Fairies and Bread- the significance of baking in fairyland

baker

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.

Home Baking

“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.

bake 2

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.

Why Bread?

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.

Mixed Race Faery Families

babies

I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans.  Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.

Hybrid Children

Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore.  When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship.  Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’  We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on.  For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.

Fairy Family Life

Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting?  Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.  These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.

A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616.  She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’  He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together.  A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.”  In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.

Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers.  There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females.  For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.

bowerley mermum and babe
Amelia Bowerley

All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk.  The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed.  In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.

In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore.  He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people.  The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years.  Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.

Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents.  The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.

There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record.   The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea.  We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church.  From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb.  To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves.  They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up.  The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.

The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened.  They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands.  These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.

baby & Fs

Fairy Inheritance

As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.

John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:

“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)

Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)

As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring.  The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos.  Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai.  In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy.  The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:

“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,

that he might understand

Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant

whatever he did demand:

To any forme that he did please

himselfe he would translate;

And how one day hee’d send for him

to see his fairy state.”

Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable.  There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes.  One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.

Further Reading

I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).  See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.

faery-lifecycle-cover

Fairy healers? Some further thoughts on Ronald Hutton’s ‘The witch.’

High_fairy_healer_mR4

High Fairy Healer, from the card game Rage of Bahamut

In his new book, The witch, Ronald Hutton argues for a close link between local cunning folk (what he prefers to call ‘service magicians’ who assist their local communities) and the fairies, who frequently taught these individuals their healing powers.  He cites numerous examples, most of witch come from Scottish witch trials (there is only a handful of English examples).

The evidence of fairy healing

As I have mentioned when discussing  witches and fairies, I am troubled by the fact that this evidence is from one very unique source or environment.  What is the folklore evidence of fairy healing other than that linked to witchcraft?  There seems to be very little.  I can think of only a handful of instances even remotely resembling what the accused healers described:

  • in Layamon’s Brut the elf queen Argante takes the wounded Arthur to Avalon to heal him- and the same history describes how elves bestowed upon Arthur the gifts of good luck and other qualities at his birth (acting as the original fairy god-mothers);
  • there are a couple of stories from Shetland of the healing abilities of the trows.  One relates an incident when they were seen treating a jaundiced trow infant by pouring water over it- a human stole the bowl used and was able then to cure jaundice in humans.  In another story ointment is stolen from the trows which proves efficacious for any human injury.  What is particularly notable about these accounts is that they are almost unique in describing fairies succumbing to illnesses and curing themselves;
  • the Welsh tale of the fairy wife of Llyn y Fan Fach follows the usual course of such tales.  The gwrag annwn is persuaded to marry a human male, but eventually he violates the conditions of their betrothal and she abandons him.  However, in this particular instance, she maintains regular contact with her three sons, to whom she teaches healing skills.  They became  the renowned physicians of Myddfai;
  • in the Cornish story of the old man of Cury, the hero of the title rescues a mermaid stranded by the tide.  In gratitude for carrying her back to the sea, the mermaid offers to give him any three things he cares to request.  He asked, not for wealth, but for the abilities to charm away sickness, to break the spells of witchcraft, and to discover thieves and restore stolen property;
  • in the ballad of The son of the knight of green vesture a cow herd is visited by a fairy maid and is offered various magical objects, each in exchange for a cow. He swaps one of his kine for a jewel that heals sores;
  • as I have discussed when examining  gifts from the fairies, there are a few sites around Britain which are associated with fairies and healing- wells and standing stones and such like.  For example, the ‘Hob Hole’ on the North Yorkshire coast was said to be inhabited by a ‘hob’ who could cure whooping cough if asked; the fairies’ ‘dripping cave’ at Craig-a-Chowie in Ross-shire could cure deafness.  A particularly interesting story attaches to the Fairies Well near Blackpool (from Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.156).  The water of the well was known locally to be good for the treatment of weak eyes.  A mother whose daughter’s eyesight seemed to be failing went to the well to fill a bottle.  There she met a small green man who gave her a box of ointment to apply to the child.  Before treating her daughter, the mother put some of the salve on her own eye, without ill-effect.  She therefore applied it to the girl, who was cured.  So far, this is a happy tale of a benevolent fairy bestowing his healing power out of pure goodwill.  However, there is a sequel.  Some time later, the mother saw the same little man at the market.  She thanked him for the cure; he was angry and demanded to know with which eye she saw him.  She was promptly blinded, as happens in all such stories of midwives and wet nurses.  It appears, therefore, that her offence was to apply the ointment to anyone but the person for whom it was intended;
  • in the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, which was only translated in English in the later sixteenth century, there is a reference to a healing horn given to fairy king Oberon by four fairy ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly; and,
  • much later Scottish sources describe the sidh folk giving certain craft and musical skills to favoured humans (see Evans-Wentz for the examples of this).

And that’s pretty much it.  There is some evidence of magical healing powers, therefore, but next to none of passing on these abilities to humans.  If we take out the literary instances, we have a very sparse list indeed: we are left with the ointment from Blackpool, the Cornish tale concerning a mermaid rather than a fairy and the story of the fairy mother teaching her children at Myddfai (all of which have unique elements to them) along with the examples of healing at wells and caves (none of which contain any suggestion that the resident sprite ever showed any inclination to pass on its knowledge of cures). Usually, fairies are associated with harming humans, with blighting livestock and with bringing ill-fortune (see too chapter 20 of my British fairies).

The witch trials

The other notable feature of the witch cases is that the healing power claimed to have been acquired from the fairies was frequently specifically an ability to cure fairy blights. Unlike the range of ills cured by fairy wells and such like, the fairies only passed on remedies to harm caused by their own actions.  This is odd, not to say traitorous, behaviour on the fairies’ part.  Once again it makes me suncomfortable about these claims.  Why then was it that the suspect witches mentioned this beneficial gift?

There are 23 cases of witchcraft listed by Hutton.  Of these half involve claims by the healers of fairy teaching.  He notes too that about 80% of the defendants are women.  He speculates whether women were more likely to identify with supernatural helpers, whether they were more likely to be taken to court or whether they were most likely to be local magicians.  We cannot answer these questions, sadly.  It is notable that these cases peaked in the early modern period and were in decline by the eighteenth century, by which time magicians were believed to learn not from the fairies but from books and from the masters.

There were incontestably ‘wise wives’ in Scotland, dynion hysbys in Wales and ‘cunning folk’ in England who acted generally as healers within their communities and who sometimes offered to treat those who had been ‘blasted’ or blighted by the fairies (or whose livestock had).  It is far from apparent to what extent these individuals claimed to have acquired their abilities or treatments as the result of some special compact with ‘the good neighbours.’

Looking at the cases themselves, it is striking that, as well as claiming supernaturally derived knowledge, the alleged witches also often gave accounts of being visited in their homes by fairies (sometimes even by the fairy queen herself) or, alternatively, they might visit the fairies under their hills.  These contacts often occurred at night and they not infrequently led to long term sexual relationships.  In these regular and deliberate contacts, the witchcraft suspects were unusually honoured.  The witch cases may be abnormal because of the insistence by the human partner upon these regular and intimate contacts over an extended period.  I wonder, in fact, if this may indicate something significant about this handful of defendants.

Fairy healing- faith or fear?

It seems to me that there may be two explanations for the statements made by the suspected witches.  The first may be that there was something distinctive about the individual claimants themselves.  They have departed from fairy-lore conventions in making themselves ‘stars of the show’ by claiming these special associations.  Might they have ended up under arrest and accused by their neighbours because they had a tendency to boast, even because they had some sort of mental health problem that attracted attention in their villages and small towns?  Claims of fairy favour and love might equally have been a way of claiming some sort of status in their communities and, as noted, most of the accused were women who may well have felt economically and socially disadvantaged within the strictures of a strictly Presbyterian, hierarchical and patriarchal society.

As stated, these cases are at odds with the overall trend of recorded fairy belief, which ought to make us cautious about the claims.  Given that our ‘good neighbours’ were known for their proclivity for afflicting humans, it was presumably not a great leap of imagination to propose that, with the proper propitiations and knowledge, the fairies could help take off those curses.  It is interesting, too, that only a few ventured to lay claim to such powers; they constitute a minority of a minority, from whose accounts it may not be safe to conclude that it was widely believed that fairies passed on whatever medical skills they possessed to humankind.

The explanation outlined in the last couple of paragraphs may at least explain some of the elaboration in these accounts.  My second proposed explanation for the claims to fairy-taught powers is a great deal simpler and may be far more probable.  Many of the cures used by these healers (drinking water in which ‘elf-arrows’ had been immersed, magic circles, use of metal blades) were very far from new; they can be traced right back to Anglo-Saxon cures for elf afflictions.  They appear therefore to be traditional cures handed down over generations.  If this is correct, the accused witches plainly learned their craft from someone else- a relative or skilled teacher.  Alleging that the fairies taught them their knowledge protected the real, living sources of their remedies.   Once they were in the hands of the authorities, the accused probably realised that their prospects of acquittal were limited; what could be more understandable then than to try to protect family members and others from the same fate?  The fairies were never going to be arrested and burned.  This may be a far better explanation of these anomalous claims.

Further reading

I still highly recommend The Witch for its survey of witch lore and fairy lore over the last millennium.  I have returned to the theme of fairy cures in a much later post, looking at the actual plants and practices used.

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