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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fairy Food: "Bite No Bit, And Drink No Drop"

"And what you've not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again."
- the Ballad of Childe Rowland

I've previously discussed the food of Fairy in the context of what fairies themselves eat but today I thought it would be interesting to look at humans in relation to fairy food. Fairies are well known for taking human food, both the substance and the essence of it, but a quick glance at Celtic folklore shows a clear prohibition against humans eating the food of Fairy. As the above quote from Childe Rowland illustrates, to eat fairy food is to be trapped in Fairy; we see the same sentiment related by Lady Wilde in a story of a girl brought to a fairy banquet who was warned by another captive: "Eat no food, and drink no wine, or you will never see your home again". And yet in other cases to refuse Fairy food carries a heavy consequences. So how then is a person to know when it is safe to eat and when it is dangerous?

Not fairy food
In the Echtra Condla we see the Fairy woman who comes to woo Connla away from mortal earth giving him an apple; it becomes his only food and no matter how much he eats the apple remains whole (Daimler, 2017). After a month of this the Fairy woman returns and takes Connla back with her into Fairy. In some versions of the popular Fairy Midwife story the midwife is offered food after she refuses to stay with the fairies, but a new mother by the fire, who is herself a human captive, advises the midwife not to eat or drink anything or she won't be able to leave (Ballard, 1991). Similarly Yeats relates a tale of a stolen bride whose groom tracks her down with the group of fairies who have taken her; she directs him away from offers of food and drink to play cards instead so that he will not also be taken (Yeats, 1902). The idea seems to be that to consume food in Fairy binds a person to Fairy either by changing their nature and making them part of Fairy or by binding some essential part of the person to Fairy. One person from Sligo in 1909 described it thus: "Once they take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever." (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Yet this is not a hard and fast rule and we do also see cases where a person is offered or given food and walks away unharmed. In one anecdote a pair of men was walking and heard fairies inside a sí churning butter; they wished aloud for a drink of the buttermilk and to their surprise it was given to them. One took it and the other refused with the one who refused having bad luck afterwards (Bruford, 1991). Thomas in Thomas the Rhymer is paid by the Fairy Queen with an apple, which he eats and which gives him the ability to speak truly, but the apple does not bind him to Fairy, he is returned to mortal earth after his service is done (Acland, 1997). The difference may be that the men were given food they asked for and Thomas is explicitly given the apple as payment, in exchange for his service to the Queen for 7 years. In the same way we see Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish witch who dealt with the Queen of Elphame, saying that the Queen gave her meat to eat although Isobel was not taken into Fairy but remained on earth. The normal rules of food may not apply when that food is given as part of a clear exchange or payment of a debt owed by the fairy or for services rendered. The Good People are also known to give food as gifts, in which case no debt would be accrued and the person was not bound in any way (Gwyndaf, 1991). 

There are some exceptions to this, of course, as we see with the goblin fruit, for example, in the Goblin Market which is paid for by the human but is nonetheless a death sentence. In that case we are dealing with the Unseelie Court and it may be that they do not follow the more polite rules of the Seelie Court on this subject, but that all food from their hands is dangerous. Or it may be that the person is aware of what they are buying when they buy it, given the fruits' dangerous reputation. 

 In most of the  stories where the food is a kind of trap it is offered as part of hospitality or offered to the person when they have done nothing to pay for it. It is simply offered and taken, usually in a social context. It is also offered, most often, when the person is either in Fairy or in the company of a larger group of fairies, indicating that this may also be a factor. In the stories where the food is not dangerous to take the circumstances are generally different: the person has asked for food, the person was owed a debt by the fairy, or the person was explicitly in service to a fairy monarch. So it would seem that like so many other things on this subject it is neither simple nor clear cut, that there are some cases when eating fairy food is dangerous and others where it is not.

If you ever find yourself in a situation involving fairy food, I'd suggest remembering that its unwise to take what isn't owed to you. 

Daimler, M., (2017) Echtra Condla
Gwyndaf, R., (1991). Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Bruford, A., (1991). Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney and the Shetlands
Yeats, W., (1902) Celtic Twilight
Acland, A., (1997) Thomas the Rhymer
Acland, A., (1997) Childe Rowland
Ballard, L., (1991) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 

1 comment:

  1. The snack in the Genesis is encouraging Eve to eat the 🍎 against the advice of God. After Eve shares the forbidden fruit with Adam they are trapped by the lie. Looks very interesting from this symbolic perspective. Even in Eastern Europe similar story lines are to be found.
    Fairy are called "ielele pădurilor" and they get people lost in the forest. Trapped in the forest. Trapped in an magical illusion that gets people killed. Death is what follows if someone takes after them.