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Photo: M.Dörr & M.Frommherz

The Myth and Lore of The Fairy Ring

For thousands of years, peoples of various cultures have regarded fairy rings with a strong sense of curiosity and fear, believing them to be mystical, supernatural places. Folklore tells us that cultures across Europe have traditionally believed that fairy rings are the dwelling place of fairies, elves, witches, and other magical beings– and that in some cases, they may be dangerous to enter. Even though fairy rings were thought to be little realms where fairies dance and play, lore suggested that if a human interrupted the fun, the cost could be deadly serious.

Science tells us that fairy rings– or patterns of certain types of mushrooms that grow in circular formations– are naturally-occurring phenomenon that usually appear year after year on lawns, in fields, and in forests. Fairy rings occur when a mushroom spore falls in a favorable spot, grows a mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus), and spreads out an underground network of fine, tubular threads called hyphae. Mushroom caps then appear at the edges of this network. The formations continue to expand outward, using up all the nutrients within them as they grow larger. A ring found in Belfort, France– the largest ever seen– measures approximately 2,000 feet in diameter, and is an astounding 700 years old.

What then could be so dangerous about a circle of mushrooms? According to many English and Celtic tales, any human who enters a fairy ring will be forced to dance with the creatures, unable to stop until they go mad or perish of exhaustion. Dutch traditions tell of fairy rings that were created by the devil as a place to keep his milk churn, and any livestock that were to enter said circle would suffer the souring of their own milk. An Austrian legend also claims that fairy rings were the work of dragons that burned them into the ground with their fiery tails.

Photo: Alessandro Zocc

According to The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, a Northumberland tradition states that in order to investigate a fairy ring, one must run around it nine times under the full moon. If one were to accidentally add a tenth circle, “evil would befall the runner.”

Welsh tradition’s dire tale varies slightly in that the unfortunate consequences of a human’s arrival into a fairy ring are not brought about by the fairies themselves, but by the nature of their world. According to the legend of Llewellyn and Rhys, the pace of the fairy world differs from that of the human one; a person could dance for minutes in a fairy ring only to discover that it has been days or weeks in the human one. And if one manages to make it back into the human realm, the shock could easily kill them.

Not all myth surrounding the fairy ring is quite so dark, however. Some legends say that fairy rings are, in fact, good luck. While Welsh tradition doesn’t recommend entering them, it is good fortune to grow crops around them and allow livestock to feed nearby. They are said to improve fertility and fortune. In Germany, fairy rings were called Hexenringe, or “Witches Rings,” and were believed to be places where witches danced to celebrate Walpurgis Night, a festival that welcomes the beginning of spring.

Photo: Erin Brierley/Flickr

Because fairy rings are typically associated with magic and other-worldly phenomena, they are regarded with awe as well as with fear. Shakespeare alludes to fairy rings with appreciation in Act II, Scene I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the fairies say:

And I serve the fairy queen,

To dew her orbs upon the green… 

As the weather starts to cool and summer transitions into fall, fairy rings appear all over the world and spark our imaginations. If you happen to spy one on your lawn or come across one while hiking, watch your step, and perhaps try listening for the quiet sound of laughter and merriment that people have heard from them for so many thousands of years.

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