|Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Black c.1786|
They would, for example, never speak evil of them and would often leave food or perhaps milk as offerings. Similar, I suppose, to how we leave a carrot and a mince pie out for Father Christmas. It's about currying favour.
The spirit of the supernatural creatures would appear in various disguises, such as a dead relative's ghost, or maybe in the form of an animal or simply as a more traditional fairy.
The 'cunning person' in the relationship would then have the powers to practise as a healer for health as well as poverty. They had to be careful though, and err on the side of caution. If the 'magic' failed they could well be accused of witchcraft, which would result in some nasty penalties by the state.
It's suggested in books such as Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits that many people in the middle ages fell into other states of consciousness, often unconsciously, because of various factors.
Firstly there was an ingrained belief system of the supernatural going back to pagan times. And what we believe, we can experience. There was also a lack of food. Famine was common, and the majority of women would be constantly pregnant or nursing babies. All of which could destabilise normal consciousness. Mystics traditionally fast and engage in physical mortifications to achieve similar conditions.
Also life was so very different. Without electricity the world would look different. There would be a special kind of darkness and of the perceptions this would bring about. Night time must have been full of mystery where the imagination moved to other levels.
It can't be denied that there were mind altering substances and these were ingested both voluntarily and involuntarily. The water was often contaminated, beer was very strong by today's standards and was drunk in large quantities. Moulds grew on cereal foods. And, of course, witches had special ointments, herbs, mushrooms and so on that had mind bending results.
Fairies in old England were seen differently as today. Back then they were believed to live in a parallel world to ours. They usually lived in forests, caves and even within the earth itself. Like humans they wore clothes, married, had sex and had the flaws and foibles of humankind.
So, wish the fairies well, think of them kindly as they could be around us today - and not just at the bottom of the garden.
Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits
The Book of English Magic
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