between the Gaelic words for nuts and mushrooms. When investigating metaphoric references to the Amanita muscaria mushroom in Irish myth, E.R. Laurie and T.White discovered that there is a Gaelic word that can mean both ‘mushroom’ and ‘nut’: ‘In Celtic legends, hazelnuts are variously called cuill crimaind, the hazels of knowledge; bolg fis, bubbles of wisdom; bolg imbais, bubbles of poetic inspiration; bolg gréine, sun bubbles; and imbus gréine, sun of inspiration. These terms refer not only to the nuts but also to the bubbles caused by the nuts falling into the waters of the well of wisdom. Significantly, bolg is a word frequently found in both Irish and Scots Gaelic names of mushrooms. Colloquial Gaelic preserves other links between mushrooms and the traditional hazelnuts of wisdom, even today. In Irish, we find the phrase caochóg cnó, literally a “blind nut” – which means a nut without a kernel. Scottish Gaelic, which often preserves older uses of the language than does Irish Gaelic, gives us the words caochag, which means either a nut without a kernel or a mushroom, and caochagach, the state of being full of nuts without kernels or full of mushrooms.’
When there is so little textual evidence, and so much oral evidence, it is easy to over-interpret the data in favour of the presence of entheogens. Wilson admits that ‘It would be a mistake to start seeing mushrooms or other power-plants everywhere’, but he adds that ‘masking and guising are precisely the sort of behaviour one might expect from a transformative substance. It might appear as some other “harmless” plant like heather or yew. It might appear as anything shaped or coloured like a berry or a mushroom cap; it is often compared with gold objects, milk, fish, parts of the human anatomy (penis, thumb), or articles of clothing.’
Into the Hill
‘Fairyland exists as a supernormal state of consciousness into which men and women may enter temporarily in dreams, trances, or in various ecstatic conditions; or for an indefinite period at death.’
Like Robert Kirk, Fion mac Cumhaill did not die, but sleeps in a cave awaiting his resurrection with his cohorts, the Fianna. Apart from a few tantalising clues, their secrets have gone with them, deep into their respective hollow hills.
It is clear that any experience of the Otherworld, even if shared between individuals, remains elusive, subjective, inexpressible, and beyond conclusive analysis. The fairies themselves warn us about telling their secrets. Thus any description or account of their Otherworld remains buried in symbol and laced with metaphor. There is no substitute for getting into the fairy hill yourself. It’s not that far away.
 Robert Kirk The Secret Commonwealth (1692) in Michael Hunter The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late 17th Century Scotland (Boydell, 2001)
 ‘What all shamans have in common, regardless of which culture they come from, is an ability to enter and control altered states of consciousness. Shamanism, therefore, is not a set of beliefs, nor the result of purposeful study. It is first and foremost the set of techniques needed to achieve trance and thus to occasion particular kinds of experiences – hallucinations – which are then in turn used to interpret events and guide behaviour.’ (Graham Hancock Supernatural (Arrow, 2006) p.210)
 Nemeton: From the Gaelic neimheadh, denoting a sacred site such as a fairy hill, a druidical grove, a holy shrine, a megalithic site, a burial mound, or a magic tree or well.
 Throughout this essay, Kirk’s archaic language, spellings and punctuation are transcribed as written.
 Robert Kirk op.cit. p.85
 John Gregorson Campbell Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands (1900 and 1902) in The Gaelic Otherworld (Ronald Black ed.) (Birlinn, 2005)
 W.Y. Evans-Wentz The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1912) (Citadel Press, 1994)
 Graham Hancock discusses these UFO-type fairy encounters and abductions in the context of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth in his book Supernatural. See Graham Hancock op.cit., Chapter 14.
 Robert Kirk op. cit. p.79
 Evans-Wentz op.cit. pp.167-168
 ibid. p.66
 ibid. p,491
 Michael Hunter, op.cit. pp.13-14
 See Introduction: Robert Boyle; Robert Boyle’s notes on his interview with Lord Tarbat, 3 October 1678; and ‘A Collection of Highland Rites and Customs in Michael Hunter, op cit. pp.2-12, pp.51-53, and pp.54-56 respectively.
 Kirk’s translation of the Psalms was the first Gaelic translation of any biblical text, thus affording Gaelic-speaking Scots unmediated access to their holy texts for the first time.
 Robert Kirk op.cit. p.87
 ibid. p.95
 Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan Scottish Fairy Belief (Tuckwell, 2001) p.102
 Robert Kirk op.cit. p.88
 ibid. p.81
 Reverend Dr. Patrick Graham Sketches Descriptive of the Picturesque scenery of Perthshire (Edinburgh 1810) pp.116-18
 Lewis Spence Fairy Tradition in Britain (1948) (Kessinger, 1997) p.209
 See Frederick R. Dannaway, Alan Piper, Peter Webster Bread of Heaven or Wines of Light: Entheogenic Legacies and Esoteric Cosmologies (https://www.academia.edu/1376609/Bread_of_heaven_or_wines_of_light_Entheogenic_legacies_and_esoteric_cosmologies); Paul Devereux The Long Trip – A Prehistory of Psychedelia (Arkana, 1997); Robert Forte (ed.) Entheogens and the Future of Religion (CSP, 1997); Dan Merkur The Mystery of Manna – The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible (Park Street Press, 1999)
 see Piero Camporesi Bread of Dreams (Polity, 1989) p.127
 J.A. MacCulloch The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911) (Constable, 1991) p.378
 See Andy Letcher Shroom – A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Faber & Faber, 2006)
 Mike Jay Emperors of Dreams – Drugs in the Nineteenth Century (Dedalus, 2000) p.190
 Peter Lamborn Wilson Ploughing the Clouds – The Search for Irish Soma (City Lights, 1999) p.31
 Erynn Rowan Laurie and Timothy White Speckled snake, brother of birch: Amanita muscaria motifs in Celtic legends. (Shaman's Drum 44:53-65, 1997) p.67
 Wilson op.cit. p.16
 Evans-Wentz op.cit. p.490