“Cakes & cream”: more thoughts upon the fairy diet

fairy mab fuseli

Queen Mab, by Henry Fuseli

Staying recently on the Devon/ Cornish border, I found an entry in the accommodation guest book from a previous guest.  He had visited a local holy well that is protected by a benign elf, he said, before going on to observe that fairies are veggies and that we should look after the cows grazing on all sides of the cottage.  This set me thinking (about fairies, not cows); what’s the evidence for this assertion?  Are fairies vegetarian, or is this just modern wishful thinking, to fit with prevailing views of fairies as protectors of the environment?

There are two very early sources that suggest that fairies avoid meat:

  • the Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk, when first found in the early 12th century, were pale, their skin tinged green, and for some time after their discovery they would only eat raw green beans, refusing bread and other food;
  • Gerald of Wales (1188) tells the story of Elidyr who visited fairy land in his youth.  He claimed that these little people “never ate flesh or fish” and instead lived upon various milk dishes, made up into junkets and flavoured with saffron.

The fairy preference for dairy products was well known in Elizabethan folk lore.  Queen Mab loved junkets according to Milton (a junket is a mixture of curds and cream, sweetened and flavoured).  Ben Jonson has her consuming cream, too, and Brownies are conventionally rewarded for their housework with bowls of cream or milk.  The fairies are also known to bake cakes and bread and to drink cider and wine.  There is good evidence, then, that fairies prefer a vegetarian diet, though not a vegan one.

However, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the sources.  Elidyr also told Gerald that the tiny beings he met kept horses and greyhounds.  The latter are hunting dogs and the elves were plainly equipped for the chase.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the hero meets the king of fairy when he is out hunting wild beasts with his hounds; the king is also said to hunt wild fowl, such as mallards, herons and cormorants, with his falcons. The Gabriel Hounds of Lancashire are fairy dogs; they are also called Gabriel Ratchets, a ratchet being a hound that hunted by scent rather than by sight.  The pursuit of all this game was presumably for some purpose other than mere sport.  We have to assume that the deer, boars and birds that were caught were all eaten and that these particular fairies were very far from veggie.  The bwca living on the beach at Newlyn in west Cornwall were given a share of the catch by local fishermen and they were doubtless expected to eat those fish. The Highland water horses, the cabaill ushtey and the each uisge, both carry off and consume cattle and children, as does the Welsh afanc.  

Each-Uisge

‘Each uisge’ from Villains Wiki

What are we to conclude?  The folklore evidence is not unanimous, but then it seldom is.  There are different sorts of fairy and each will naturally have its own tastes and preferences.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a very old strand of belief that some fairies eat a limited diet excluding flesh, perhaps as an indicator of their otherness or of their sympathetic links to the natural world.

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‘Smells like earth spirit’

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English writer John Aubrey, in his Miscellanies (1695), has the following record for 1670:

“Not far from Cirencester was an apparition.  Being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad, returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume- and a most melodious twang.  M. W. Lilly believes it was a fairie.”

That there might be a peculiar odour (and sound) associated with faery is a rare aspect of the folk lore accounts, but there are traces of suggestive evidence.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook W. W. Gill advises that the upper parts of glens are the best places to see, hear and smell Manx fairies.  What you will encounter is “a stale, sour smell”, apparently.  The nature of this odour may be explained by an Irish tale.  Biddy Mannion was abducted to act as nurse to the sickly infant of the king and queen of faerie.  After successfully caring for the child she was permitted to return home- but not before an ointment was rubbed on her eyes.  This revealed that she was in a frightful cave full of dead men’s bones, which had “a terribly musty smell.”  I have mentioned before the association of fairies with the dead, of which this is another demonstration.

Additionally, and for the purposes of comparison, I was interested to read that, in the Philippines, it is said that the smell of damp earth on a hot day, as it there had just been a downpour, is a sign of the presence of supernaturals.  In Tagalog this is called maalimuom or masangsang (Jaime Licauco,  Dwarves & other nature spirits, 2005, p.8).

Twentieth century spiritualist Edward Gardner has something to say on these matters.  He is quoted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1921 book on the Cottingley fairy incident, The coming of the fairies.  In chapter VIII Garner provides the theosophical view on the nature of fairies and states that they have no language as such (or none that mortal ears can hear, anyway), but communicate by means of sound and music.  More conventional fairy lore stresses the fairies love of music and dancing for entertainment- as I have discussed before.  Musical tones generated by the fairies themselves is a rather different concept- but perhaps some witnesses assumed the sounds heard came from instruments and not the fairy beings themselves.

Secondly, both Gardner and his colleague, Geoffrey Hodson, linked fairies intimately with flowers.  They saw fairies as nature spirits whose function was to help plants and flowers grow and reproduce.  This being the case, if any scent could be linked to these elementals, it would be that of blossom. Hodson  perceived the smell of flowers as akin to musical chords.

The evidence is sparse, but what little there is certainly gives us a new and intriguing perspective on the denizens of Faery.  The best that can be said is that, for some at least, the experience of encountering supernaturals is not solely a visual impression.

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An image from the photo shoot for the 1993 album ‘Siamese Dream’ by Smashing Pumpkins.  The (reissued) album cover features at the top; it’s not Nirvana, I know, but it’s the same era and genre, it’s got fairy wings and it’s one of my favourite albums, so why not….?

‘Local fairies for local folk’

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I have just published my new fairy tale, The Derrickwhich is a story aimed primarily at children.  Its title character is a traditional fairy from Dorset and Hampshire.  In this posting I want to explore a little further this theme of local fairy types.

There is a great variety of fairies in the British Isles; some are found across the country, but many differ regionally or across regions and some can be very local indeed.  They seem often to be adapted to a specific environment or social niche.  Here are a few examples:

  • Derricks- these only occur along the south coast; the Hampshire Derricks are apparently friendlier and more helpful than those of Dorset;
  • many brownies and hobs are tied to particular houses, farms or caves, as I have discussed separately;
  • orchards of the south-west- various fairy spirits, such as Awd Goggy, exist to guard orchards and the like from thieves and children (see earlier posting);
  • the Lincolnshire fens– this unique region is home to the Tiddy Ones, also called the Yarthkins, the Strangers and the Greencoaties.  They are rooted in the local soil and act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life; as such they received tribute or offerings from the local people- the first fruits and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings could be vindictive, affecting harvests, yields and even the birthrate.  They have been described as being a span high with thin limbs and over-sized hands, feet and heads.  They have long noses, wide mouths and make odd noises.  They danced on large flat stones in the moon light.  One particular spirit, the Tiddymun, seemed to control the flood waters in the days before the Fens were drained.  From time to time, he appeared from pools at night and might drag victims back into them, but generally he was sympathetic to local people.  His close ties to the management of water levels emphasise his local nature and function;
  • East Anglia- in Norfolk and Suffolk people spoke of the ferishers/ feriers/ frairies/ farisees.  These local fairies were known to be very small and very secretive.  They lived underground and were seldom seen.  This was perhaps fortunate as, above ground, they could be dangerous to humans; certainly, they rode cattle and horses at night;
  • spriggans- pixies are well known to be localised in the south-west peninsula; so too are the spriggans.  They are described as dour and ugly; their particular role seems to be protecting other fairies from intrusions or insults by humankind (see the stories of The Miser on the Fairy Gump or The Fairies on the Eastern Green, both from Penwith in Cornwall).  They were very closely linked to ancient sites, such as hill-forts, where they guarded buried gold.  In this the spriggans seem to be linked to the Redshanks or Danes of Somerset (I borrowed this idea for The Derrick).  The localisation of spriggans on distinctive sites in the region is especially notable.

If certain fairies have indeed adapted to local conditions and features, it may come as little surprise to learn that a symbiotic relationship with the human denizens of those areas has likewise evolved.  Two examples (once again from the south-west) are worthy of mention:

  • the Newlyn bucca is given fish by local fishermen in order to get good weather and good shoals;
  • knockers in the tin mines were given food in return for help locating the best lodes.

Obviously in these cases the human-fairy relationship  had adapted to local conditions.  It was, moreover, self-reinforcing- placid seas and a good haul of mackerel ensured further offerings for the bucca.

There is a tendency to generalise on fairy types and characteristics (of which, of course, I can be guilty in this blog) but many fairies were very restricted in their distribution, very individual in their behaviour and very local in their interests and preoccupations.

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Fairy lore and The Mabinogion

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As many readers are likely to be aware, The Mabinogion is the collection of early medieval Welsh stories that connects us to ancient Celtic mythology and gives us the first literary mentions of later Romantic hero, King Arthur.  Much could be written (and has been) about the connections between these stories and the works of Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France and Malory; yet more can be said about the links between the Welsh myths and the Irish stories of Cuchulain and others.  Here, I wish solely to focus upon the traces of fairy-lore in these accounts.

It is fair to say that The Mabinogion is steeped in magic.  Fairy glamour- the use of concealment, deception and transformation- is a theme that runs throughout the different stories of the collection.  The ‘glamorous’ quality of the tales is so fundamental to them and so subtle that we might almost overlook it.  Nonetheless, the integral otherworldly quality of many of the stories shares a nature and a source with faery.  These are fairy-tales just as much as they are hero stories, pseudo-history or courtly romances.

There are several features that can be identified which more explicitly demonstrate the fairy presence in The Mabinogion.  These include:

  • mounds- in several tales the action takes place, or characters are discovered seated upon, mounds.  In Pwyll and Manawyddan the gorsedd at Narberth has a particularly central role, but see too the stories of Owein and of Peredur- in the latter one mound is also explicitly stated to be a barrow, reminding us of the link between fairies and ancient sites.  Regular readers will further recall that grassy knolls are a typical fairy haunt;
  • magical ointment- in an incident in the story of Peredur, an ointment is used to revive knights killed in combat.  This quality of bestowing immortality or overcoming mortality recalls my recent discussion of the properties of fairy ointment;
  • fairy hounds- at the very start of the story Pwyll, the eponymous hero comes across Arawn, lord of Annwfn, who is out hunting with archetypal supernatural hounds– white with red ears.  This is very plainly a fairy pack and Arawn appears to be the lord of fairyland;
  • in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen, the many members of King Arthur’s court are listed.  Amongst them is his messenger Sgilti Light Foot who can run over forests on the tops of the trees and over mountains on the tips of the reeds. This skill is directly paralleled by a fairy trait recorded at Llanberis in North Wales by John Rhys; the Tylwyth Teg were said to be so light and agile that they could dance on the tips of the rushes (Celtic folklore p.83);
  • characters in the tales can travel with a tell-tale gliding motion, most notably Rhiannon in the story of Pwyll; she cannot be pursued either slowly or quickly, but always mysteriously moves ahead of those following her. This gait is distinctively fairy and is a feature of the ‘fairy rades’ often commented upon.
  • lastly, we must address the identity and nature of the people called Coranyeit/ Corannyeid (modern Welsh coraniaid) who bring plague to Britain in the story of Llud and Llevelys.  The episode requires a lengthier consideration.  

The people called Coranyeit appear to be fairies of some description- or, at least, strangers with magical powers.  Their name is etymologically linked to Welsh corr/ corrach (dwarf/ stunted), suggestive of diminutive fairies, and to the Breton fairies called korriganed.  The latter closely resemble the pixies of the British south-west, but it is hard to identify any clear parallels between korrigans and coranyeit.  All we do know is that the troublesome beings of the Welsh story are said to have come from Asia (Triad 36).

The Coraniaid are classed as one of the three gormessoedd (foreign oppressions or invasions) of Wales; this is because they have an unfortunate gift- they can hear anything that is said, however hushed the voice, provided that the wind catches it.  As a result, no-one could plot against them and they could seemingly never be harmed.  This trait perhaps is linked to the need to refer to the fairies by pseudonyms, such as Tylwyth Teg, Bendith y Mamau or ‘good neighbours’ so as not to insult or antagonise them.

The Corannyeid are eliminated from the realm by mashing insects in water and sprinkling this upon the assembled people.  The humans present are unharmed and the intruders are destroyed.  This detail is very puzzling and has never had any satisfactory explanation; some commentators have suggested that Spanish fly may be involved. The Welsh word used in the story (pryvet; Modern Welsh pryfed) is of very limited assistance in solving the mystery as it simply means ‘insects’ in a general sense. Nothing is clear, then, but there is some parallel at least to the use of various plants like rowan or of substances like stale urine to repel fairies.  These may be distasteful to humans, but they are none of them fatal.

In the Coraniaid‘s size, their malevolence and their supernatural senses there is plainly a good deal of fairy nature.

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