Sacrifices, ancient and modern

We like to think we live in such settled, civilised and rational times.  It wasn’t so long ago though  – up to  the 19th Century – that farmers feared the effect of evil spirits on their  livestock and made Land Sacrices to appease them. And perhaps it’s still going on in England today.

While searching for something else (about which I have long forgotten) I stumbled upon a very old paper in the Jounal of the British Agricultural History Society called “The untilled Field”. Curious, I read on, and discovered a fascinating story about just how long pagan rituals survived in Britain, despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them.

In the far north-east of Scotland, where the Norse influence was strongest, farmers were punished by the Church, from the 17th to 19th century, for leaving small patches of land untilled and ungrazed, as a sacrifice to spirits unknown. Although these sacrifices were blamed as the Devil’s work by those of the Protestant Faith, the local farmers knew them as Goodman’s Field, Goodman’s Croft, Halyman’s Croft, Cloutie’s Craft, Devill’s craft or Gi’en Rig. These names suggest something that goes back far before Christian Influence came to bear on this distant part of the Kingdom.

The farmers believed that by leaving a piece of good land untouched, and throwing stones into it (to indicate to the spirits that the farmer had abandoned all plans to farm the field), they would appease the spirits that brought disease to their Cattle. The disease was called Murrain  – this is the fifth plague that appears in Exodus. There were also widespread beliefs that any crofter who did try and till, manure or graze a piece of Goodman’s land, would die on the spot. In one recorded case crofters would pour milk onto their Goodman’s field (known as the Cheese Hillock) every year on the first April to appease the spirits or Faeries.

The Church prosecuted farmers for this pagan practice, and in several cases took action for Sorcery and Witchcraft against farmers who refused to farm such plots. Censure by the Church in those days was extremely serious, and could lead to complete social ostracism.

Now some of these sites were known as Goodman’s Fields for a very long time, and were characterised by the presence of many flints, hearths, heaps of stones and ash. It would make sense to assume these were what we would now call prehistoric archaeological sites; though of course then no such things were known. These places were instintively venerated and feared, as places with supernatural powers, but also places of the dead.

One particularly bad outbreak of Murrain happened as a result of a farmer cultivating a Faerie plot (or Goodman’s field) in Caithness. So severe was the outbreak of disease, that need-fire was used to overcome it. Need Fire or Force Fire was a ritual fire created using the age old method of friction.  Need is derived from Neat a  In this case, magical friction fire could only be created at a particular place in the parish and with certain other rituals in place (such as described in the The Golden Bough).

Bonfires kindled from the magical Need or Neat ( derived from the Old English word for Horned Oxen) Fire were used to cleanse Cattle by driving them through the flames. This is the origin for our November 5th (or more accurately November 1st Beltane) Bonfire Night celebrations.

While we all enjoy letting off  some fireworks or having a bonfire (well I do) to celebrate Beltaine, or Bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes night, we may get a fleeting glimpse into the lives of our forebears. Whether any farmers these days leave much land “for the faeries”….well it seems rather unlikely.  But perhaps leaving patches of land on farms (or elsewhere) “for nature” is much closer to maintaining this tradition, than we might think. One could apply the Ecosystem Services approach to Goodman’s Fields and ascribe spiritual value to them.  I also think the idea of self-willed land, which I have commented on here before, may be a modern parallel to such ancient beliefs.

But a far stronger modern parallel with Goodman’s Fields may be the Badger Cull. A mysterious and deadly cattle disease which appears as if from nowhere (up from the soil) to wreak havoc on farmers livelihoods and lives – this is the modern version of Murrain. A sacrifice must be made to expiate whatever gods, spirits or faeries have been angered. But this time, it’s not Goodman’s Fields which are created, but it’s Badgers which are scapegoated and sacrificed in a modern “transference of evil” ritual.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in animism, badgers, churches, farming, self-willed land, spiritual value, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Sacrifices, ancient and modern

  1. David Dunlop says:

    “Whether any farmers these days leave much land “for the faeries”….well it seems rather unlikely.” You may think that Miles, but…

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Dave. True – many farmers and contractors here in Dorset avoid cutting Holly trees in hedges, for the same reason. These may be the last vestiges of such sacred places in the landscapes.

      Even now sacred trees are festooned with charms. When we visited Slieve Carron national nature reserve in the Burren, a tree next to a holy well was festooned with ribbons, photos and even MP3 player headphones – a modern sacrifice!

  2. Fenella says:

    When I was living and working in a deeply agricultural area of Lincolnshire I had a conversation with the local vicar about the difference between churchgoing in rural and urban areas. She pointed out that attendance in rural areas is greater as there are few other opportunities to meet the neighbours, but also that the faith in agricultural areas were more akin to animism than the modern Christianity she had seen in city churches. This was just after the area had been devastated by flooding in 2007 and all the satellite guided tractors, chemicals and sophisticated crops had not been able to prevent the land becoming a morass of anaerobic soil covered in rotting crops.
    I don’t recall any fairy plots though – apart from set aside which was never the good land!

  3. Miles
    There’ll be plenty of the uplands sacrificed to scrub once hill farmers disappear. The big land spare (land for food & sacrifice wildlife) and share (sacrifice food production to share with wildlife) is yet to come.

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Rob.

      Agriculture has ebbed and flowed up and down the hillsides; scrub has grown and turned to woodland, only to be cleared decades or centuries later. These cycles have repeated themselves over many centuries, probably millennia since before the Neolithic.

      The crash of the Roman Empire, the Black Death, The First World War and most recently myxomatosis all led to mass land abandonment (or re-wilding if you like).

      The introduction of the Iron plough, the Norman conquest, Elizabethan and subsequent enclosures, the Napoleonic war and subsequent food shortages; the Second World War “Great Harvests” and the subsequent years of post-war intensification have all had the opposite effect.

      I think the idea that a share and spare, or a share or spare policy will have much of an impact on these cycles beyond a few years/decades is optimistic.

  4. David Dunlop says:

    Fossil fuels and technological advances from the iron plough to the steam plough to the Ferguson tractor have enabled inreasingly swift and more thorough delivery of scrub-clearance and drainage so I guess the actual processes have happened more and more “suddenly” with less time for wildlife/nature to adapt. Whether that will reverse as suddenly or continue to ratchet up ever faster depends on a lot of variables.

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