The Fire at the Heart of the Brew: Fairy Queens and the Water of Life

The Fire at the Heart of the Brew: Fairy Queens and the Water of Life

The old man with the shining eyes watched the younger man tinker with his tape recorder. It amused him to see this modern technology, so out of place in the peatsmoke-scented Blackhouse. The old man had countless stories and songs in his head; he could feel them congregating, shuffling into position, vying for attention. He wondered which one would grace the tape recorder this night. Suddenly the young man looked up, relieved that his recorder seemed to be working now. ‘All ready’ he said. Then, suddenly self-conscious of his surroundings, the young man reached into the bag at his feet and produced a bottle of amber liquid, which he placed on the side table, next to the old man and the tape recorder. ‘Uisge-beatha. Whisky.’ The old man’s eyes sparkled a little more keenly as he reached for two glasses. He felt a story come in from the storehouse of his head and settle itself down in the room. 

It is said that the biggest expenditure for the folk collectors who travelled around the Celtic countries, was not their recording equipment but the bottles of whisky, which they gifted the storytellers, singers and seanachaidh (tradition-bearers). It warmed the atmosphere and loosened the tongues of the tellers. One of the challenges for folk collectors was putting their interviewees at ease and this was often difficult when a huge tape recorder sat between them. The gift of whisky was not a bribe. It was an offering of sorts. This fiery liquid was a pact between seeker and wisdom-keeper. It was often gifted to the Good People – the Fair Folk, the Sídhe, the Tylwyth Teg – and so it was apt that the folk collectors also gifted it to the Celtic language speakers who held so much knowledge of the Good People and the Otherworld; those who knew the old stories almost became substitutes for the fairies themselves.


In this season of Fire, I had wanted to write about what puts the fire in the songs of traditional culture – the power of protest song in the folk record. Cerridwen, however, had other ideas. Since early January, She has repeatedly revealed Herself to me in Her aspect of Grain Mother and so, the magic of Fire has appeared to me in weird and wonderful ways – in the mentions of how grain is woven through the stories, traditions, and history of the Celtic communities of the British Isles and the ‘other’ communities, which lived alongside them, separated by no more than a thin veil.

It is said that Cerridwen, as a Goddess, brought grain to Wales. The importance of the wheat seed can certainly not be underestimated in the story of the initiatory chase between Cerridwen and Gwion Bach. As Hare and Greyhound, they traversed the element of Earth, as Salmon and Otter, they swam through the element of Water, and as Wren and Hawk they moved through the element of Air. But what of the fourth element of Fire? Before Gwion finally rests at the Centre/Womb of Cerridwen to transform into Taliesin, he first becomes a grain of wheat, to be eaten by Cerridwen in Her form of Black Hen. A spark of Fire, in the form of regeneration, is present in this part of the chase and the transformation. Fire was needed to keep the brew in the Cauldron on a simmer for a year and a day, and perhaps a different sort of fire was present in Cerridwen’s womb cauldron, to warm and crack the seed.


In a series of synchronicities, I recently discovered some information about the Babylonian Goddess of fate, Siris. She is a Sky Mother, who stirs a cauldron made of lapis lazuli. In Babylonia, Siris was the patroness of beer (She was later replaced by a ‘younger’ Goddess, Ninkasi). Thus, this ‘Grain Mother’, Siris, was originally revered as the ‘spirit of beer’. She is described as a very ancient deity, who preceded the Sumerian-Akkadian pantheon and was depicted as a bird, who breathes fire and water. The Babylonians said that the dome of heaven was Siris’s cauldron – She was the Wise Woman and Mother who mingled the elements for the regeneration of all living things. She was a Goddess of the stars, and the whole of the blue heavens were under Her command where She stirred her brew of regeneration. A Goddess of this sort of primordial regenerative power eventually, in a more male-dominated society, became a Goddess of grain and beer.[1]

There are notable similarities between Siris and Cerridwen, with their cauldrons and transformative brews. We may never know if Siris was an early form of Cerridwen. The Celtic Gods and Goddesses have certainly travelled far, and their roots can be traced back to the Bronze Age and further still.


Let us return now to the Blackhouse and our storyteller. After a sip of his whisky, what story did he tell that night from the storehouse of his memory? Perhaps it was this one. I have heard a similar story told, in a similar set of surroundings, and it is one which has stayed with me for a long time…

A Fairy Queen lived under a fairy hill at Ardbeg. Once, a long time ago, she decided to do something good for the women of the island of Islay and she sent out some special invitations to them. The invitations came by sea, carried by seals and otters. The invitations came by land, carried by hare and deer, and even the birds of the air carried the invitations to the women. The Fairy Queen had invited the women to a feast under her hill, in order to share some of her wisdom with them. While some women were wary, others were excited, and the day came on Islay when the women gathered and hiked up to the fairy hill. 

Faery Hill

A Faery Hill (Isle of Skye, Scotland). Image credit: Anke from Pixabay

A door opened and they were warmly welcomed. The great hall was breathtaking, but nothing was as breathtakingly beautiful as the Fairy Queen herself, who made her grand entrance to the banquet and who some whispered was actually an earth Goddess. The women feasted all that day and at the culmination of the feast the Fairy Queen filled a flagon of precious golden liquid from her cauldron. She told the women that she wanted them to pass on the knowledge of the Fair Folk to their daughters and granddaughters. Within the vessel was a liquid of distilled knowledge of the world; a wisdom gathered in the elemental journey of the liquid through the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The liquid was shared out into little glasses and there was plenty to go around. The Fairy Queen made a toast in her own tongue and all drank the liquid. It had a fiery touch, which moved through their bodies and a warm glow radiated from within. This water of life told them the secret wisdom of the fairies. When the women left the fairy hill, they took with them the gift of wisdom from the Fairy Queen’s whisky flagon.[2]

This story, with its emphasis on women and wisdom, is interesting. A number of Scottish witch trial records cite the possession and use of whisky or Aqua Vitae as proof of healing, magic and, ultimately, witchcraft. The possession of Aqua Vitae in these trial records appear to go hand in hand with fairy belief, and the healing which comes from the Otherworld.[3] Aqua Vitae dates back to the Roman period and was described as any sort of distilled liquid. This ‘water of life’ was believed to help fight disease, alleviate aches and pains and support digestion. Women were often at the centre of the distillation process. The first ‘chemists’ are thought to have been two Mesopotamian women who began experimenting with the distillation process to create perfumes for the nobility. It is believed that Maria Hebraea (also known as Mary the Prophetess) invented the still (and stills have always reminded me of big ‘closed’ cauldrons!). The ‘balneum Mariae’ (or bain-marie), the heating and distilling apparatus, which is still used today, is derived from her own name.[4] Women are also credited with the invention of beer and the fermentation of grains – women’s central role in the production of beer led to the term ‘alewife’, which appeared in use in England from the end of the 1300s to describe women who brewed and sold ale. 


A depiction of an alewife in the pictorial cycle of the “Thrice-Sinning Hermit” on page 114v of the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300-1350.[5] 

These women were often independent women of means and they owned their own equipment. There is a strong case for the demonisation of the alewife and her connection to witchcraft being directly related to jealousy, as brewing and distillation moved from cottage industry into more lucrative business. Eventually, brewing was regulated, and women were removed from the trade.[6] However, if the folk record is to be believed, women continued to distil and brew secretly, especially in the countryside where less regulation was possible, and the fiery ‘water of life’ continued to be used in healing.

The relationship between grain, fire and the Goddess is ancient. It can be found in the earliest civilisations and we need to look deep into the cauldron to find its origins. When we look this deeply, the base of the cauldron becomes the starry sky and we may find ourselves in the presence of the Great Cosmic Mother. Like so much of what could be termed ‘women’s work’ throughout history, grain and what can be brewed and distilled from it has become both feared and vilified. The Goddess becomes the alewife and the alewife becomes the witch. But the Fairy Queen is still waiting in the fairy hill, ready to impart her wisdom. Her invitation still stands, if we have ears to hear her call.

In this season of Fire, I am thinking of the Cauldron and the Still. The base of the Still sits over an indirect furnace or naked flame and the distiller must carefully control the heat to boil the liquid. The same care was taken with the boiling of Cerridwen’s Cauldron. Whatever warms your life in the coming months, as the land awakens and the heat returns, may you find the wisdom you need in the wisdom brew and the waters of your life.

Blessed Be. 


Elan, Priestess of Cerridwen

West Lothian, Scotland

Elan Clark - Priestess of Cerridwen

Instagram: @elan_and_the_hare

Elan is a scholar, writer and editor in the field of Celtic Studies. She has a PhD in Gaelic poetry and teaches university classes in Celtic culture and literature.



[1] I am grateful to Priestess Sara Dissette for her help in accessing this information. See Barbara G. Walker. The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom and Power (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1985) p. 101.  

[2] A version of this story, which I first heard orally in the Outer Hebrides, can also be found in Sarah Robinson, Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairy Tale (Womancraft Publishing, 2022), pp. 112-113.

[3] See The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.

[4] E.J. Holmyard, Alchemy (New York: Dover, 1957) p. 48.

[5] accessed 03/03/2023

[6] Sarah Robinson, 2022, pp. 43-44.

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