Oh, my bride, from your lips flow nectar,
Beneath your tongue, milk and honey are hidden
— from, "The Song of Solomon"
Without bread, even a palace is sad,
but with it, a pine tree is a paradise
— a Slavic proverb
I am living in Devon, England at the moment, in a medieval barn on the edge of the Dartmoor. In the small of hours of the night, in such a house, the mind rambles backwards and forwards in time, imagining the daily routines, the days and nights, the bread and butter, of the people that have lived here and used this place over the last six hundred years. A barn is a building of necessary things, of basics, life's staples about which much custom, curiosity and belief have formed; a place where a bowl of milk or a bit of bread is justly left for the little gods who watch over the farm and its immediate vicinity, but nowhere much farther than that. In the lore of offerings and sacrifice, the high rites of the gods and common custom of house fairies share a wide frontier. In studying such beliefs, we may discern that the humblest of offerings is indeed a sacred thing.
So here is the lore of The Basics, three foods that remain effective indicators of the land's condition. If these are unspoiled, and readily available, all with the land and the people living on it is well. Here are three foods ancient and primal: one given, one found, one formed. Milk, honey and bread. Bon appetit.
Milk of Nourishment
Of all the many naturally produced substances on the earth, milk is the single one whose primary purpose is to nourish living creatures. Many societies still rely on milk and milk products as their main food. These include numerous tribes of Central Asia, the Sami (or Lapp) people, the Todas of India, and many African tribes. All cultures rely on the milk of the mother, or her surrogate, as food for infants (though this is often supplemented by the milk of other creatures). In Italy and in nearly all of early modern Europe, it is believed that a baby may take on characteristics of the milk–provider. Because of this, it is thought that only a nurse of the best character should be hired. In Poland, if a child returns to the breast after being weaned, it will stammer when it begins to speak.
In the Bible, Israel is referred to as "the land of milk and honey." In Judaism, the physical Torah is likened to milk in rabbinic literature. For this reason, Jews eat milk products on Shavuot, the holiday commemorating and celebrating the giving of the Torah.
Milk is also revered as one of the special gifts of Allah: "You have in cattle a lesson: we give you to drink from that which is in their bellies betwixt chyme and blood — the pure milk — easy to swallow for those who drink." In the funeral rites of ancient Egypt, it was sung that milk should never be far from the mouths of the dead. In the Egyptian Pyramid texts, Ra is asked to bestow the milk of Isis upon the deceased, thereby rendering them a surrogate child of the goddess. Utterance 406 requests abundance on behalf of the dead:
Greetings to thee RA in thy beauty, in thy beauties,
in thy places, in thy two-thirds gold.
Mayest thou bring the milk of Isis to (name of the dead), and the flood of Nephthys,
the swishing of the lake, the primaeval flood of the ocean,
life, prosperity, health, happiness,
bread, beer, clothing, food, that N. may live thereof
Both nourishment and sweetness are asked for to strengthen the act of remembrance and after–life body of the deceased in the otherworld. Also, the active part of the living in the care of the dead form rites of catharsis by which the pain of loss of eased.
In the Greek play Orestes by Euripides, Helen must make offerings at the tomb of her sister but cannot make the visit herself. She sends her daughter Hermione to make the offering in her place, a gift of hair and a libation for the dead Clytemnestra:
True; thou hast convinced me, maiden. Yes, I will send my daughter; for thou art right. (Calling) Hermione, my child, come forth before the palace; (HERMIONE and attendants come out of the palace.) take these libations and these tresses of mine in thy hands, and go pour round Clytemnestra's tomb a mingled cup of honey, milk, and frothing wine; then stand upon the heaped-up grave, and proclaim therefrom, "Helen, thy sister, sends thee these libations as her gift, fearing herself to approach thy tomb from terror of the Argive mob"; and bid her harbour kindly thoughts towards me and thee and my husband; towards these two wretched sufferers, too, whom Heaven hath afflicted. Likewise promise that I will pay in full whatever funeral gifts are due from me to a sister. Now go, my child, and tarry not; and soon as thou hast made the offering at the tomb, bethink thee of thy return. (HELEN goes into the palace as HERMIONE and her attendants depart with the offerings.)
Likewise, in Book X of the Odyssey, offerings including milk are made to Teiresias. Such offerings do not here form the rites of family, but are a magical invocation of the dead enacted so that the dead might be questioned upon an important matter.
When you have reached this spot, as I now tell you, dig a trench a cubit or so in length, breadth, and depth, and pour into it as a drink–offering to all the dead, first, honey mixed with milk, then wine, and in the third place water–sprinkling white barley meal over the whole. Moreover you must offer many prayers to the poor feeble ghosts, and promise them that when you get back to Ithaca you will sacrifice a barren heifer to them, the best you have, and will load the pyre with good things. More particularly you must promise that Teiresias shall have a black sheep all to himself, the finest in all your flocks.
When you shall have thus besought the ghosts with your prayers, offer them a ram and a black ewe, bending their heads towards Erebus; but yourself turn away from them as though you would make towards the river. On this, many dead men's ghosts will come to you, and you must tell your men to skin the two sheep that you have just killed, and offer them as a burnt sacrifice with prayers to Hades and to Proserpine. Then draw your sword and sit there, so as to prevent any other poor ghost from coming near the split blood before Teiresias shall have answered your questions. The seer will presently come to you, and will tell you about your voyage — what stages you are to make, and how you are to sail the sea so as to reach your home.
The Roman festival of Pales (an ancient Italian shepherd divinity of uncertain sex, to whom the day was sacred), took place on April twenty–first, in both country and city.
Baskets of millet, millet cakes, and milk were offered to Pales, whose wooden statue, standing near the farmhouse, seems to have been splashed with milk. A feast followed in which shepherds and god took part. The shepherds then prayed to Pales to keep away evil influences —wolves, disease, hunger — and to bring good influences to bear — water, food, health to man and to flocks; they repeated the prayer four times, facing the East, while they cleansed their hands in fresh dew. The people drank wine boiled down until it was thick and then mixed with milk. After this, the farmer, his family, and his flocks leaped through bonfires made of straw, a rite which, as they believed, would make women prolific. The worshipers, eating and drinking, lay about on the grass.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I suspect that milk was the favored offering of both faeries and the dead because it emphasized intimacy and needed to be gotten fresh, thus being a gift that necessitated immediate and frequent offerings. Such offerings kept our "Good Neighbors" not only placated, but close to heart and hearth both. Curds and cream are also the best, highest–fat, most nutritious part of the milk — to offer them means you're leaving yourself only the watery skimmed milk — in The Winter's Tale, Perdita is called 'the queen of curds and cream,' alluding to her richness and desirability — the part you skim off the top and keep. This again mimics the way in which children are fed, the best most nutritious part being given to them.
There were rules about the use of milk in special situations as well as fear of its corruption. In Scotland in the seventeenth century any milk found in the house at the time of death was disposed of, because of the prevalent belief that milk was highly susceptible to corruption and may be affected by spirits of the dead. While Breton belief allows milk to remain in the room with the corpse, any vessel of standing water must be poured out for fear that the departing spirit of the deceased might drown within it. In Ireland when a cow is milked, its owner will put her finger into the milk and then quickly crosses the cow with it while softly saying, "Mary and our Lord preserve thee, until I come to thee again."
So central to rural custom were such beliefs that the church in its early history, medieval periods and even the Protestant church issued edict after edict from its numerous councils, seeking to suppress such practices. The frequency with which it tried to put down these beliefs is a good indicator of their prevalence. The Council of Rouen, held in the seventh century related the use of branches, rags and flowers were used to worship at wells, but later councils recounted and condemned "worse practices" such as "the adoration of stones, the pouring of milk on hills, and the sacrifice of bulls."