The cheese well
One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain. The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing. The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.
Offerings to fairies
The offerings take several forms. The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation. Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle. On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies. If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.
Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets. These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities. They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents. This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.
In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy. There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘ If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’ Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.
Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies. An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning. When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left. This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity. Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour. These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation. An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22). He tells of a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.” This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.
The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings. Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night. Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning. Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers. Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions. Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.” Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread. And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).
Offerings to brownies
The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore. A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases. The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment. The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken. If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.
An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X). Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:
A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century. An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes. He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg. When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour. It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.
The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined. This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief. In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs. The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains. In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).