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‘ 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.