When we think of baking and fairies today, cupcakes and treats with pink icing for little girls’ parties tend to come to mind. Even if we put these to one side, that homely substance, bread, seems far too ordinary and basic a product to have any supernatural aspects, but the folklore reveals that fairies have a strange relationship to the substance.
It might, in fact, be more accurate for us to talk about baked products in this posting, as we are by no means solely concerned with loaves made of wheat flour. For example, throughout Scotland oatcakes (rather than loaves) were thought to have protective powers: a bannock hung over a cottage threshold would protect a mother and her new-born child inside and burning an oatcake would drive off the faeries.
“And, for thy food, eat fairy bread.”
(The Convert Soule, 1620)
The fairies are widely known to bake their own bread. Tantalisingly, one Scottish writer has described faery bread as tasting like a wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine; apparently, it will last for a week at least without going stale. Cornish woman Anne Jefferies, who was imprisoned for suspected witchcraft, was fed by the faeries during her captivity and a person who tasted the bread they gave her described it as “the most delicious … I ever did eat, either before or afterward.”
The fairies will share their baked products with humans, sometimes, although (as with all fairy food) it may not be all it seems. In Breconshire the belief is that gifts of bread from the tylwyth teg, if not eaten immediately and in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight. A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them. After this ordeal, they gave him meat and bread to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”
Bread Protects from Faeries
There seems to be something mysterious and semi-magical about bread when it comes to fairies. It can both protect people or bestow supernatural powers.
In one Scottish story a man who has stolen from the faeries is pursued by them and they cry out “You wouldn’t be so fast if it wasn’t for the hardness of your bread.” In a similar tale, a Perthshire man was troubled by faery cattle eating his crops, but was unable to catch them until one day, as he chased a dun cow around his fields, a faery woman appeared and advised that he’d do better if he ate barley bannocks turned on the griddle and milk from black goats. He followed her advice, caught the faery cow and thereafter had the best milk herd in the district. This bread magic can work both ways though: in an incident from the Hebrides a captive mermaid manages escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him would have been luckier had it not been for the dryness of his bread- if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.
Bread somehow works to protect people from faery ill-will. It was widely believed throughout Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influence, especially from being pixie-led. Stuart poet Robert Herrick wrote that:
“If ye feare to be affrighted,
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
The verse seems to imply that, originally, people must have carried a piece of consecrated host, but eventually any sort of bread was thought to be as good. The Scottish Highland equivalent to this protection is to have oatmeal in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothes when travelling.
New babies are believed to be especially vulnerable to faery abduction, but bread products are a particularly effective at safeguarding them. From Cornwall comes a belief that a child can be protected from being taken by baked goods: a mother must take a cake with her to her baby’s baptism and then give it to the first person she meets in the road. This guarantees her child’s safety from the pixies. There’s an identical practice in Sutherland in Scotland, involving oatcake and cheese, whilst on the Isle of Man the practice was to provide ‘blithe meat’ (bread and cheese) for people who came to visit a mother and her new-born child. A portion of this would be scattered around for the unseen visitors, too- partly perhaps to win their favour as ‘godmothers’ and partly to guard against the risk of abduction.
Bread Attracts Faeries
Confusingly, as I have described before when discussing fairy farming, fairies also seem to grow wheat and other grains so they can bake their own bread. What’s more, they seem to like human loaves just as much as their own. Traditionally, fairy helpers on farms, such as brownies, boggarts and others, are paid in bread. Very frequently fairies will come to farmhouses to ask to borrow flour or meal when their own supplies have run low. Bread can also be used to attract fairies to you in summoning charms and it seems to help appease faery animosity: at Wooler, in Northumberland, sickly children would be dipped in a well’s waters and bread and cheese would be left as an offering to the fairies, hoping for a cure.
That the faeries have a taste for human baking is confirmed by several stories from Wales, in which lake maidens are lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread. They are very fussy about the bake of their loaves though: first the bread offered will be judged too hard, then too soft, until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms. In another of these Welsh stories, concerning the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a man uses bread to bait a fishing hook so he can catch himself a faery wife. Once again, he tries first with a hunk from a well-baked loaf- and fails- and then tries with half-baked bread and lands his bride. We may compare evidence from the isle of Man to these Welsh stories. At Casstruan on the island the mermaids were said to have been very plentiful offshore and the local fishermen would befriend them by throwing them bread, butter and oatcakes.
What’s more, it’s doesn’t just appear to be the quality of the bake that seems to matter: the faeries don’t like salt in their loaves. As a general rule, it’s a substance they can’t abide, something which comes out in Manx one story. A woman was out walking when she heard music ahead of her on the road. She followed the sound and caught up with a group of fairies. They asked what she had in her basket, to which she replied bread, offering to share it with them. She broke one of the oatcakes she had with her and placed it on a hedge. They accepted her offer after checking that there was no salt in the mix. Because of her generosity, she was promised always to have bread.
In fact, such is the liking of the faes for human bread that they will steal it if it can’t be got by gift or in exchange for an honest night’s work. One Scottish story tells how the trows living under a cottage stole freshly baked oatcakes simply by slyly raising a floor slab and snatching them away as they cooled; on the Isle of Man the practice certainly was to leave the last cake of a batch behind the ‘turf-flag’ for the little people.
All the same, the fairies seem to have an ambiguous relationship to human baking. The Welsh tylwyth teg are said to enter kitchens and to ‘robin’ bread dough- that is, to make it too sticky and stringy to rise. The Cornish pixies too are said to spoil bread in the oven, making it come out full of ‘pixy-spits.’ Probably these examples are just examples of their mischievous nature getting the better of their appetites.
Two stories from the Isle of Man underline the importance of bread to the fairies. In one, a servant girl at Bride was baking one day and forgot to share the cake she made with the fairies. When she got into bed that night, she received a blow in the face that made her see stars. She was a sensible young woman and readily understood what it meant- that the fairies were offended and vengeful- and she instantly got up and baked another cake, which she divided with them. In another account, a woman lying sick in bed at Barrule was visited by ‘the Bishop of the fairies,’ a man in an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, who stood before her, broke a cake and gave her half. The report does not really explain what this incident meant, but perhaps the fact that she recovered to tell the story indicates that she was favoured by the faes and had been healed.
As noted already, part of the perceived power of bread must come from its use by the Christian church in the host. The idea that a holy item will repulse the ‘evil’ forces of Faery is very common. What would be effective, then, is its sanctified nature rather than the fact that it’s a leavened wheat product. It may be simply confusion on the part of humans that, now, any old bit of bread would seem to do.
Another explanation might be that the fairies object to bread because it is a product of settled human civilisation- along with iron, for example. This doesn’t really explain the situation, though, for two reasons: one that fairies make their own bread (and iron) and because they consume- and like- human bread.
In conclusion, then, in fairyland bread is far more magical and mysterious a food stuff than we might ever have supposed. For something so everyday and unremarkable, it holds great power.
For more on this, see my recently published book Faery.