A number of sixteenth and seventeenth century books of magic have survived, in which spells for conjuring up a variety of spirits, from devils to angels to faeries, are often recorded. The faeries are summoned for a number of purposes- to help find hidden treasure, to bestow upon the magic practitioner a ring of invisibility and, as I have mentioned previously, so that the (male) wizard can have sex with one of them.
A component of several of these spells is a ritual that involves laying out a meal for the faery guests. I will cite a few examples here before moving on to consider why providing food and drink was considered to be so necessary. Cynically and flippantly, I suppose, we might suggest that in those cases where sex was the aim, this was just a case of wining and dining your date… but I think we could do much better than this- and that it helps to put such meals in the wider context of human-fae interactions.
My first example of this so-called ‘table ritual’ or ‘meal of the faeries’ is given in full in the Appendix to my Love and Sex in Fairyland. It comes from a manuscript in the British Library and is for the purposes of going invisible:
“In the day and houre of Venus make two circles that one may touche the other so as thou mayeste goe between, out of one and in to the other. In one circle make a faire bed with new washed shetes, sweet and well smyllinge. Also thou moste have a table to the length of three cubits and in bredthe a cubit and a halfe. Let the feet be of laurel and the table of swete wode and theron a clene clothe newe washed with rosewater and dryed and layd thear on three newe knyves and a new copefull of watter and fyne breade of pure, goode wheat flour. And sette so the table that the mydeste stande in the circle.British Library manuscript, Sloane 3850, ff.145-166
The magician then summons three spirits, called Michel, Chicam, and Burfee, using a Latin charm. When they have appeared, the instruction is as follows:
“Which sayd, three tymes thou shall see three fair women that shall bryng with them most ryall meates and wyn [‘royal food and wine’] and come to the table. But take heed that thou sit, for they shall make thee great chear and cut thy meat and bed [bid] ye drynk, but yet eate not with them. But thou shalle se one of them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir…”
The faery is then conjured to lie down on the nearby bed and have sex with the man, before which she gives him the all important ring of invisibility (he mustn’t forget to secure this before the nookie commences, otherwise he has [sort of] wasted his time and effort…)
Next, in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, which was published in English in 1655, we find this ritual printed:
“Lastly, when you would invocate these kinde of Spirits, you ought to prepare a Table in the place of invocation, covered with clean linen; where-upon you shall set new bread, and running water or milk in new earthen vessels, and new knives. And you shall make a fire, whereupon a perfume shall be made [incense is thrown in the flames]. But let the Invocant go unto the head of the Table, and round about it let there be seats placed for the Spirits, as you please; and the Spirits being called, you shall invite them to drink and eat. But if perchance you shall fear any evil Spirit, then draw a Circle about it, and let that part of the Table at which the Invocant sits, be within the Circle, and the rest of the Table without the Circle.”Agrippa, Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, translated by Robert Turner, 1655, 69.
The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, which dates to about 1620-30, contains a similar conjuring ritual:
“To have Conference with the Fairies… And when you will work the night before the new or full of the Moon, if there be a Table in the Room Set a new Bowl full of new Ale upon the board and iii new white cloths with iii new knives with white hafts. This done make a fair fire of sweet cloven wood. Then sit in a Chair with your face towards the fire. Then take your [pre-prepared ointment] forth and anoint your Eyes therewith And sit silent And see all the house be quiet and at rest. And when you have sitten so a while you shall see iii women come in. But say nothing but nod your head at them as you shall see them do to you And they will go to the Table and eat and drink, when they have done let the first pass And the second But the third you may take and ask what you will of her.”Grimoire, 288-289
A fourth summoning procedure, which is recorded in a manuscript that once belonged to Elias Ashmole, is specifically designed to attract the sort of faeries who will lead a magician to hidden treasure:
“These spirits may be also called upon as the other, in such places where either they haunt or foremost frequent in, and the place which is appointed or set apart for action must be Suffumigated with good Aromatic Odours, and a Clean Cloth spread on the Ground or a table nine foot Distant from the Circle, upon which there must be Either a Chicken or any Kind of small joint, or piece of meat handsomely Roasted, and a white mantle, a Basin or little Dish like a Coffee Dish of fair Running water, half a pint of Salt in a bottle, a bottle of Ale Containing a Quart, Some food and a pint of Cream in a Dish provided. Ceremonies they are much pleased & delighted with; and doth allure them to friendly familiarity willingly & Readily fulfilling your desires &c: without much Difficulty, and some have used no Circle at all, to the Calling of these spirits, but only being Clean, was heard and apparelled, sit at another table or place only Covered with Clean Linen Cloth, nine foot Distant & so invocate.”Sloane MS 3824, 1649; see D Rankine, A Book of Treasure Spirits, 2009, 101
There are several elements in these spells which resonate with other practices and interactions that we know from British folklore. Firstly, there is a general habit of hospitality and conviviality between humans and the Good Neighbours. They share meals with us and vice versa- except that matters aren’t anywhere near as straightforward as that. Secondly, the insistence upon cleanliness- in both the linen and the utensils- will be very familiar, for we know how much the faeries appreciate a well-kept home and will reward the householder and domestic servants who are diligent in this. It’s very likely, as well, that there’s a magical aspect to this insistence on clean or new items: I’m sure it relates just as much to the parallel need for the magician to come to the ritual ‘pure,’ having fasted and abstained from drink, tobacco and sex for a period prior to the conjuring.
Now, as readers will know, humans are from time to time invited to participate in banquets with faeries, typically after coming across festivities taking place inside a faery hill, the doors being open for ventilation and the light and the sound of music and voices spilling out. As we know, such offers have to be accepted with caution, for eating or drinking what’s on offer will often trap the unwary guest in Faery- or, at best, will turn out to be a lot less appetising than it appears (because the food is dead leaves or even dung). We note in the first example given that the magus is advised not to consume what his charming guests bring with them- although, surprisingly perhaps, kissing and other intimacy seems to be perfectly acceptable.
When it comes to human food, the situation can’t honestly be called ‘hospitality.’ As readers will recall, it’s very common for faeries to come to houses at night where they will expect to have been left bread and water and/ or the necessary items for washing and drying themselves. People provide these supplies, more out of fear of the consequences of failing to do so than because they’re feeling especially friendly or welcoming. Another nocturnal visitor, the brownie, lob or boggart, will also demand that milk, cream and bread are set out by the fire for them- this is, at least, offered in return for various laborious chores (such as threshing) being performed, but- once again- neglecting to cater for your supernatural helper can only ensure that all the work that’s been done is promptly undone- with an even greater mess made on top as well.
There is, though, a broader habit of sharing food- and crops and other agricultural produce- with the Good Neighbours. In Scotland a little of the milking was always offered to the local gruagach, loireag or glaistig. To ensure a good harvest, the Cornish habit was that when the reapers were eating in the fields, they would always throw a piece of bread over their shoulder and spill a few drops of their beer at meal break. Miners on the peninsula would take care to leave a crumb of their lunch for the knockers in the mine and Newlyn fishermen would offer a few fish from their catch to the bucca so as to guarantee that the next trip to sea would be equally fruitful. These ideas seem to be somewhere between an offering and an indication of the faeries’ sense that they’re entitled by right to a share of all the goods and food that we produce.
Food operates between faery and human in different ways, therefore. Faery food given to us is dangerous, because it is a vector or vehicle for faery magic- which is nearly always intended to entrap us. Human food fed to faes functions more in the manner of protection money; it’s hoped that- if the faeries appreciate what they’ve been given- they won’t torment the person offering the gesture of familiarity and hospitality. In this respect, when the human magicians propose that the faeries sit down to feast with them, they are interacting just as any two groups of people would together- they break bread in order to seal some kind of transaction or to confirm amity and peace. This is expressed explicitly in the Sloane manuscript, where it’s admitted of the ‘treasure faeries’ that “Ceremonies they are much pleased & delighted with; and doth allure them to friendly familiarity willingly & Readily fulfilling your desires.” Short of saying- “you give them food and beer and they’ll give you wealth,” we couldn’t be much more frank about the motivations involved.