Tag Archives: witch

Of Cats, Queens and Star Mice


Where, you might ask, did witchcraft come from? How did this magic lark get started? Well, I could answer with talk of tribal shamanism, of ancient herbalists who also practised a little psychological manipulation of simple folk… but that story is a modern construct, a theory advanced by anthropologists and authors of fantasy and, for my taste, has to ferment a little longer before it can officially be recognised as folklore. The story I am going to tell you has been around a bit longer, even if it hasn’t been around as long as it claims.

The story starts at the very beginning when the goddess Diana is the first created being. Containing all within herself she splits herself in two, producing from her own darkness the light, simultaneously her son and her brother, who’s name (don’t get carried away now) is Lucifer. Here I have to interject to point out that, although the name means “morning star” and “shining” and “lord of light” depending on your translation, this Lucifer is not the same one that you find in that famous book from the middle east. This radiant fella is from Italy. Treating the one as the other would be like assuming that a chap called Peter from Weatherfield is the same as another bloke called Peter who lives in London when one of them is in Coronation Street and the other in Eastenders. The two mythologies are unconnected.

Diana having a rest after creating the earth, trees, water, bows, arrows and cloth, but not apparently clothing.


Diana, seeing the beauty of the light wishes to reunite with her other half and chases him but Lucifer is having nothing to do with her. Diana then makes the world and all that goes in it and both she and Lucifer take mortal forms and step down on to the earth. Diana busies herself teaching magic and sorcery to her creations, also bringing fairies, goblins and other supernatural creatures in to being. Lucifer has a pet cat that sleeps on his bed which, unbeknownst to him, is actually a fairy. Diana persuades the fairy to swap likenesses with her and settles on Lucifer’s bed as his cat. In the night she re-takes her own form and seduces the bringer of light. He is not entirely happy with this when he wakes in the morning but she sings to him using her craft and, quite literally, enchants him.

For some unknown reason Diana is in disguise as a mortal and none of the witches know she is their creator. She decides to impress them by putting some earth and some mice in an ox bladder (as you do) and inflating it until it bursts at which point the earth inside becomes the heavens, the mice become stars and it rains for a few days. The witches are sufficiently impressed that they take her as their queen.

Later, after Diana passed on from the mortal world, the rich people on earth cruelly enslaved and mistreated the poor, so Diana sent the daughter of her union with Lucifer, Aradia, to teach the poor people spells, magic and poison potions to use against the rich. Aradia also taught them about Diana queen of the witches, the cat who ruled the star-mice, the heaven and the rain.

Now the story of this story is that it was told by the “stregheria” or Italian witches of Roman times and was passed down an unbroken line in secret. It was first published by an American folklorist called Charles Leland in 1899 who claims it came to him from his Italian assistant Maddelena whilst they were collecting folktales in Italy. She originally wrote it down and gave it to Leland before mysteriously vanishing… It is however entirely possible that one or other of them simply made it up so it may well be a piece of literature and not mythology at all.
I expect we will never really know where witches came from, even if they do tell us themselves!

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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The Last Place You Want To Go


If you take a walk deep in to the forest of Russia you may find yourself at a strange dwelling. Before you stands a fence made of human bones. On the larger posts, regularly spaced along the bleached white barricade, sit skulls, their eyes flickering with a sickly flame. Within this gruesome enclosure a hut, with windows like eyes and a door like a wide open mouth, spins round and round on giant chicken legs. This is the home of The Baba Yaga, the most famous witch on the planet.

The Baba Yaga’s home by Thomas Denmark

The skinny, bony legged Baba Yaga has a long, hooked nose and iron teeth. Her method of travel is rather unusual: she uses a pestle and mortar, pushing the latter along with the former and swinging a broom behind her to sweep away the traces of her passing. As the pestle hits the ground it strikes sparks and makes a sound like thunder. Sometimes this peculiarly culinary form of transport, rather like having a car designed as a massive Moulinex, can even take flight.

Her name translates with difficulty, Yaga being such an old word that it’s meaning is lost in time. Through various related languages we come to Horror, Witch or Wicked Spirit. The first part, Baba, is easier meaning an elderly female relative. So how about Grandmother Evil?

Despite all the build up The Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, as likely to hand out good advice and put everything right as she is to fire up the stove and chase children through the land licking her dry old lips in anticipation of a feast. She is probably best known as the antagonist to Vassilissa, who is variously The Beautiful or The Wise. Vassilissa is persecuted by her stepmother and step sisters who eventually put out the fire and send her to The Baba Yaga to get a light… and hopefully to get eaten. Although fearing for her life Vassilissa does various domestic chores for the Baba Yaga who, pleased with her work, sends her home with one of the flame-eyed skulls for a light. When Vassilissa arrives home the Baba Yaga’s gift incinerates her duplicitous step family.

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin (1902)

There are similarities here with the Grimm’s tale of Mutter Holle, in which the industrious step daughter goes down a well to retrieve her lost spindle. She finds herself working for Mutter Holle, or Mother Hell, a similarly scary, hook nosed, big toothed, bony old crone. The girl is made to shake the duvet until the feathers fly which makes it snow in the world above. When she decides to return home she is showered with gold. Sometimes The Baba Yaga is attended by three horsemen: one in red armour who rides by at dawn; one in white armour who rides by at midday and one in black armour who rides by at dusk. The symbolism will not escape you I am sure, placing Baba Yaga in charge of the daily cycle of the sun. These remnants of global powers in the natural realm give our woodland dwelling witch a somewhat different background.

In some tales there are three sisters, all called Baba Yaga. Now we have a final clue to her true nature. The Baba Yagas were once a triplicate nature goddess, mysterious, terrifying and deadly but also bountiful if approached without fear. Maybe the name translates better as Grandmother Death, not a witch at all but the ultimate power in the world… and one day we must all pass through the fence of fear and pay her a visit.

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Filed under Russian folktale, Witches

Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy


If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

 

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The Blacksmith’s Wife Of Yarrowfoot


Two brothers worked in apprenticeship to a blacksmith down at Yarrowfoot many, many years ago. They were hard working lads and good learners but after a while the youngest began to grow pale and thin, his previous ready wit and easy smile were gone from him along with his ability to concentrate and perform all but the simplest of tasks. He seemed distracted, tired and edgy.

One night, the elder brother sat down on the side of the younger’s bed as his brother lay there, with his eyes fixed somewhere beyond the roof.

What is wrong my brother? Speak to me, maybe I can help”

Help?” he replied “There is no help for me on this earth.”

Well there certainly will not be if you don’t tell anyone what’s wrong! Now speak, for you know I will not let the matter drop until you do.”

So the lad told his tale, “Each night is the same, after everyone is asleep the Blacksmith’s wife comes in to our room. She slides a bridal over my head and I am transformed in to a horse. She then rides me for miles out across the moors, sparing neither kicks nor whips, places me in the stables of a great hall and goes within to dance and debauch with a host of other witches and their demonic associates. When they are done she collects me from my stall, in which there is neither food nor water, and rides me back here at full gallop, with just enough time to creep in to bed before I have to get up. I have not slept for days”

He said sadly. “Then swap beds with me now” urged his brother “and tonight you shall sleep while I bear your burden.”

The youngster needed no second asking and was fast asleep in his brother’s bed in a trice. There was not long to wait before the Blacksmith’s wife crept in to the room and slid the magic bridal over the elder brother’s head. He felt the strangeness of transformation, becoming a fine, strong stallion and allowed the witch to lead him out of the house. Soon he was galloping over the moors as she kicked his sides and whipped his back. Eventually they reached a great hall high up on the moors, where she placed him in a stable before going off to her ghastly revels.

The elder brother, whilst trying to scratch an itch on his cheek by rubbing it against the wooden side of the stall, discovered a nail sticking out of a post, managed to snag the bridal on it and pull it off over his elongated head. As soon as the bridal was removed he underwent a reverse of his previous transformation and hid in the shadows of the stall. When the witch returned from her unearthly carousing he suddenly leapt out and placed the bridal over her head, turning her in to a rather startled mare. Leaping upon her back he then rode her homeward across the moors, sparing neither kick nor whip and when he reached civilisation he made her gallop up and down a ploughed field until she was all of a lather. On the way he stopped at another forge and had the smith fit a fine set of horseshoes to her front hooves before completing the journey and releasing the blacksmith’s wife to slink, exhausted, in to her bed.

The honest blacksmith rose soon after and went to work but was concerned when his wife did not also rise. She claimed illness and a doctor was called who, seeing her pale and dishevelled state, wished to take her pulse but she refused to let him see her hands. Despite his entreaties she kept them beneath the bedclothes until he grew exasperated and pulled back the sheets. To their horror they saw the horseshoes attached to her hands and the bruises on her side. The brothers told their tale and the witch was duly punished in the time honoured fashion. The younger lad was nursed back to health with butter made from the milk of cows grazed in the churchyard, a sovereign remedy for those who have been hagridden.

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He’s Behind You!


So it’s Mid-winter, it’s cold, it’s dark and everything is slower. There’s not so much work to do in the fields and all you want to do is sit inside by a warm fire and be entertained by stories. It’s how it’s been for years, and with a few changes it’s still how it is now. Maybe not so many people book a storyteller to come and entertain their guests at the fire side (wonderful as it is), but we maintain folk-tales at midwinter with the very British tradition of the pantomime.

 

The vast majority of favourite panto plots are traditional folk tales, and it has traditions all of it’s own: the man in a dress, with his slapstick routine at the start of the second half; the girl as a boy (winning the hand of the girl as a girl by the end of the tale) and villains who always enter and leave stage left. Characters even slip in to the role of narrator and address the audience directly, telling us what other characters have been up to, echoing panto’s storytelling roots. Above all pantomime is folk tales told in a big, bright, shiny way, to keep the darkness of winter at bay. Oh yes it is!

 

A popular midwinter’s tale type across northern Europe was the Search for the Vanished Husband, which is the feminine equivalent of the summer hero’s quest for golden apples. A typical example is the Scottish/borders tale The Black Bull of Norraway. It uses the classic rule of three repeatedly, starting with there being three princesses, the first two seek their fortunes and and are carried away in fine coaches to good marriages, despite their widowed mothers lack of wealth, whilst the youngest princess is fated instead to be carried away on the back of the wild and fearsome Black Bull of Norraway. After travelling for three days, each ending with a gift from their host of the night that she is mysteriously told to “keep until she is in direst need”, their journey reaches “a dark and ugsome glen” where the princess is told to remain absolutely still whilst the bull (who she has grown quite fond of) goes off to fight with a demon and regain his human form. She fails to keep her single instruction and they are lost to each other in the darkness. After searching for many months her way is blocked by a glass mountain and she spends seven years in service to a blacksmith earning the iron boots she needs to scale this representative of winter and ice.

All variants culminate in a bizarre sequence involving a blood stained shirt that belongs to her lost lover, now betrothed to a tricksome washerwoman’s daughter. Bribery with the gifts garnered earlier gets her three tearful nights spent singing in his chamber, for the first two he is drugged by the washerwoman but on the third they are finally re-united.

 

I can’t help but hear the echo of some long forgotten solstice ritual in the princess’ three night vigil, singing the sleeping sun’s return. The teaching themes here are of gathering and putting away good things in times of plenty to use in times of need; of using wisdom as well as strength; and the classic example of accepting an unavoidable fate and working to make it a positive thing. Bursting with symbolism these tales take us in to darkness, both physical and metaphorical, filled with trouble, loss and trickery, but through courage and dedication we come to the restoration of light.

 

So if this winter you find yourself going out to the pantomime, between the cries of “behind you” and “oh yes it is!” see if you can spot any of these themes in your own mid-winter traditional folk tale performance.

 

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Now the above was written for the local mag with a tight word count so I had to leave out the alternative tale from the same group, Prince Hat Under The Ground, that I was going to compare with the Black Bull.

 

This is a Swedish version of the tale, here the princess finds herself given to the eponymous Prince who lives (you’ll never guess) underground and can only come to her under the cover of darkness as she must not see his face.

She is comfortable and well looked after while he is kind and gentle. Three years pass each year bringing a child and an opportunity to visit home where, after two failed attempts, her step mother persuades her to take a candle in to the bedroom and sneak a peak at her sleeping hubby who turns out to be as handsome as he is rich and kind. All perfect you may think but she has now broken her vow and their wonderful, snug underground house becomes a dank cave filled with snakes and frogs. She must next follow him as she wanders the land. They visit his three sisters and she is instructed to drop a child off with each whilst he stays out of sight but she again fails to keep to this and allows the third sister out to see him whereupon he is whisked away by a whirlwind.

She then seeks the aid of a series of three troll witches who live up an icy mountain, to whom she is very polite and as a result receives a gold spinning wheel, a gold bobbin and a purse which always has money in it. Thus armed she makes her way to the castle of the troll queen who has enchanted Prince Hat and intends to marry him where she concludes the action by bargaining with her magical gifts for three nights singing to her lover who is once again drugged for two but gets a tip off on the third and the pair are reunited.

Together they trick the troll witch in to looking in to a huge cauldron of boiling water and thus able to throw her in, freeing themselves and regaining the treasures and, eventually, their children and families.

 

It would be easy, from a twenty first century perspective, to be dismissive of this tale as simply an injunction for wives to obey their husbands but please, stay your anger. Notice instead that the princess is not punished for her lack of obedience, the husband shows no anger. The separation that follows is a consequence of the curse or spell under which Prince Hat or the Black Bull labour. If I were to apply a modern interpretation I would look to the work of psychologist Carl Jung and try to understand this tale in the light of the relationship between the persona and the animus or soul.

Having grown up without a father the masculine principal is hidden from the princess and she is seeking to unite with her inner self but cannot do so until she knows herself better and is less easily swayed by the whims of others. The quest, in all it’s parts, is essential to her inner development and leaves her richer, having gained the symbols of womanhood and conquered her dark side, in the form of the witch who seeks to dishonestly posses and control the masculine power instead of working with it.

 

Now you may be confused by the two meanings offered. Is it a tale of careful storage and use of resources to see us through the privations of winter or is it a deep psychological tract? Why can it not be both? It may also have been a teaching tale for young girls who might find themselves married to suit their parents rather than their hearts, a story to encourage them to be good wives, fruitful, diligent and obedient; and to give them hope.

 

It is one of the great things about folk tales that they often work on many levels, sometimes accruing details at a simplistic, material level that obscure the roots which delve in to the past; if you can follow these roots though, they may lead you to rich seams of powerful meaning.

 

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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