The Lore of Simple Things—Milk, Honey and BreadIn Myth And Legend (Continued) 3

In a custom widespread over much of Western and Northern Europe, milk is left out at night by the hearth, or the front door, or in the barn for house spirits such as hobs, pixies, and tomten. It further believed in some places (such as here in Devon and the neighboring county of Somerset)that if the faeries are not propitiated in this way, they will take what is theirs and punish the greedy by blighting cattle and causing their milk to dry up, spoiling cream, cursing the butter churn, or by coming in the night and drinking cattle and other milk bearing animals dry. As a defense for such otherworldly attacks,Irish housewives would celebrate the eve of May by cutting and peeling boughs from the rowan (or mountain ash) tree and twisting them around their butter churns and milk pails to prevent their contents being stolen by the faeries.

Such beliefs are remnants of very ancient practices, known in Greece and Rome (certainly practiced in Roman Britain), whereby the house god, the Lar (whose statue was kept in a special shrine, a lariarum, in the center of the house), required frequent sacrifice. If ignored, the Lares left their houses,becoming instead one of the Larvae, the demonic spirits who preyed on travelers. In beliefs such as these, dangerous powers are made safe and domestic through the related rites of honoring and sacrifice. As the symbolic and literal embodiment of nourishment, milk was the frequent offering to such forces, rendering them not merely familiar, but also family.

Roman Lares

Though May Day was the day of greatest rejoicing in Ireland, it was not without its dangers. The powers of faeries waxed at that time, and witches (who are often closely linked to fairies in folklore) were particularly known to meddle with milk, butter, children and cattle. Because of this, many precautions were taken. A cold coal was placed under both cradle and churn. Primrose petals were strewn over the thresholds for a fairy will not gladly pass that flower.

On the morning of the May, witches would go to great lengths to steal all the milk they could, though what they did with it all is not always clear in the tales. Some sources seem to indicate that if a witch gets the milk of a particular household, all their good fortune was gone and any milk and butter they made during the ensuing year belonged absolutely to the faeries. Again, primroses play a part in protecting the interests of the farm; old women tied them to the tail of the cattle. Iron heated on the hearth was also thought to be efficacious, but whatever the precaution it had to be done before sunrise.

Hanged Witches and Witch Suckling
Chelmsford, 1589

In the history of witchcraft, the mother–child relationship is mocked and/or subverted in the witch’s practice of suckling their familiars or feeding them milk from a vessel. Some very specific early modern references exist, including the 1582 trial documents of Margery Sammon, who stated that she was given animal familiars in a wicker basket (in the form of toads called "Tom" and "Robin") by her mother who taught her how to use them. The trial papers state that her mother"bade her keep them and feed them. This examinate [Margery] asking ‘wherewithal?’ her mother answered, ‘If thou dost not give them milk, they will suck of thy blood.’"

A witch named Elizabeth Francis from Essex stated in 1566 that she had been given a familiar called Satan in the form of a white spotted cat, and that her grandmother taught her to "feed the said cat with bread and milk," and in 1582 a witch from the same county, Elizabeth Bennett, claimed to possess two spirits, one called "Suckin" who was black "like a dog," the other called "Lierd," who was "red like a lion." It was further said that they "many times they drank of her milk bowl." In Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens (1609),witches attempt to call up a familiar demon from the earth:

Deep, O deep, we lay thee to sleep;
We leave thee drink by, if thou chance to be dry,
Both milk and blood, the dew and the flood.
We breathe in thy bed, at the foot and the head;
We cover thee warm, that thou take no harm;
And when thou dost wake,

Dame Earth shall quake,
And the houses shake,
And her belly shall ache,
As her back were brake
Such a birth to make
As is the blue drake,
Whose form thou shalt take.

Witch Feeding Familiars, woodcut, 1579

Closely paralleling that tradition, the fairy beliefs of Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe also use milk as the favored offering, given in specific and implicit bargains with faeries while emphasizing and mimicking the familial bond between adult and child. The Bean Nighe of Scotland, one of the fairy washer–women who haunt the river fords (and often were an omen of impending death for whomever saw them),could be approached, and if the brave person "grabbed her breast and suckled it" he could then claim the fairy as their foster–mother.

As with the familiars of the witches, good relations with the faeries required sacrifice. Usually basic foods were enough to insure their favors and services. As we’ve seen, milk (often with bread mixed in, a common food for children) was left for them on the hearth or other thresholds and could also be poured on rocks, trees, or by springs. Early modern chroniclers and antiquarians noted that they needed"a pail of clean water, good victuals, and the like . . .and would . . .grind corn for a mess of milk" (Robert Burton); enjoyed a "messe of milke sopt with white bread" (Aubrey); and that the famous hobgoblin, Robin Goodfellow also required a "messe of white bread and milke" (Reginald Scott). Harsenet speaks of them in his Declaration:

And if that the bowl of curds and cream were not duly set out for Robin Goodfellow, the friar, and Sisse the dairy–maid, why then, either the pottage was burned the next day in the pot, or the cheeses would not curdle, or the butter would not come, or the ale in the fat never would have good head.