What Food they extract from us is conveyed to their Homes by secret Paths, as sume skilfull Women do the Pith and Milk from their Neighbours Cows into their own Chiese-hold thorow a Hair-tedder, at a great Distance, by Airt Magic, or by drawing a spickot fastened to a Post, which will bring milk as farr of as a Bull will be heard to roar. The Method they take to recover their Milk is a bitter chyding of the suspected Inchanters, charging them by a counter Charme to give them back their own, in God, or their Master's Name. But a little of the Mother's Dung stroakit on the Calves Mouth before it such any, does prevent this theft.
The fairies do not take their booty away bodily, they only take what is called in Gaelic its toradh, i.e. its substance, virtue, fruit, or benefit. The outward appearance is left, but the reality is gone. Thus, when a cow is elf-taken, it appears to its owner only as suddenly smitten by some strange disease (chaidh am beathach ud a ghonadh).
In reality the cow is gone, and only its semblance remains, animated it may be by an Elf, who receives all the attentions paid to the sick cow, but gives nothing in return. The seeming cow lies on its side, and cannot be made to rise. It consumes the provender laid before it, but does not yield milk or grow fat. In some cases it gives plenty of milk, but milk that yields no butter. If taken up a hill, and rolled down the incline, it disappears altogether. If it dies, its flesh ought not to be eaten -- it is not beef, but a stock of alder wood, an aged elf, or some trashy substitute.
Similarly when the toradh of land is taken, there remains the appearance of a crop, but a crop without benefit to man or beast -- the ears are unfilled, the grain is without weight, the fodder without nourishment.
A still more important point of difference is, that the fairies only take away what men deserve to lose. When mortals make a secret of (cleth), or grumble (ceasad) over, what they have, the fairies get the benefit, and the owner is a poor man, in the midst of his abundance. When (to use an illustration the writer has more than once heard) a farmer speaks disparagingly of his crop, and, though it be heavy, tries to conceal his good fortune, the fairies take away the benefit of his increase. The advantage goes away mysteriously "in pins and needles" (na phrìneachan 's na shnàdun), "in alum and madder' (na alm 's na mhadair), as the saying is, and the farmer gains nothing from his crop. Particularly articles of food, the possession of which men denied with oaths (air a thiomnadh), became fairy property.
The elves are also blamed for lifting with them articles mislaid. These are generally restored as mysteriously and unaccountably as they were taken away. Thus, a woman blamed the elves for taking her thimble. It was placed beside her, and when looked for could not be found. Some time after she was sitting alone on the hillside and found the thimble in her lap. This confirmed her belief in its being the fairies that took it away. In a like mysterious manner a person's bonnet might be whipped off his head, or the pot for supper be lifted off the fire, and left by invisible hands on the middle of the floor.
The accusation of taking milk is unjust. It is brought against the elves only in books, and never in the popular creed. The fairies take cows, sheep, goats, horses, and it may be the substance or benefit (toradh) of butter and cheese, but not milk.
Many devices were employed to thwart fairy inroads. A burning ember (eibhleag) was put into "sowens" (cabhruich), one of the weakest and most unsubstantial articles of human food and very liable to fairy attack. It was left there till the dish was ready for boiling, i.e. about three days after. A sieve should not be allowed out of the house after dark, and no meal unless it be sprinkled with salt. Otherwise, the fairies may, by means of them, take the substance out of the whole farm produce. For the same reason a hole should be put with the finger in the little cake (bonnach beag's toll ann), made with the remnant of the meal after a baking, and when given to children, as it usually is, a piece should be broken off it. A nail driven into a cow, killed by falling over a precipice, was supposed by the more superstitious to keep the elves away.
One of the most curious thefts ascribed to them was that of querns, or handmills (Bra, Brathuinn). To keep them away these handy and useful implements should be turned deiseal, i.e. with the right hand turn, as sunwise. What is curious in the belief is, that the handmill is said to have been originally got from the fairies themselves. Its sounds have often been heard by the belated peasant, as it was being worked inside some grassy knoll, and songs, sung by the fairy women employed at it, have been learned.
The use of some kind of mill, generally a hand mill, is as universal as the growth of grain, and the necessity for reducing the "solid grain into the more palatable form of meal no doubt led to its early invention. The Gaelic meil (or beil), to grind, the English mill, the Latin mola, and the Greek μνλη, show that it was known to the Aryan tribes at a period long anterior to history. The handmill mentioned in scripture, worked by two women, seems the same with that still to be found in obscure corners in the West Highlands.
An instrument so useful to man in the less advanced stages of his civilization could not fail to be looked upon with much respect and good feeling. In the Hebrides it was rubbed every Saturday evening with a wisp of straw "for payment" of its benevolent labours (sop ga shuathadh ris a bhrà ga pàigheadh). Meal ground in it is coarser than ordinary meal,and is known as gairbhein.
Next morning his wife went out to the shed, and see! Diamond was for all the world as wisht a looking creature as Facey -- nothing but a bag of bones, all the flesh gone, and half a rick of wood was gone, too; but the fireplace was piled up three feet high with white wood ashes. The farmer determined to watch the third night; so he hid in a closet which opened out of the parlor, and he left the door just ajar, that he might see what passed.
Tick, tick went the clock, and the farmer was nearly tired of waiting; he had to bite his little finger to keep himself awake, when suddenly the door of his house flew open, and in rushed maybe a thousand pixies, laughing and dancing and dragging at Beauty's halter till they had brought the cow into the middle of the room. The farmer really thought he should have died with fright, and so perhaps he would, had not curiosity kept him alive.
Tick, tick went the clock, but he did not hear it now. He was too intent staring at the pixies and his last beautiful cow. He saw them throw her down, fall on her, and kill her; then with their knives they ripped her open, and flayed her as clean as a whistle. Then out ran some of the little people and brought in firewood and made a roaring blaze on the hearth, and there they cooked the flesh of the cow. They baked and they boiled, they stewed and they fried.
"Take care," cried one, who seemed to be the king. "Let no bone be broken."
Well, when they had all eaten, and had devoured every scrap of beef on the cow, they began playing games with the bones, tossing them one to another. One little leg bone fell close to the closet door, and the farmer was so afraid lest the pixies should come there and find him in their search for the bone, that he put out his hand and drew it in to him.
Then he saw the king stand on the table and say, "Gather the bones!"
Round and round flew the imps, picking up the bones.
"Arrange them," said the king; and they placed them all in their proper positions in the hide of the cow.
Then they folded the skin over them, and the king struck the heap of bone and skin with his rod. Whisht! Up sprang the cow and lowed dismally. It was alive again; but alas! as the pixies dragged it back to its stall, it halted in the off forefoot, for a bone was missing.
The cock crew,And the farmer crept trembling to bed.
Away they flew.
The tenant on the Eynonsford Farm here in Gower had a dream one night, and in it thought he heard soft sweet music and the patter of dancing feet. Waking up, he beheld his cow-shed, which opened off his bedroom, filled with a multitude of little beings, about one foot high, swarming all over his fat ox, and they were preparing to slaughter the ox. He was so surprised that he could not move. In a short time the Verry Volk had killed, dressed, and eaten the animal.
The feast being over, they collected the hide and bones, except one very small leg-bone which they could not find, placed them in position, then stretched the hide over them; and, as the farmer looked, the ox appeared as sound and fat as ever, but when he let it out to pasture in the morning he observed that it had a slight lameness in the leg lacking the missing bone.
The same sort of a story as this is told in Lower Brittany, where the corrigans or lutins slaughter a farmer's fat cow or ox and invite the farmer to partake of the feast it provides. If he does so with good grace and humour, he finds his cow or ox perfectly whole in the morning, but if he refuses to join the feast or joins it unwillingly, in the morning he is likely to find his cow or ox actually dead and eaten.
Angry at his lack of success, he decided to thresh the remaining peas right in the field. He set to work at daybreak. He had not threshed out half the peas when he heard pitiful screams. Investigating, he saw one of the dwarfs lying on the ground beneath the peas. Riechert had crushed his skull with his threshing flail, and because his fog cap had been knocked off, the dwarf was now visible. He quickly fled back into the mountain.
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Revised May 15, 2009.