31 October 2011

Folklore: Food Offerings to the Fairies

I was going to write up a blog post about Hallowe'en fairy lore, but I'm so stuck into getting my latest short story written that I don't want to take the time. So here, instead, is an extract from my MA thesis (completed in 1999) on food offerings to the fairies. How is this relevant to Hallowe'en? Because the Celtic festival of Samhain was one of the two most active times of the year for the Good People (the other was Beltaine, or May Eve), and thus a time when humans had to be most cautious about fairy encounters. A traditional Irish Hallowe'en fairy offering was a plate of mashed potatoes--the first to be served up from the pot--with lots of butter.

Leaving a food offering for the fairies is usually a domestic event, occurring within the home. The offering is commonly left in the kitchen, either in a bowl on the table or hearth, or in the case of some beverages, poured on the hearthstones. Less commonly, domestic offerings are left outside the door of the house. Non-domestic food offerings, left outside the domestic sphere in liminal areas closer to the fairy realm, may be placed in the barn, at the edge of the woods, or in the sea. These liminal offerings are usually given to specific beings or for specific purposes. Liminal offerings often consist of household provisions like bread, but certain kinds of fairies may require specific food items. Beverages are offered in a bowl or hollowed stone or are poured on the earth, since “all liquids spilled on the ground are supposed to go to their [the fairies’] use” (W. G. Stewart 124). In some cases, it is believed that the fairies eat the food itself, but in other cases it is thought that they “extract the spiritual essence from the food offered to them, leaving behind the grosser elements.” For that reason, food that has been put out for the fairies “is not allowed to be eaten . . . by man or beast, not even by pigs. Such food is said to have no real substance left in it. . . “ (Evans-Wentz 44). Food that has had its essence consumed by fairies may even make humans and animals ill (Evans-Wentz 164).

It is often important that offerings not be made obviously. Fairies are “shocked at anything approaching to the name of a bribe or douceur, yet . . . allow [their] scruples to be overcome if the thing be done in a genteel, delicate, and secret way” (Keightley 358). Though Keightley indicates that some types of food and drink were inappropriate as offerings, it is more important here to note the results of the way the food is given:

. . . offer Brownie a piece of bread, a cup of drink, or a new coat and hood, and he flouted at it, and perhaps, in his huff, quitted the place forever; but leave a nice bowl of cream, and some fresh honeycomb, in a snug private corner, and they soon disappeared, though Brownie, it was to be supposed, never knew anything of them. (Keightley 358)

In the one case the item is obviously offered, and in the other it is quietly left. Drawing attention to the offering can be seen as bragging on the part of the offerer, and gives it the connotation of charity rather than hospitality. Briggs writes about how, in the case of brownies, “the housewife was careful not to offer the tidbit to the brownie, only to leave it in his reach. Any offer of reward for its services drove the brownie away; it seemed to be an absolute TABOO” (Dictionary 46, caps in original). There are also indications in other stories that leaving an obvious offering, especially of clothing, constitutes payment, after which the employment of the fairy is at an end, and it departs.

I've decided to make my thesis available as an ebook, but who knows when I'll get to actually formatting and posting it. At least I have located rtf files of all the chapters, so I know I can actually do it.

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