Example Essay on Cultural Peculiarities of “Food Taboo” In Irish Folklore


Food is a popular subject of Irish mythology, where the fantastic becomes recognized. However, between pre-modern myths and modern folklore, a shift becomes apparent in which consuming Otherworldly cuisine becomes taboo, and forbidden. The association of faerie food with loss of life is a motif that originates in pagan superstition, but ultimately originates out of changing religious doctrine and out of great famine, even shaping the social climate so much it became a tool for survival amongst the starving. 

Irish Celtic culture, defined in terms of hospitality, determined social caste using classifications of hosting. In Guesting and Feasting in Gaelic Ireland, Katherine Simms outlines two types of host/guest interactions within old Irish society: that of “guesting,” and of “feasting.” Guesting she considers any sort of visitors who ask (or demand) hospitality of another, while feasting denotes as one who freely offers their generosity to those around them (Simms 68).

The implied difference lies in the expectation for a return of favor: while the guests may be inclined to repay their host’s kindness, feasts were an expectation of prestigious elites in Gaelic culture, and the solidification of their honor should suffice. Moreover, a good host, heavily revered by both pagan poets and Christian theologians alike, influenced the social hierarchy in early Irish caste systems, as the etymology for many of the labels for various classes reveals (Simms 68-69). It is apparent the association between an entertainer and their visitant impacted many societal facets of Celtic antiquity, including that of their oral literature. 

This dynamic is present in many of the pre-modern myths chronicling the adventures of legendary figures and early fantastic tribes of Ireland. In the tale the “Wooing of Becfhola,” the exchange between Becfhola, a beautiful woman, and a warrior called Flann closely resembles that of the feis of Irish kings. Becfhola is a character of mysterious beginnings; coming from what is vaguely described only as “not from any distance,” and likewise, Flann displays fearsome strength, as well as magical abilities (Bhreathnach 77).

As the wife of a king, and a a legendary hero, they seem to be on equal social footing. However, despite their shared peculiarity, after reaching a remote island via an enchanted brass boat, Flann provides a meal for her, merely by “reaching out his hand as he sat,” and they consume as much as desired without becoming incapacitated (Bhreathnach 78). Such supernatural powers, as well as his status as a male warrior, seem to determine Flann’s position above a woman who should be his peer, requiring that he offer her sustenance. Therefore, the story depicts a power imbalance necessitating that Flann, upon hosting the maiden in his abode, for Becfhola must provide.

In the same manner as for Flann, who must satisfy his guest to meet hospitality standards, so do the conditions of hosting prompt communication between two clans in the Battle of Mag Tuired. In the story, the Dagda of the Tuatha De Danan seeks the compassion of the Fomoire, who grant him an enormous meal. Both the “Good God,” and the mystical Fomoire from beyond the sea appear connected to superhuman races and associations with the Otherworld (Gray 27).

However, as the Dagda invades the enemy camp at their mercy, the Fomorian kings only provide him with copious amounts of his favorite meal in exchange that he finish it all, lest he insults their goodwill, or die (Gray 29). Again, the folklore depicts beings mythical proportion engaged in interactions where there is an exchange of something for service which parallel the reality of Irish society. Thus as the guest, Dagda is subject to repayment for his unlikely hosts’ hostility. 

The Modern Era

Following the introduction of faeries to Irish folklore, a significant shift in the social institution of hospitality occurs within the modern era. Irish mythology often categorizes the Fae, supernatural beings from the Otherworld, as dangerous tricksters bound by rigid sets of rules. Powerful beings, they are compared to demons, angels, or the last remnants of the TDD, forced beneath the Sid mounds by the Irish people’s ancestors.

This inequality in relation to mortal Irishmen upsets the balance of the hospitality structure in their literature: The caste system becomes more complex, as faeries often force humans to revere them on pain of injury or ill luck (Hoose). While faeries present themselves as willing hosts, unlucky guests find less feasting than bastardized guesting. A firm line is drawn between mortals versus the Fae; unlike equal creatures of pre-modern tales, a distinction is heavily apparent. While the Dagda’s porridge is made to satirize, or Becfhola consumes Flann’s meal with sexual intentions, neither story contains the food taboo in which eating otherworldly food means “you will never be able to return,” likely because they are set in Ireland, not the bridge between the physical world, and another (Wilson 32). In contrast, while a human may be able to travel through Fairyland, or join their retinue in the Otherworld, all who consume faerie food cannot leave.

This theme of offering to provide for a guest, only to revoke one’s hospitality seems to hold one explanation within Celtic pagan religious ceremony. One possible explanation is that fairy food cannot sustain a human body, which requires human food, either killing them or turning them like the fae through consumption (Evans-Wentz 294). In fact, it was believed that on Samhain, the fairy forts would open, allowing faeries free reign of the mortal world, along with the return of dead ancestors’ spirits.

Accordingly, people would leave out offerings for their ancestors, and to appease the fairies, transforming this food into something not meant for mortal people (Foley 73-74). Therefore, any violation of the food taboo not only goes against the natural order, but potentially steals sacred offerings given to the faeries in the first place. While the established system of guesting and feasting is not reciprocal, the taboo concerning faerie food and human consumption, and its subsequent punishments for disobedience, is justified as it becomes theft of the faeries’ designated property. 

Death and the Otherworld

Irish folklore contains many striking instances in which associations are drawn between death and the Otherworld, where the lines between living a half-life and living in Faerie become increasingly unclear. One such story from the mid-1800s recounts the adventures of Mr. Noy, who stumbles upon a fairy gathering one night only to discover his long lost love is entrapped in their company. Once she took one bite of their fruit, “it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint,” later adding that the faeries sent back a changeling in her place who quickly died (Bottrell 99).

The inedibility of the food transforms once it touches Grace’s lips, which validates the postulation that faerie food is poisonous or inconsumable to humans. Here the parallels between death rituals and faerie kidnappings are apparent: Grace experiences a minimized existence. The fruit has robbed her of all earthly joys and pleasures, without love or the comfort of food and family. She will never age, or truly die. She warns Noy “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing” starkly presenting the taboo which was her downfall (Bottrell 98). This caution is a common motif in Irish folktales, seen also in those collected for the Records collection.

As John O’Neill related it, the character of Mick Fay is transported to a faerie banquet, where an “old friend” heeds him: “neither drink nor eat for if you do you will be kept” (Schools’ Collection 947: 50). These two stories, while both told by modern speakers, date almost 100 years apart. Evidently, the fear surrounding the danger and unnaturalness of consuming inhuman food was so great, it persisted across timelines and generations. The narrator makes clear Noy’s surprise at seeing his old flame before him as he’d thought her deceased, and specifically adds “at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in Buryan Churchyard as such” (Bottrell 98). Furthermore, once Noy returns to the mortal world, he mentions seeing many in Faerieland who “bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew.”

Noy assumes “some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enow to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed” (Bottrell 102). Here, the correlation illustrates not just a connection between persons who go missing when alive, and the lose of mortal life to faeries, but also that the Otherworld acts as a sort of Purgatoric Limbo, where souls in a moral median linger. Interestingly, this shows that pre-Christian ancestors of the Irish were assumed to be stuck in limbo with the faeries for never having been baptized, even if they did not sin. Both examples illustrate the juxtaposition of the faerie world and the land of the dead, as they relate to ingestion of otherworldly food, and note an additional detail of Christian beliefs.

The Influence of Christianity

Christianity held a long time influence on Irish culture by the time the modern era of folklore arose, but the significant changes in Irish religion during the late 19th century impacted this taboo of forbidden food. One theory for this motif’s etiology is that the influence of the Church in Ireland caused this taboo to overpower the prior, or congruent, assumption that eating fairy food allowed one the mythical “Second Sight” to see the fairies in action (Wilson 31-32).

This led to the symbol of distinctly otherworldly food as dangerous for consumption, which parallels the phenomenon of “soupers” during the Great Famine towards the end of the 1800s across Ireland. Beginning in 1845-46, the Protestant Church in Ireland, with support from the British government, began its brief period of “Evangelical Ascendancy.” In exchange for access to healthcare and aid, Irish Catholic “soupers” took up their soup bowls and agreed to conversion, and this distinction between Catholic and non-Catholic souls, interchanged within the first bite of the meal, directly correlates to the examples previously examined following between human and non-human food (Kelly 342).

However, even with higher rates of conversion, human tricksters would draw on hospitality law and common superstition for their supper. This same period saw a startling number of beggars posing as “fairy doctors” who claimed the ability to restore relatives who had died, not from natural causes, but as they claimed, been stolen by the fae. Families would receive a return date for their loved one, and up until then, be required to provide an exact meal plan to sustain the captive and prevent them from eating faerie food, and becoming entrapped permanently (Young 184). As many victims noted feeling pressured to comply, it becomes clear this specific taboo arises out of religious and famished fearmongering drawing on superstitions, paranoia, and desperation. 

While in today’s culture, we treat faeries as friendly companions found at miniature tea parties with delicate treats, the faeries in the Irish commonwealth of oral literature were not to be trusted with offerings of food. The taboo against faerie food is a veritable chimera of ancient hospitality rights, pagan and Christian dogma, starvation mentality, and Celtic death rituals. Such a combination made for rich storytelling, but its intense mimicry and manipulation of real-life human experiences meant it became an easy weapon to target one’s neighbors and satisfy one’s desires, resulting in a practical application as treacherous as the faerie delicacies themselves

Works Cited

Bhreathnach, Máire. “A New Edition of Tochmarc Becfhola.”  Ériu, Vol. 35 Royal Irish Academy, 1984. pp. 59-91.

Bottrell, William. “The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor.” Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, 1873, pp. 94-102.

Dalmady, Astrid. Beware the Faerie Food You Eat. Dastridly Deeds, 2015. Web. 29 May 2019. 

Evans-Wentz, W Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Sweden, Ulwencreutz Media, 2017.

Gray, Elizabeth A. Cathe Maige Tureid: The Second Battle of Mag Tureid. Cork, University College, Cork, 2009. 

Hoose, Anahita G. “Leaves on Tree: Transforming Myth in Modern Fantasy Literature.” UCLA, Los Angeles. April-June 2018. 

Kelly, James (editor). The Cambridge History of Ireland: Volume 3, 1730–1880, Cambridge University Press, 2018. 

O’Donnell, Hugh and  Malcolm Foley (editors). Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

O’Neill, John. “Mick Fay and the Fairy Feast.” The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0947. National Folklore Collection, UCD, 1937-38.  pg. 050. www.duchas.ie.

Simms, Katherine. “Guesting and Feasting in Gaelic Ireland.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland: Vol. 108. Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1978. pp. 67-100.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Ploughing the Clouds: The Search for Irish Soma, San Francisco, City Light Books, 1999. 

Young, Simon. Fairy impostors in County Longford in the Great Famine. Academia.edu, April 16, 2013.

 

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