Perfect circles of mushrooms… Round, odd patches of dead lawn… Extra-bright green rings of growth in the grass… Centuries-old folklore gives the name Fairy Rings to these bizarre phenomena. But what are they, really?
Not surprisingly, modern science has an answer (jump to the scientific answer). But as with other weird, naturally-occurring happenings, the origins of fairy rings were widely speculated before science offered answers, resulting in a wide variety of legends across Europe and New England, with the British Isles boasting an especially impressive array of fairy ring lore.
Though the details range wildly from region to region, there is a central theme to fairy rings in English-speaking tradition: after dark has fallen, when the humans have gone home to their hearths, mischievous, magical little people come out in the fields and woods to make music and merriment. As they dance around and around, their prancing feet leave a lasting circular imprint in the grass.
The connection between fairies and spontaneously occurring rings of mushrooms has existed at least since around the year 1300. According to Dr. Alaric Hall (Lecturer in Medieval English Literature, University of Leeds), in his work The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England, this is the date of the first recorded incident of the Middle English word for fairy ring: “elferingewort”, which literally means “elf-ring-plant.”
In England in the 1600’s, popular belief held that though fairies dancing in a ring at night made enough noise to be bothersome, they didn’t speak in words. Instead, they made an indistinct humming noise. In his 1865 study, “The Folk-Lore of Shakespeare”, Victorian writer and folklorist W. J. Thoms relates the tale from “the yeare 1633-4” of one Mr. Hart that illustrates this particular belief:
Comming over the downs, it being neere darke, and approaching one of the faiery dances, as the common people call them in these parts, viz. the greene circles made by those sprites on the grasse, he all at one saw an innumerable quantitie of pigmies, or very small people, dancing rounde and rounde, and singing and making all manner of small odd noyses. He, being very greatly amaz’d, and yet not able, as he sayes, to run away from them, being, as he supposes, kept there in a kinde of enchantment, they no sooner perceave him but they surrounded him on all sides, and what betwixte feare and amazement he fell down, scarcely knowing what he did; and thereupon these little creatures pinch’d him all over, and make a quick humming noyse all the tyme; but at length they left him, and when the sun rose he found himself exactly in the midst of one of these faiery dances.
Mr. Hart’s English feet were frozen to the spot, but in Welsh tradition, witnesses of fairy ring dances are more likely to join the fun. A tale recorded in 1891 tells of a boy from Pembrokeshire in the south west of Wales who took part in such a dance and was subsequently transported to a beautiful palace with a beautiful garden. That was a legend, but another recorder working in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Wilt Sikes, noted that people then living in the country in Wales believed that the rings had been made by fairies, “in a time not long gone,” and that one who enters is doomed to bad luck. “An old man at Peterstone-super-Ely told me he well remembered in his childhood being warned by his mother to keep away from the fairy rings,” Sikes wrote. “The counsel thus given him made so deep an impression on his mind, that he had never in his life entered one.”
In the last 150 years, fairies have often been associated with toadstools and dancing in circles in both literature and art. Though there is a scientific explanation, the magical explanation lives alongside it.
WHAT SCIENCE SAYS: An underground fungal organism pushes out in all directions from a central spore, and when it is ready to reproduce, sprouts mushrooms along the outer edge, creating a visible ring. When the fungus uses up all the nutrients in the soil, it dies along with the grass over it, creating a bare round patch. The outer edge of the fungus may continue to live, and as it grows outward it will release a chemical into the soil ahead to bring out nutrients from the soil, which the grass can use as well as the fungus, resulting in a patch of healthy, young grass. Before modern-era research and instruments, the scientifically-minded sought to explain the rings with meteorite landings, lightening strikes, or toxic vapors rising from the earth.