The Great Elf Debate

At short notice I went down to London yesterday to take part in The Great Elf Debate, a session organised by the tireless Dr David Luke (one of the brains behind Breaking Convention), as part of his excellent Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness series at the October Gallery.

There are numerous trip reports from people taking indole tryptamine hallucinogens - DMT, ayahuasca, psilocybin, iboga etc - of encounters with entities, tricksy discarnate spirits who seem to possess agency and are eager to communicate with us. In short, elves. The $64 million question is, of course, what is their ontological status? Are they objectively real, conjurations of the mind, or simply symptoms of insanity?

During my last, large, excursion into the psilosphere, and rather to my annoyance given my sceptical approach to the matter, I had the distinct impression of being observed by alien intelligences, who were poised to welcome humanity into some kind of galactic citizenship, should we merit the transition - the 'full McKenna' as it's called. Bollocks! I stood dumbfounded, thinking perhaps that all the psy-fi stuff I'd read about was true.

In the half-light of dawn I watched a strange light dance back and forwards across the downs, almost within reach. Bollocks again, I thought! Fairies! That is, until the light resolved itself into the headlights of a car, commuting through the early hours along the A4. Double blast and bollocks! Someone was playing games with me...

Back in the October Gallery, David gave an erudite summary of elves in folklore and psychedelia, illuminated with his own otherworldly encounters. I spoke briefly about how difficult it is to ground elvish contact in objective reality (which is not to say that they are figments of the imagination, just that it's very difficult to say with any certainty what they are), while James Kent skyped in from Seattle with the view that elves exist only in the mind. That his elves have been unable to say anything useful, beyond mischievously returning his every question, seems strongly to support his case.

Two ideas occurred to me during the evening. The first is that elves might be some gestalt creation of the mind. Occasionally, during that hypnagogic half-awake phase, song lyrics come tumbling out of me and, what's more, they rhyme and scan perfectly while the images they evoke elide together into unexpected metaphors. It's as if with my conscious brain distracted, my unconscious mind can work freely such that the lyrics arrive in one glorious and unexpected gestalt: almost as if they were presented to me. Perhaps the same is true of the elves, that under the influence of certain hallucinogens, the mind gestalts beings - in truth, extensions of itself - that appear autonomous. Maybe.

The second came from thinking about that most seasonal of birds, the cuckoo. The cuckoo doesn't rear its own young but lays its eggs in other birds' nests, and fools them into rearing its monstrous, parasitical chicks. Is there a parallel with our relationship to plants? It takes a lot of energy to maintain a brain capable of consciously acting, so perhaps, in evolutionary terms, certain plants have saved themselves the bother by simply producing molecules by which they can hijack that of a passing mammal. By affecting the parts of the brain to do with language, vision, and people-recognition, the molecules create avatars of themselves which appear to us as other-than-human-persons, to use Irving Hallowell's phrase. So, if this were the case, the elves would literally be plants talking to us.

There are two problems with this Cuckoo hypothesis. First, beyond encouraging us to become Johnny Appleseeds, it is not entirely clear what a plant would get out of the bargain. If we could establish beyond doubt that the elves had some kind of consistent message for us, which is not culturally-bound, then that would certainly lend some support to the idea, but I'm not sure this can be done. Second, it requires that humans and hallucinogenic plants have had a long evolutionary relationship (symbiotic or parasitical - take your pick) , and, as readers of Shroom will know, evidence for this is, at least in the case of psilocybin mushrooms, is questionable. Perhaps the Cuckoo hypothesis is simply cuckoo.

To return to my dancing light - was it a fairy or a car headlight, or both? Trust a denizen of the otherworld to leave me utterly bewildered...


  1. Interesting ideas, and I'm glad that people are talking about this topic.

    Here's my two cents, as someone who absolutely believes in "elves" (for lack of a better term - let's say "nature spirits" in general, including elves, fairies, nymphs, rusalki, and other folkloric entities). What these theories neglect to take into account is the fact that thousands of people over the centuries have had encounters with these spirits *without* the use of entheogens. And while mad poets and artists certainly are more receptive to their presence, they have always been acknowledged by regular folk as well. So while sacred plants can be a doorway, they cannot be responsible for the very existence of elves.

    So my guess is that some people who are taking hallucinogens now are indeed seeing real nature spirits (especially if they're outdoors in a likely location), and some are seeing products of their own minds, or other random "stuff" that exists out there in the multiverse. But there's only one way to encourage a true experience with elves and the like, especially one that repeats and is productive - do what the fairy tales and folklore tell you: give them gifts, be polite, keep your promises, respect their homes, etc.

    I do use entheogens, occasionally, to communicate with nature spirits, but that is only a small part of a much deeper, broader relationship I've spent years establishing. Which makes it a very different experience than what others describe, who only see them on shrooms.

  2. Andy, you're a gestalt portal for the greatest confluence of words on this issue this side of hyperspace. The perfect summary. Thanks so much for coming, it was a really enlightening evening (much better than staying at gnome with mice elf) - and which later totally inhinged itself once the bicycles started riding past the moon with the elves in the baskets... just as well you left when you did... ET phone home, you're actually an IT (intra-terrestrial), or maybe working in IT... that was certainly a long strange and mischeivous trip... with much thanks to the good folk!

  3. Something I read coming from our benevolent master of ceremonies : we are so alienated that the self must disguise itself as an extraterrestrial in order not to alarm us with the bizzare dimensions it encompasses. When we can love the alien, then we will have begun to heal the psychic discontinuity that plagues us....

  4. I wrote a big long fascinating comment here, and it vanished into the Blogspot abyss.

    Well, at least I've got my elf.

  5. Only got your elf to blame, eh? If you can be arsed, post again as I would love to read your thoughts. Sorry we got interrupted the other night, but what a mighty interruption Amal Gamal was!

  6. My own thoughts on elves is that they do exist, but only in that transient realm of the slightly insane mind. They love us because they cannot live without us, they are wholly dependent on the power of human imagination to manifest. But when they manifest they waste no time in playing in their fountains. A fleeting existence must be filled entirely with celebration.

    Also, if there is a "Cuckoo" plant that hijacks human consciousness, my vote goes to Salvia divinorum.

  7. Thanks for the clarification James. Does ours count as a fleeting existence? I do hope so! x

  8. 'Are they objectively real, conjurations of the mind, or simply symptoms of insanity?'
    With my shamanic hat on (should that be bear skull?), I would suggest that the distinction between the above three options may be artificial. Ontological reality is not a single, reified truth on which we all agree: we all experience time weirdnesses; altered perceptions according to company/hormones/which side of the bed we got out; etc.
    We have many different mental states. We have social judgements about imagination and insanity, but they're just different states.
    What I'm burbling towards is the idea that no reality is more real than any other. Every reality is someone else's delusion. If we cannot imagine a thing, it is very difficult to manifest it (I'm thinking 'a new home' rather than manifesting gold from thin air here). Simple eye witness testimony proves we are all astoundingly rubbish at knowing what we just experienced.
    And if you don't believe me, Einstein said something like, 'Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.'
    You can relax now. I've finished.

  9. The Elf's Ode: "Who is real?/What is real?/Is it unreal to feel so real?/And to seal the deal/is to reveal more layers/but to peel what is real/is ultimately surreal./For what was unreal was unthought/and what is unthought is other/but it cannot be taught/for the others simply my brother, my sister, my thought/and I'm left wondering if the question ought to be nought./But the question is asked/therefore the question is real/and if the question is real/who is it that feels?/Who is it that questions, is it real to feel?/ Or, indeed, can you feel what is real?/The question is certainly a problem when high/because it leaves me wandering round the space of the self in a circle/and like a turtle flipped/I cannot budge/stuck in a causality/I'm told is reality." :o)



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