They are magical places that mark – or are created by – the dancing of the “fair folk” on moonlit nights.
So say the legends.
Fairy rings can be found across the world, most often in forests, but they can also appear in grass- or rangelands. The rings or arcs of mushrooms vary in size, but they can survive hundreds of years and get to be huge. One of the largest – near Belfort, in France – is reported to be around 2,000 feet in diameter, and about 700 years old.
Elves, faeries and pixies aren't the only supernatural beings that they're associated with, either. In France, they've been called ronds de sorciers – sorcerers' rings – and in Germany, they're hexenringe (witches' rings).
In Tyrol, it was believed they're created by the fiery tails of flying dragons. And once a dragon had created such a ring, nothing would grow there for seven years.
Folklore is also full of warnings about entering such a magical circle. Tradition in France held that they were guarded by giant bug-eyed toads that would curse anyone who entered them. Elsewhere across Europe, a person who entered a ring would lose an eye, or die at a young age.
A Somerset tradition holds that a murderer or thief who steps into a fairy ring will be hanged.
To destroy a fairy ring brings bad luck.
It's equally dangerous to enter a fairy ring when the faeries are there. A mortal can be trapped inside the ring, forced to dance to the point of exhaustion, death or insanity. In the British Isles, the fae folk actively try to lure mortals into their circle – and those so trapped can't escape on their own. Help can only come from the outside.
Rescuing someone from a fairy ring can be as simple as catching hold of the victim and pulling him out – but it more often requires some magical means, such as throwing certain herbs into the ring or touching the victim with cold iron. Iron is inimical to magic and a ward against the fae and their enchantments.
Yet even when rescued, the mortal victim of the fae may not be safe. During what seems like minutes or hours inside a fairy ring, weeks or years may pass in the world outside. Legends tell of victims who crumble into dust the instant they emerge from the ring … or die of great age after their first bite of food in the mortal world.
On a more beneficial side, Welsh tradition holds that mountain sheep who eat the grass of a fairy ring flourish, and crops sown in that magical place will be more bountiful than elsewhere.
Other legends hold that fairy rings are gateways to the magical realms of the fae – a legend that I've drawn on in my Portals urban fantasy/detective series. In my mind, these rings mark the ancient sites of Portals between our human world and the Realms of Magic which are home to all of the beings of our folklore and mythology.
Science, of course, has a more prosaic explanation of fairy rings – that certain species of mushrooms simply tend to grow in rings, arcs – even other shapes including double arcs and sickle-shaped arcs. In fact, about 60 species of ring-producing mushrooms have been identified.
I prefer the magical explanations, the image of elves and other fae coming and going and dancing in the rings in moonlight.
What do you think?