Sunday, May 11, 2008

Celtic Faeries, Chinese Dragons and Other Liminal Creatures

By Larry Christopher

What do faeries, unicorns, dragons and mermaids have in common? Well, naturally they are all mythical creatures found in many folk and fairy tales. More than this, however, they are all creatures that might be considered liminal, or inhabiting a borderland between the gods and humans, or between good and evil.

Mythology is largely concerned with divine beings, usually called gods and goddesses. There are also demigods, such as Hercules, who had a god (Zeus) for a father and a human mother. Monotheistic religions, of course, later replaced the many gods with one God. Yet, interestingly enough, in places where belief in creatures like faeries was strong, such as Ireland, the new religion did not diminish this belief at all. Faeries were often relegated to a kind of "in between" (i.e. liminal) status, neither entirely good but certainly not evil the way demons are. To be sure, faeries in the Celtic lands were often feared, but more in the way wild animals are.

The attitude was something along the lines of "don't mess with them."

Many other supernatural creatures have a frightful aspect. Ghosts, zombies, demons and vampires, for example, are now popular subjects for horror films. Yet they all have a colorful history of scaring people in many parts of the world. The Little Folk, as the faeries are sometimes called, on the other hand, are much more ambiguous. They can, to be sure, do things that are outright nasty, as when they steal babies or lure people into worlds where they (the humans, that is) emerge many years later in human time. But for the most part, faeries exist independently of the human realm. They are not seen as existing primarily to menace us. Or to benefit us, for that matter.

Dragons are another interesting species of mythic creature with a varied and checkered history. In European tales, the dragon was usually a fearful and malevolent creature. Knights could demonstrate their bravery by slaying one of these monsters. Tolkien continued this portrayal of dragons as evil beings, with his own mythology. Bilbo and his friends have a perilous encounter with a nasty dragon in The Hobbit.

Chinese dragons, on the other hand, were considered in a much more positive light. While still potentially frightening, the dragon in ancient China was a regal symbol of strength and vitality. There is even a sign in the Chinese zodiac for the dragon, and people born in dragon years are highly respected. Today, many people in the West are rediscovering the positive attributes of dragons. Their popularity is perhaps only rivaled by that of their Otherworldly cousins, the fae. Dragons are starting to be seen as a protective symbol.

There are other magical creatures who seem to defy easy classification (as in "good" or "bad"). Mermaids, while probably a kind of faery, probably deserve a category of their own since so many stories have been told of them. Mermaids are fascinating creatures who can, like any faeries, be dangerous, especially to those who fall in love with them! As for unicorns, these are probably the most benevolent of the magical beings discussed here. I can't recall a story of an evil unicorn. Unicorns seem more ephemeral than anything else. They simply appear in and out of stories, with little if any descriptions of their origin.

All of these "liminal" magical creatures never fade from popular awareness. The form they take over the centuries may vary, but they seem to be embedded into our consciousness. Some would say the inhabit an archetypal realm. In any case, they obviously serve a need for mystery and enchantment, even in our own technological and scientific age. Perhaps we especially need them now to balance things out and remind us that everything cannot be explained rationally.

Larry Christopher is a writer and researcher on many topics, including cultural issues, the arts and metaphysics. He is also the author of the urban fantasy novel, The Stone of Alexandria.

For more on the fascinating world of faeries, visit

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