“There have been numerous explanations for why the fairies disappeared in Britain – education, advent of electrical lighting, evangelical religion. But one old man in the village of Alves, Moray, Scotland knew the real reason in 1851: tea drinking. Yes, tea banished the fairies.”
The historian Owen Davies wrote this in referring to a passage from an old source. He didn’t mention where it came from. In doing a search on Google Books, multiple results came up. The earliest is supposedly on page 624 of the 1850 Family Herald – Volumes 8-9, but there is no text for it available online. Several books from the 1850s to 1880s quote it. (1)
Below is the totality of what Davies shared. It might have originally been part of a longer passage, but it is all that I could find from online sources. It’s a short account and intriguing.
“How do you account,” said a north country minister of the last age (the late Rev. Mr. M’Bean, of Alves,) to a sagacious old elder of his session, “for the almost total disappearance of the ghosts and fairies that used to be common in your young days?” “Tak’ my word for’t, minister,” replied the old man, “it’s a’ owing to the tea; whan the tea cam’ in, ghaists an’ fairies gaed out. Weel do I mind whan at a’ our neebourly meetings — bridals, christenings, lyke-wakes, an’ the like — we entertained ane anither wi’ rich nappy ale; an’ when the verra dowiest o’ us used to get warm i’ the face, an’ a little confused i’ the head, an’ weel fit to see amaist onything when on the muirs on yer way hame. But the tea has put out the nappy; an’ I have remarked that by losing the nappy we lost baith ghaists and fairies.”
Will Hawkes noted that, “‘nappy’ ale meant strong ale.” In response to Davies, James Evans suggested that, “One thing which I haven’t seen mentioned here is that there is an excellent chance that the beer being produced in this region, at this time, was mildly hallucinogenic.” And someone following that asked, “Due to ergot?” Now that makes it even more intriguing to consider. There might have been good reason people used to see more apparitions. Whether or not ergot was involved, we do know that in the past all kinds of herbs were put into beers for nutrition and medicinal purposes but also maybe for the affect they had on the mind.
Let me make some connections. Alcohol is a particular kind of drug. Chuck Pezeshki argues that, “alcohol is much more of a ‘We’ drug when used in moderation, than an ‘I’ drug” (Leadership for Creativity Isn’t all Child’s Play). He adds that, “There’s a reason for the old saying ‘when the pub closes, the revolution starts!’” Elsewhere, he offers the contrast that, “Alcohol is on average is pro-empathetic, sugar anti-empathetic” (The Case Against Sugar — a True Psychodynamic Meta-Review).
Think about it. Both tea and sugar were foods introduced through colonialism. It took a while for them to become widespread. They first were accessible to those in the monied classes, including the intellectual elite. Some have argued that these stimulants are what fueled the Enlightenment Age. And don’t forget that tea played a key role in instigating the American Revolution. Changes in diet often go hand in hand with changes in culture (see below).
There are those like Terrence McKenna who see psychedelics as having much earlier played a central role in shaping the human mind. This is indicated by the wide use of psychedelics by indigenous populations all over the planet and by evidence of their use among ancient people. Psychedelics preceded civilization and it seems that their use declined as civilization further developed. What replaced psychedelics over time were the addictive stimulants. That other variety of drug has a far different affect on the human mind and culture.
The change began millennia ago. But the full takeover of the addictive mentality only seems to have come fully into its own in recent centuries. The popularizing of caffeinated drinks in the 19th century is a key example of the modernizing of the mind. People didn’t simply have more active imaginations in the past. They really did live in a cultural worldview where apparitions were common, maybe in the way that Julian Jaynes proposed that in the Bronze Age people heard voices. These weren’t mere hallucinations. It was central to the lived reality of their shared culture.
In traditional societies, alcohol was used for social gatherings. It brought people together and, maybe combined with other substances, made possible a certain experience of the world. With the loss of that older sense of communal identity, there was the rise of the individual mindset isolated by addictive stimulants. This is what has fueled all of modernity. We’ve been buzzing ever since. Stimulants broke the spell of the fairies only to put us under a different spell, that of the demiurgic ego-consciousness.
“The tea pots full of warm water,” as Samuel Tissot put in his 1768 An Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons, “I see upon their tables, put me in mind of Pandora’s box, from whence all sorts of evils issue forth, with this difference however, that they do not even leave the hopes of relief behind them; but, on the contrary, by inducing hypochondriac complaints, diffuse melancholy and despair.” (2)
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(1) The Country Gentleman – Vol. XII No. 23 (1858), William Hopkin’s “The Cruise of the Betsey” from Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country – Volume 58 (1858) and from Littell’s Living Age – Volume 59 (1858), John William Kirton’s One Thousand Temperance Anecdotes [&c.] (1868), John William Kirton’s A Second Thousand of Temperance Anecdotes (1877), The Church of England Temperance Chronicle – No. 42 Vol. VIII (1880), and The Guernsey Magazine – Vol. X No. 12 (1882).
(2) “There is another kind of drink not less hurtful to studious men than wine; and which they usually indulge in more freely; I mean warm liquors [teas], the use of which is become much more frequent since the end of the last century. A fatal prejudice insinuated itself into physic about this period. A new spirit of enthusiasm had been excited by the discovery of the circulation: it was thought necessary for the preservation of health to facilitate it as much as possible, by supplying a great degree of fluidity to the blood, for which purpose it was advised to drink a large quantity of warm water. Cornelius Bontekoe, a Dutch physician, who died afterwards at Berlin, first physician to the elector of Brandenburgh, published in 1679 a small treatise in Dutch, upon tea, coffee, and chocolate, in which he bestows the most extravagant encomiums on tea, even when taken to the greatest excess, as far as one or two hundred cups in a day, and denies the possibility of its being hurtful to the stomach. This error spread itself with surprising rapidity all over the northern part of Europe; and was attended with the most grievous effects. The æra of its introduction is marked by an unhappy revolution in the account of the general state of health at that time. The mischief was soon noticed by accurate observers. M. Duncan, a French physician settled at Rotterdam, published a small work in 1705, wherein we find, amidst a great deal of bad theory, some useful precepts against the use of hot liquors (I). M. Boerhaave strongly opposed this pernicious custom; all his pupils followed his example, and all our eminent physicians are of the same opinion. The prejudice has at last been prevented from spreading, and within these few years seems to have been rather less prevalent (m); but unfortunately it subsists still among valetudinarians, who are induced to continue these pernicious liquors, upon the supposition that all their disorders proceed from a thickness of blood. The tea-pots full of warm water I see upon their tables, put. me in mind of Pandora’s box, from whence all sorts of evils issue forth, with this difference however, that they do not even leave the hopes of relief behind them; but, on the contrary, by inducing hypochondriac complaints, diffuse melancholy and despair. […]
“The danger of these drinks is considerably increased, as I have before observed, by the properties of the plants infused in them; the most fatal of these when too often or too freely used, is undoubtedly the tea, imported to us since near two centuries past from China and Japan, which has so much increased diseases of a languid nature in the countries where it has been introduced, that we may discover, by attending to the health of the inhabitants of any city, whether they drink tea or not; and I should imagine one and the greatest benefits that could accrue to Europe, would be to prohibit the . importation of this famous leaf, which contains no essential parts besides an acrid corrosive gum, with a few astringent particles (o), imparting to the tea when strong, or when the infusion has stood a long time and grown cold, a styptic taste, slightly felt by the tongue, but which does not prevent the pernicious effects of the warm water it i$ drenched in. These effects are so striking, that I have often seen very strong and healthy men, seized with faintness, gapings, and uneasiness, which lasted for some hours after they had drank a few cups of tea fasting, and sometimes continued the whole day. I am sensible that these bad effects do not shew themselves so plainly in every body, and that there are some who drink tea every day, and remain still in good health; but these people drink it with moderation. Besides, the non-existence of any danger cannot be argued from the instances «f some few who have been fortunate enough to escape it.
“The effects of coffee differing from’ those of tea, it cannot be placed in the same class ; for coffee, although made with- warm water, is not so pernicious for this reason, as it is on account of its being a powerful stimulus, producing strong irritations in the fibres by its bitter aromatic oil This oil combined as it is with a kind of very nourishing meal, and of easy digestion, would make this berry of great consequence, in pharmacy, as one of the bitter stomachics, among which it would be the most agreeable, as well as one of the most active. This very circumstance is sufficient to interdict the common use of it, which must be exceedingly hurtful. A continual irritation of the fibres of the stomach must at length destroy their powers; the mucus is, carried off, the nerves are irritated and acquire singular spasms, strength fails, hectic fevers come on with a train of other diseases, the cause of which is industriously concealed, and is so much the more difficult to eradicate, as this sharpness united with an oil seems not only to infect the fluids, but even to adhere to the vessels themselves. On the contrary, when seldom taken, it exhilerates, breaks down the slimy substances in the stomach, quickens its action, dispels the load and pains of the head, proceeding from interrupted digestions, and even clears the ideas and sharpens the understanding, if we may credit the accounts of men of letters, who have therefore used it very freely. But let me be permitted to ask, whether Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Petronius, to which I may venture to add Corneille and Moliere, whose masterpieces will ever be the delight of the remotest posterity, let me ask, I say, whether they drank coffee? Milk rather takes off from the irritation occasioned by coffee, but still does not entirely prevent all its pernicious effects, for even this mixture has some disadvantages peculiar to itself. Men of learning, there fore, who are prudent, ought in general to keep coffee as their favourite medicine, but should never use it as a common drink. The custom is so much the more dangerous, as it soon degenerates into a habit of necessity, which few men have the resolution to deprive themselves of. We are sensible of the poison, and swallow (32) it because it is palatable.”
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Addiction, of food or drugs or anything else, is a powerful force. And it is complex in what it affects, not only physiologically and psychologically but also on a social level. Johann Hari offers a great analysis in Chasing the Scream. He makes the case that addiction is largely about isolation and that the addict is the ultimate individual. It stands out to me that addiction and addictive substances have increased over civilization. Growing of poppies, sugar, etc came later on in civilization, as did the production of beer and wine (by the way, alcohol releases endorphins, sugar causes a serotonin high, and both activate the hedonic pathway). Also, grain and dairy were slow to catch on, as a large part of the diet. Until recent centuries, most populations remained dependent on animal foods, including wild game. Americans, for example, ate large amounts of meat, butter, and lard from the colonial era through the 19th century (see Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise; passage quoted in full at Malnourished Americans). In 1900, Americans on average were only getting 10% of carbs as part of their diet and sugar was minimal.
Something else to consider is that low-carb diets can alter how the body and brain functions. That is even more true if combined with intermittent fasting and restricted eating times that would have been more common in the past. Taken together, earlier humans would have spent more time in ketosis (fat-burning mode, as opposed to glucose-burning) which dramatically affects human biology. The further one goes back in history the greater amount of time people probably spent in ketosis. One difference with ketosis is cravings and food addictions disappear. It’s a non-addictive or maybe even anti-addictive state of mind. Many hunter-gatherer tribes can go days without eating and it doesn’t appear to bother them, and that is typical of ketosis. This was also observed of Mongol warriors who could ride and fight for days on end without tiring or needing to stop for food. What is also different about hunter-gatherers and similar traditional societies is how communal they are or were and how more expansive their identities in belonging to a group. Anthropological research shows how hunter-gatherers often have a sense of personal space that extends into the environment around them. What if that isn’t merely cultural but something to do with how their bodies and brains operate? Maybe diet even plays a role. […]
It is an onslaught taxing our bodies and minds. And the consequences are worsening with each generation. What stands out to me about autism, in particular, is how isolating it is. The repetitive behavior and focus on objects resonates with extreme addiction. As with other conditions influenced by diet (shizophrenia, ADHD, etc), both autism and addiction block normal human relating in creating an obsessive mindset that, in the most most extreme forms, blocks out all else. I wonder if all of us moderns are simply expressing milder varieties of this biological and neurological phenomenon. And this might be the underpinning of our hyper-individualistic society, with the earliest precursors showing up in the Axial Age following what Julian Jaynes hypothesized as the breakdown of the much more other-oriented bicameral mind. What if our egoic consciousness with its rigid psychological boundaries is the result of our food system, as part of the civilizational project of mass agriculture?
This person said a close comparison was being in the zone, sometimes referred to as runner’s high. That got me thinking about various factors that can shut down the normal functioning of the egoic mind. Extreme physical activity forces the mind into a mode that isn’t experienced that often and extensively by people in the modern world, a state of mind combining exhaustion, endorphins, and ketosis — a state of mind, on the other hand, that would have been far from uncommon before modernity with some arguing ketosis was once the normal mode of neurocogntivie functioning. Related to this, it has been argued that the abstractions of Enlightenment thought was fueled by the imperial sugar trade, maybe the first time a permanent non-ketogenic mindset was possible in the Western world. What sugar (i.e., glucose), especially when mixed with the other popular trade items of tea and coffee, makes possible is thinking and reading (i.e., inner experience) for long periods of time without mental tiredness. During the Enlightenment, the modern mind was borne out of a drugged-up buzz. That is one interpretation. Whatever the cause, something changed.
Also, in the comment section of that article, I came across a perfect description of self-authorization. Carla said that, “There are almost always words inside my head. In fact, I’ve asked people I live with to not turn on the radio in the morning. When they asked why, they thought my answer was weird: because it’s louder than the voice in my head and I can’t perform my morning routine without that voice.” We are all like that to some extent. But for most of us, self-authorization has become so natural as to largely go unnoticed. Unlike Carla, the average person learns to hear their own inner voice despite external sounds. I’m willing to bet that, if tested, Carla would show results of having thin mental boundaries and probably an accordingly weaker egoic will to force her self-authorization onto situations. Some turn to sugar and caffeine (or else nicotine and other drugs) to help shore up rigid thick boundaries and maintain focus in this modern world filled with distractions — likely a contributing factor to drug addiction.
Prior to talk of neurasthenia, the exhaustion model of health portrayed as waste and depletion took hold in Europe centuries earlier (e.g., anti-masturbation panics) and had its roots in humor theory of bodily fluids. It has long been understood that food, specifically macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, & fat), affect mood and behavior — see the early literature on melancholy. During feudalism food laws were used as a means of social control, such that in one case meat was prohibited prior to Carnival because of its energizing effect that it was thought could lead to rowdiness or even revolt (Ken Albala & Trudy Eden, Food and Faith in Christian Culture).
There does seem to be a connection between an increase of intellectual activity with an increase of carbohydrates and sugar, this connection first appearing during the early colonial era that set the stage for the Enlightenment. It was the agricultural mind taken to a whole new level. Indeed, a steady flow of glucose is one way to fuel extended periods of brain work, such as reading and writing for hours on end and late into the night — the reason college students to this day will down sugary drinks while studying. Because of trade networks, Enlightenment thinkers were buzzing on the suddenly much more available simple carbs and sugar, with an added boost from caffeine and nicotine. The modern intellectual mind was drugged-up right from the beginning, and over time it took its toll. Such dietary highs inevitably lead to ever greater crashes of mood and health. Interestingly, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who advocated the ‘rest cure’ and ‘West cure’ in treating neurasthenia and other ailments additionally used a “meat-rich diet” for his patients (Ann Stiles, Go rest, young man). Other doctors of that era were even more direct in using specifically low-carb diets for various health conditions, often for obesity which was also a focus of Dr. Mitchell.