Fairy Circles of Doom: Natural or Supernatural?

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You are walking in the woods alone. You come across a circle of mushrooms or a barren circle surrounded by lush greenery. Do you step into the circle? Might seem innocent enough, but lore recommends turning around and heading back home.

Listen, I’m not a wilderness woman. I cannot tell you which poisonous plants and wildlife to avoid, but I can tell you what supernatural spaces and forest demons to avoid when camping. So, get your pen ready…

Fairy Rings

Fairy Rings (also called Fairy Circles, Elf Circles, Elf Rings, or Pixie Rings) are circles of mushrooms that appear in forestland and grassland.

Fairy_ring_on_a_suburban_lawn_100_1851Various cultures attribute fairy rings to supernatural beings: witches, fairies, elves, demons etc. These circles form a space for magical beings to gather, dance, or protect. Any non-magical human who enters the circle will face consequences. Some (somewhat) scary consequences include:

  • If you enter the ring, you will be forced to dance to exhaustion or madness (English and Celtic folklore).
  • If any livestock crosses the fungi boundary, the milk they produce will be sour. That’s where the devil keeps his milk churn, after all (Dutch folklore).
  • If you dance in a fairy circle, you might enter a time warp. You see, fairies live at a different pace. You may leave the circle thinking it has been minutes, but it has actually been days or weeks (“Rhys at the Fairy-Dance”).

Not all fairy rings are bad. Some happy consequences include:

  • If you grow crops around such circles and have cattle feed nearby, you will increase fertility and fortune (Welsh folklore).
  • On Walpurgis Night, witches dance in the circles.

What creates these rings? Austrian folklore says the fire of a dragon, but there are some natural explanations.

A fairy ring is formed when a mushroom spore falls in the right spot and grows a mycelium (“vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony”) and then spreads tubular threads called hyphae underground. The mushroom caps grow on the edge of the network. Basically, the formation absorbs and pushes the nutrients outwards. When the nutrients are exhausted, the center dies and leaves the ring. The rings can grow up to 33 feet in diameter.

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Circles Without Vegetation

During my research, I came across the phenomenon of barren circles in nature. In these cases, I never heard the word “fairy circle” uttered. Nevertheless, I am going to discuss them (I’m the blog boss).

Devil’s Tramping Ground (North Carolina)

In Bear Creek, North Carolina there is a 120-year-old legend concerning a barren circle of forest ground created by the devil’s tramping. Animals refuse to enter the circle; plants will not grow. If you leave an object in the circle overnight, no matter its weight, it will be thrown from the circle by the next morning. The devil needs room to dance!

Journalist John William Harden (1903–1985) wrote of the spot:

Chatham natives say… that the Devil goes there to walk in circles as he thinks up new means of causing trouble for humanity. There, sometimes during the dark of night, the Majesty of the Underworld of Evil silently tramps around that bare circle– thinking, plotting, and planning against good, and in behalf of wrong. I have heard that boy scouts spent the night there and woke up with their tents a few miles away. There were also some guys who tried to stay up the whole night there. 2 men attempted to stay up all night, but were lulled to sleep by a soft voice.

Devil's Tramping Ground
CC BY-SA 2.5 by user Jason Horne

Would you be brave enough for a campout? In recent years, a journalist (and his two dogs) stayed the night in a tent right in the middle of the circle. He went there to disprove the old legend, but ended up hearing footsteps circle his tent. Other overnight campers reported strange shadowy figures staring at them from the treeline.

Is there a natural explanation for this barren circle? Could heavy traffic and bonfires be the culprit? Soil scientist Rich Hayes, who has run several tests of the site, says it may not be that easy: “The fact that there are written accounts going back hundreds of years about this spot being barren of vegetation makes me think something else is going on here besides people camping and burning big fires.” He argues soil tests do not give any reasons why plants cannot grow there. The mystery continues!

Hoia-Baciu Forest (Transylvania region of Romania)

Hoia-Baciu is called the “Bermuda Triangle of of Transylvania” and was named after a shepherd who disappeared in the forest with a flock of 200 sheep. The Clearing, where trees abruptly stop and surround a barren oval, is by far the creepiest part of the forest. In 1968, a military technician captured a photo of an alleged UFO flying above the clearing and received international attention. The Clearing, according to The Independent, “attracts Romanian witches, sword-wielding Americans, and people who try to cleanse the forest of evil through the medium of yoga.” I have no natural explanation for you concerning this circle, so maybe hold off on your yoga retreat.

The forest itself is home to ghosts. People have also reported losing track of time, electronic devices failing, and random “ectoplasms” floating in the air. One legend says a five-year-old girl was lost in the forest and returned years later, unchanged and wearing the same clothes.

Fairy Circles of Namibia

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CC BY 2.5 by user Stephan Getzin (via Beavis729)

There are mushroom fairy circles and there are these fairy circles: circles created by mysterious grass formations. Until recently, this phenomenon only occurred in the grasslands of the Namib desert of southern Africa. These circular patches can range in size from 7 to 49 feet, dotting the red desert surface like chicken pox.

Folklore says these circles are the footsteps of the gods or poisoned patches caused by dragon breath. These circles are believed to hold spiritual powers.

There are two competing scientific theories behind these circles. One theory is that termites are clearing the area around their nests, creating the circles. Another theory is that plants are competing for water. There was a detailed article about the scientific journey to explain these circles printed in The Atlantic last month. I recommend giving it a read.

Stay out of the forest and don’t walk into fairy circles!