The Perils of Fairy Food

iro- f banquet
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Fairy foodstuffs are mysterious.  Eating or drinking within fairyland is widely accepted to be a way of ensuring that you cannot escape back to your home: you take fairy nature within yourself- and therefore you must abstain from meals whilst visiting.  Sometimes, a wise friend might warn a person of the risks before they go- as was the case with a Ross-shire midwife called to a delivery in the knoll at Big Strath; sometimes the help comes from someone already there in Faerie.  In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a girl working as a servant for the green (fairy) woman is warned by fish in a well where she draws water not to eat the household’s food.

What is odd, though, is that the converse of this rule is that, if you encounter fairy food and drink in the human world, refusing to eat it is the perilous thing.

Image result for margaret tarrant + strawberry jam thief
Margaret Tarrant, ‘Strawberry Jam Thief’

Always say yes

There are numerous examples of the potentially fatal consequences of not accepting fairy hospitality in this world.  The ill-effects may, indeed, be more to do with the offence taken by not eating what you’re offered rather than any quality inherent in the goods themselves.  The mildest response may be that the fairies exact an indirect revenge. On the Isle of Arran two men were ploughing up some fresh land and one joked that the fairies should feed them in recognition of their hard labour.  They duly found a table laid at the head of the field, but neither dared eat what had been provided, because of which the field never produced any crops.

A person may suffer physically, though.  The least may be physical chastisement: in one story from Devon a ploughman mended a fairy’s broken baking peel; cider was left in thanks, which the man happily drank.  His plough boy refused it- and was pinched mercilessly.

In comparison, in one Scottish account a ploughman felt thirsty and, hearing a butter churn, wished out loud for a drink from it.  A woman in green appeared and offered him some fresh buttermilk.  He refused this because her clothing made him suspect her supernatural nature.  She told him that, after a year had passed, he’d not be needing a drink at all and, sure enough, within twelve months he was dead.  A similar fate befell a man from the Isle of Man who refused to eat some oatmeal porridge offered by the fairies.

There is also a variant of the Scottish story involving two men working near a fairy knoll: one refuses the butter milk and dies within the year; the other drinks it gladly and is further rewarded with a wish- which was never to drown.  In a third such incident a man from the Isle of Harris passed a fairy knoll at Bearnairidh and heard churning.  He was thirsty and wished for a drink, but when a woman in green appeared and offered him fresh milk, he refused it.  She cursed him and, very shortly afterwards, he took a boat but drowned when it sank.

Intriguingly, it seems that the outright refusal to accept the offered food is what offends, rather than the details of the manner its consumption.  There is a record of an elderly Scottish woman called Nanzy who had long had friendly dealings with her local fairies.  She often met them when she was out and about and they gave her presents, such as rolls of fairy butter.  Now, she was too respectable a Christian woman to actually eat this, good as it looked, so she instead used for other household purposes.  These aren’t specified in the account, but must have included greasing pans and such like.  Given that there are stories of horses dying for refusing to touch fairy food, the indication is that even accepting a foodstuff from the faes and then feeding it to your pigs would not insult them.

iro refreshments
Outhwaite, ‘Refreshment’

Feast or foul?

What’s the food like, though?  Accounts vary.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him beef, bread and fish to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

This report is confirmed, amply, by others: a Perthshire woman who was abducted by the fairies said that the food she was offered looked very tempting, but that when she saw through the glamour, it was “only the refuse of the earth.”  Another Scottish abductee said grace over such a meal and then realised that it was nothing but horse dung.

In the majority of accounts, we’re told nothing about the meal itself, and have to assume that it was exactly like any human repast.  At the other end of the scale, one Scottish writer states that fairy bread tastes like the finest wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine.

A final account fits better with this last report than those that allege that fairy food is nothing but inedible rubbish.  Two Shetland fishermen were caught by a storm and had to land their boat on the uninhabited island of Linga.  After a few days, conditions improved and one of them men took the boat, deserting his companion Thom.  However, that night Thom found a trow banquet taking place in the hut where he was sheltering.  The trows tried to chase him off but he resisted and fired his gun, causing the supernatural assembly to vanish, but leaving behind all their food.  He was able to survive extremely well on this for many days until his girlfriend sailed to find him.  She had been suspicious when the companion, Willie, returned alone and had tried to marry her, so she carried out a search.

piccolo

Summary

What’s the best advice to stay safe, then?  It seems to be this: if you’re here in this dimension and encounter a fairy, you can (and probably should) consume whatever you’re offered without any qualms.  If you have entered their dimension, it seems that any food present there will have been transformed too and ingesting it will be very risky.  Of course, navigating refusal diplomatically when you’re in someone else’s home is another matter again…

21 thoughts on “The Perils of Fairy Food

  1. Given that the Christian hierarchy in the past (and even now) largely equated fairies to demonic beings and machinations of the Devil and any dealings with them could find oneself accused of witchcraft (eg. Isobel Gowdie), I wonder if all the warnings in folklore about eating fairy food that afterwards magically transforms into foul substances were no more than fanciful Christian reprimands intended to discourage rural folk at the time from believing in and having dealings with fairies, symbolized by the consumption of fairy food.

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    1. Thanks for the comment- I’m sure that there’s definitely something to what you suggest; it’s clear from the witch trial records that any sort of contact at all was treated as suspect- even if the outcome was entirely benign for the humans (such as treating people and livestock with herbal remedies acquired from the fairies). That said, there’s still the problem of the differential effect. If fairies were demonic, they (and their food) would be dangerous both in ‘hell’ and here on the earth surface. That fairy food is safe to eat here doesn’t quite fit with the ‘satanic’ theory and certainly suggests that, outside of Faery, fae power was either weakened or different.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this. Fascinating information for sure. I had read about the dangers of consuming fairy food when in fairyland. I didn’t know, though, about the boon humans received when consuming it in the mortal world. I wonder behind the reason for such an inversion.

    One would think it would be an insult to fairies to refuse their food when you reside in their homeland not when you live in your own land. Fairies are whimsical creatures, though, so…

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  3. Reblogged this on Lilaia Moreli – Words Are Sacred and commented:
    Many have been the tales throughout the centuries regarding food and drink found in otherwordly domains. Various myths have offered narrations about the dangers of consuming sweets, fruits and other edible stuff either in the Underworld or some other supernatural realm. This post explores in detail the consequences humans have faced for both having eaten and having refused fairy food.

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  4. Thanks for this post. Just encountered fairies in meditation this week. Called on them last night and they are very helpful spirits so far. Not sure how I would encounter food on their side. Does one encounter food in the astral? Anyway..I posted about elemental spirits too. https://satsumadiaries.com/2020/04/27/elementals-the-fairy-realm/ My fairy guides must have appreciated that I’m writing about them, because they’ve come closer. Cheers.

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  5. I too was wondering about a Christian connection to consumption of the Faery Food, but yes, it doesn’t explain why consuming it in the human realm would be a different set of circumstances. I’ve also come across a theory of “you are what you eat.” Especially in Scandinavian, breaking bread was a way to be inducted into the clan. That was part of why marriage feasts were so important. So, to consume faery food within their realm may be that you become part of them. Much like the story of Persephone consuming the pomegranate seeds of the underworld and then forever being tied to it.

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    1. Ruby- I think you’re right to say that becoming part of Faery is a very important aspect of the taboos around fairy food. Thinking more about my recent posting on fairy immortality, it seems to me that one of the most important differences between humans and faes is that of life span. To them, we must seem very transient and may be insignificant beings. If a relationship (of any kind) were to develop, I could understand why there might be a desire to transform the mortal in order to bridge that gulf.

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  6. Intriguing, as ever: thank you. John, I’d love to trace the story of the Green Lady you mention at the start, but all I can find on the web is a preview on JSTOR. Are you able to tell me where I can read it online, please?

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  7. Hello, I am writing an essay about food in NArnia and its connection to faery food, I would like to know if you have any sources because I can’t seem to find any.

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    1. Hi there,

      I don’t know C S Lewis too well, but it’s my impression that he was not much of a scholar of British faerylore and that he was also very cavalier in his mixing of classical and native myths. What I do recall very well is that when Lucy first meets Tumnus, he takes her home for tea, sardines, toast and cake. I suspect that Lewis’ Faery is rather too closely modelled on the middle class Britain of the time…

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