Friday posts are written by Sage of the blog Sage and Starshine. Every week or so they explore a different aspect of the Otherfaith through the letters of the alphabet.
This week I’d like to examine what the Otherfaith means when we talk about our gods and spirits as fairy gods and spirits, and what personhood means compared and contrasted between fairies and humans. This is an immense topic and one that plays into our core values of respecting consent and the laws of hospitality. Rather than give a definitive answer of “this is what it means to be a fairy” – which, as a human, I really can’t fathom – I’d like to share my own process of struggling with the personhood of these Other beings.
One quick note about terms: though this word obviously is borrowed from a Celtic religious worldview, which originally referred to the “Fair Folk” living in or below sidhe mounds, we use “fairy” to refer to many of our gods and spirits. When we refer to the Clarene as the daughter of a Fairy Queen, or to the Laetha as transforming from human to fairy to god, we are not talking about them in a Celtic context. “Fairy” is a specific type (species, race, what have you) of person that usually, though perhaps not always, is different from the “human” type. There are certainly fairy beings out there who are not related to the West or the Otherfaith that humans can and do interact with on a regular basis. And there are certainly Otherfaith spirits who merge seemingly separate categories, such as the Laetha who is comprised of both human and faerie experiences and identities.
Grappling with “what are faeries?” is an important part of being an Other Person. We are animists, at least nominally if we struggle with believing in a world (or worlds) full of spirits, and we believe that humans are not the only entities deserving of the label ‘person’ in the cosmos. Personhood is a heavy concept to consider. What counts as a person? Or in other terms, what counts as a who? How do we define personhood – in terms of intelligence, self-awareness, free will, or some other equally incorporeal quality? And perhaps more importantly, why do we define personhood with those qualities, and do they deny the agency and rights of others? These are not so much rhetorical questions as they are ones that might take a lifetime to contemplate and satisfactorily answer.
It may also take a lifetime to unwrap pre-conceived notions of how the world works and the assumed specialness of human beings. If there are other people out there besides humans, then how I experience personhood is inevitably influenced by a human bias. (Not of course that there’s anything wrong with humans; I wouldn’t be with the Otherfaith if it were seeking to yank us away from humanity or trying to convince us to abandon our world for the wilds of nature/the West/Heaven/nirvana/whatever other concept you might have.) That means I don’t really know how to separate my personhood from my humanity, which means I’m further at a loss when dealing with people who are very much not human.
Theologically speaking, keeping in mind my human bias means being aware of what I can’t understand about most gods and spirits. This goes beyond the idea that I can’t fully understand gods because they’re so much more powerful than humans – which isn’t a particularly helpful or wanted viewpoint in my religion, to be honest – to something far more humble. There’s something about Being A Deity that I can’t understand because I don’t experience, just as I have no idea what it’s like to be cisgender, a pachyderm, or a neutron star. Likewise, for most deities, there is something completely unique to my experience of being a human that can only be translated so far.
Of course there are entities who have transitioned from one category to another, or who occupy multiple roles at once. Antinous, for example, was a human who drowned in the Nile and was deified post-mortem by his lover, the Roman emperor Hadrian. Brighid is a goddess who, depending on your theology, may be the same person as the human St. Brigit, and who may also be fae-like in the more traditional sidhe sense. In the Otherfaith, all our gods are also faeries; the Laetha was once a human and the Dierne once a star spirit before their deification. Looking to liminal spirits as an example is one way of better understanding the strengths and limitations of our own biases.
I believe the nature of faeries may be best understood in the name we take for ourselves: the Other People, or someone who works with the Otherfaith. Some of our faeries are nature woodland sprite type creatures, such as the Flower Maidens. (Unlike Tinkerbell, however, these spirits have a considerably larger appetite for blood and vicious mayhem.) Others, like the Aletheia and the Firebird, are faeries of technology and circuitry, or otherwise connected with human inventions or urban living. Many faeries have an agenda and moral compass that seem directly contradictory to our own as human beings. The Red Room tells the story of one of the Aletheia’s ill-suited match with a human lover, whom he ultimately kills. This myth is told from the point of view of that human, who of course sees this Aletheia as an incomprehensible monster. (This, by the way, is one of the more difficult myths I’ve contemplated over the past several months and was what originally challenged my assumptions on personhood and spirits.)
Ultimately, we have to share the world and this religion with other beings who may not be like us, who have different needs and different ways of existing as persons. If we make assumptions that we have all the answers, we may not be very polite hosts (on the human side) or guests (on the Western Faery side). Those assumptions go beyond mere rudeness to the denial of personhood that leads us to treating gods like vending machines and ourselves like the center of the astral plane. What do our spirits need and want from us? Do each of them need and want something from us? Are we invested in learning about their lifeways, their cultures, their magic, or are we trying to smoosh them into a box of what faeries are and what they should be doing? Are we prepared to be wrong? And more importantly – are we ready to put things right again if we mess up?