Sacrifices to fairies

Rene Cloke, An Autumn Offering

It’s not at all unusual for people to make regular offerings to fairies and, on certain occasions, to offer major sacrifices to them.

I’ve described before how it was the habit in the Scottish Highlands and islands to make regular offerings of milk to the gruagach and glaistig who often looked after the cattle on farms and in communities. Small quantities were poured out on special stones, perhaps after every milking or at certain times in the farming year.  In fact, at least as recently as the 1950s milk was still being put out overnight for the pixies on one Dartmoor farm.  

On Shetland, local people sacrificed ale or pins and coins to the water horse called shoopiltee to ensure good catches at sea.  At Halloween, the people of Lewis used to attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sea spirit ‘shony’ (seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown into the sea.  All round Scotland, in fact, meat, drink and bread would be offered up.  On Orkney the custom was that the first fish caught on a hook when out line-fishing would be thrown back to ensure that the rest of the catch on that trip would be good. 

A very similar practice was known on the Isle of Man.  The islanders used to sacrifice rum to the buggane of Kione Dhoo headland, the liquor being poured into the sea by fishing boats from Port St Mary as they passed the promontory on their way to the Kinsale and Lerwick fishing grounds. Rum was occasionally thrown from the top of the cliff as well, with the words “Take that, evil spirit (or monster)!”. This dedication resembles that which accompanied the practice of throwing a fish to the mermen at sea “Gow shen, dooinney varrey!” (‘Take that, sea people.’) 

Another water beast was appeased in more blood thirsty fashion at Loch Maree in the Scottish Highlands. A terrible lake monster called Mourie inhabited this lake, to which bulls were sacrificed on August 25th each year.  Very similar was the tradition at Loch Wan in the Scottish Uplands, where local farmers offered the first lamb of the flock each year to the loch- otherwise they knew that half their sheep would drown in its waters before the season was out.

Further south, in the Lincolnshire Fens, the habit used to be to offer the first fruits of the harvest, as well as a share of any bread, beer and milk, to the local spirits called the ‘Strangers,’ ‘the Tiddy Ones’ or the ‘Green Coaties.’  People knew that if these offerings were neglected, the crops would fail and livestock would die.

The success of many regular household tasks was guaranteed by making sure of fairy good will.  For instance, on the Isle of Man, the faeries will help with the baking so long as a piece of the dough is stuck to the kitchen wall for them.  If such an offering isn’t made, the baker will face problems.  On Shetland the practice was to sprinkle every corner of a house with milk when butter was to be churned.  In many places in Scotland, just as with the milk offerings mentioned earlier, some of the wort from any household brew of ale would be poured out at the ’brownie stone’ to ensure a good fermentation.

Faery aid- or good will- was invoked in emergencies too.  One Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease; he concluded that the only remedy was to go to the top of a tor and slaughter a sheep as an offering to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem.  At Crawford Muir on Shetland in the 1770s a tenant was reported to have sacrificed a black lamb to the sea trows so as to reinforce curses he was placing upon his enemies.

Lastly, and most strikingly, in 1859 on the Isle of Man archaeologists opened a barrow near Tynwald Hill and excavated the prehistoric remains within.  After they had left, in order to atone for this desecration of a fairy site, a local farmer sacrificed and burned a heifer on the tumulus. This dedication to the spirits of the place is especially striking.  (Manchester Times, 2/4/1881, 4)

If we read such accounts in books on anthropology and ancient religion, we would unhesitatingly say that sacrifices were being made to the gods. In these cases, though, we have offerings made by people who would, I’m sure, have said that they were good Christian folk, going to church or chapel every Sunday and not in the least pagan. They would have denied ‘worshipping’ the fairies and in this I’m sure they would have been right. The goods given are more in the manner of a payment, part of a deal with the Good Folk who lived so near to them and had such an impact upon their lives and their environment. A bargain was being struck, with a powerful and sometimes troublesome neighbour, rather than a prayer being offered up to a nature deity. In some cases, such as the regular provision of milk and bread at night, it would have been framed as an act of welcome towards someone visiting your house. Admittedly, they were going to come in whether you liked it or not, but that was just more reason to want to make them feel at home. Our relationship with fairies has always been one in which there is a strange imbalance in power and nervousness on our part…

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