Old Frick, the Devil’s Grandmother: Goddesses in Folk Tales and Lore

Hansel-and-Gretel-witchOld Frick is a complex, mysterious figure in Brandenburgian lore, sometimes fearsome, other times helpful. Alternately referred to as Frau Fricke, she is one of a number of feminine spirits given the respectful title Frau (meaning “lady”) across Germany (Hammer 62). I first came upon Frick while researching the Norse goddess Frigg. Wikipedia cites “Fricke” as the Low German (i.e. the dialect of Germans living in northern Germany) cognate of Frigg, both ultimately originating from Proto-Germanic word *frijjo, meaning “dear, beloved.”*

The next time I ran across (a variation of) this name was in Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2, which contains a wealth of lore from northern Germany. She is listed as “Old Frick” under the section of lore from Mecklenburg, the Brandenburg Mark, and nearby regions. With this area being the region from which all my German ancestors immigrated (Brandenburg, Pomerania, and Berlin), I was especially interested in reading the lore that originated there. Frick in particular intrigued me — particularly her designation as “the devil’s grandmother.” The more I learned about her, the more my fascination deepened.  Unfortunately, information about her is scant and difficult to reconstruct (a common complaint regarding anything to do with continental Germanic polytheism). Who is she? What role(s) does she play in Low German lore? What can she mean to us now?

A Wild Huntress

Many spirits, including deities, have been attributed the role of leader of the Wild Hunt. In Germanic myth and lore, this includes Odin, cultural heroes, and a number of divine ladies (whom I think of as the Frauen). Frick is, of course, among them. Benjamin Thorpe states in the 2nd volume of Northern Mythology that

“Old Frick, or Fuik, is the devils’ grandmother, and has frequently been heard making a great noise in the night. Many have also seen, and at once recognized her by the large dogs, which she always has with her; for when they barked, pure fire has issued from their mouths and nostrils” (80).

A brief tale follows this description, relating how a peasant came upon Frick and her team on his way home from work. He is walking down a road at night, bearing sacks of corn flour on his back, when he hears the thundering of Frick’s wagon and the barking of her dogs. Frightened, the peasant empties the corn flour onto the road, which the dogs consume. The peasant hurries home and tosses the empty sacks in the corner of the room, yet when he wakes in the morning, the sacks have been refilled.

The Wild Hunt is a prolific myth present at some level in all or most European cultures. It most commonly occurs in the winter time, especially around the Twelve Nights, but it can pass at any time of the year when the wind howls and thunder rolls. It still haunts our secular culture today. It’s the ancestor, so to speak, of Santa Claus’s gift-bearing ride on Christmas night, as well as the inspiration for Stan Jones’ cowboy song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Grimm believed that, for ancient heathens, its passing during the Twelve Nights was auspicious, imparting welfare and blessings (like Santa Claus today). Since the medieval period, it has typically taken on a much more sinister aspect (as with the tale of Frick above). Overall, it seems to me to be fairly ambiguous — risky for anyone viewing it or caught in the middle of it, to be sure, but capable of both good and ill results, depending on one’s behavior during the encounter. In some circumstances, it may be viewed as a kind of test, and humble, considerate viewers (who provide aid to the hunter or huntress or their retinue) may be rewarded or at least spared.

For many of the Frauen (Frau Holle, Frau Perchta, Frau Gode, etc.), leading the Wild Hunt is arguably an element of their divine role as Mistress of the Animals — a title that places those deities who bear it in that ripe liminal space between wilderness and civilization, and signifies that they oversee the success of hunters in the acquisition of prey (such is the case with Diana, with whom Frau Holle/Holda is identified in old church documents) and therefore the health and success of communities. I believe this is true for Fricke as well, especially considering her connection to dragons and corn, which we’ll examine next.

Dragon Lady

The lore highlighted in the previous section has a couple of points of interest beyond Frick’s role as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The most important is the first statement: that Frick is the devil’s grandmother. Old Frick is a mysterious figure — information about her is not readily available, at least not compared to other Germanic divine women, such as a Frigg, Perchta or Holda. There is, however, a wealth of lore surrounding the devil’s grandmother, and this is a key designation for learning more about Frick.

Her company of dogs is related to this. Dogs are common partners in hunts even today, and many spirits who lead the Hunt are accompanied by dogs (such as Frau Gode, who was once a living woman with several daughters who were transformed into dogs due to their great — and, according to Christianity, sacrilegious — love of hunting) (Thorpe 74). What separates Frick’s dogs from the rest, however, are that they breathe fire and consume corn. Both of these suggest a connection to a certain type of European dragon.

Dracs, a kind of domesticated dragon spirit, are likewise often connected with grains. Claude Lecouteux states in The Tradition of Household Spirits  that “we can find the drac of wheat, semolina, barley, and, in Lusatia, that of grains…” (153). Keep in mind that corn is a grain. When dracs serve households as domestic spirits, they may bring grains, silver, or gold to their masters or mistresses — all related to success and therefore both wealth and survival. Dracs are also strongly associated with fire, reputed to live in or behind the stove and, when seen in the air above homes, to resemble poles of fire.

There is a certain Grimm tale, called “The Devil and His Grandmother,” that meaningfully brings all of these points together. The devil mentioned in the tale’s title is actually a “fiery dragon” who makes a deal with three soldiers defecting from a war (563). Far from total evil, he functions as an ambiguous trickster character. He meets the soldiers in a corn field — again, the connection to corn — and tells them that he will protect them from the war and make them rich if they promise to surrender themselves to him at the end of seven years. He offers them an opportunity to escape this fate: if they can guess the answers to a riddle he will pose to them at the end of the seven years, they will be free. One of the soldiers finds his way to the dragon’s home under a “fallen rock which looks like a little house” and meets the dragon’s grandmother (565). The grandmother takes pity on the soldier and agrees to help him. She tells him to hide in the cellar and, when the dragon returns home, tricks her grandson into revealing the answers to the riddle. So, while being intimately connected to a “devil” (which, Lecouteux makes the convincing case throughout his book Demons and Spirits of the Land, is really just a Christian term for a nature spirit), the grandmother is actually quite willing to help humans who appeal to her — using the same cunning on which the dragon prides himself.

Frick is never named in the story, but considering Thorpe’s (and others’) assertion that she is the devil’s grandmother, as well as certain details mentioned above (i.e. the connection to corn, dragons, and devils), it’s a reasonable assumption to make. This theory becomes even more probable when we look at other folk tales and lore from northern Germany.

The Witch in the Woods

There’s a tale from the Uckermark region of Brandenburg, Germany, called “The Old Frick,” which sheds a contrasting light on Frick’s nature. Echoing the more familiar “Hansel and Gretel,” two children wander in a forest and come to a door that leads to an underground cave. The children knock at the door and “Old Frick came out, a huge sorceress and man-eater. As she saw the children, she took them down into her cave and locked up the little brother into a cage… She kept the girl around to help her with the housekeeping” (59).

While her nature here is vastly different from the cunning but sympathetic grandmother in the Grimm tale, they both live in a cave (or, in the Grimm tale, a “house-like rock”) deep in a forest. Further details about Old Frick emerge in this story: she keeps a rod that can make wishes come true (i.e. a wand) in a bag, and she cannot cross a lake (although she is capable of drinking up all the water in it to get across). This aversion to water is interesting (and, so far, inexplicable to me), as many Germanic feminine spirits — including many of the Frauen — dwell in water and/or use it as a means of crossing into the world of the living. It may be an alteration by the clergy to separate Old Frick from her divine state. In addition, like Frau Harke, another Frau from northeastern Germany, Frick is described as “huge,” perhaps even a giantess (as she’s also described as a man-eater). As I mentioned, it’s unclear how much of this tale is impacted by Christian attitudes toward Frick, and how much was changed in the story to accommodate those attitudes, but I’m willing to accept that she has a dual nature, like the Alpine Frau Perchta and the Slavic Baba Yaga.

A Force of Chaos

There is a wealth of idioms in northern Germany regarding the devil and his grandmother. Folklorist Isobel Cushman Chamberlain has recorded quite a few of them and notes that the “devil’s…grandmother often has the popular sympathy, and does not always appear as an evil-doing or as an ugly individual” (280). One such idiom, “The devil is beating/bleaching his grandmother,” explains a sunshower, a weather phenomenon in which it rains while the sun is shining. One might be tempted, based on this idiom, to infer a connection between the grandmother Frick and the sun or weather, but when considered with other idioms, the overall sense is that she represents a portion of any paradoxical or disruptive event:

  • When a loud argument occurs: “The devil and his grandmother are the best guests in the house”
  • When things go awry: “As if the devil had ploughed with his grandmother”
  • When a whirlwind arises : “The devil is dancing with his grandmother”

It’s significant that all of these idioms have their source in the Mecklenburg region of northern Germany. These, of course, may be purely Christian in origin that have only the faintest roots connecting them to Frick. But the fact that, as Chamberlain mentions, she has retained the benefit of sympathy even as she is paired with the Christian embodiment of greatest evil is very telling — namely, that she once held a very important place in the hearts of northern Germans, and still does to this day (at least to some degree).

Who is the Old Frick?

With only these scraps to go on, it’s impossible to peel away the Christian lacquer from the pre-Christian understanding of Frick, but the medieval and modern vision of her is at least consistent: She is cunning and capricious, the progenitor of a trickster figure — whether a devil or dragon. She is associated with fire, hunting, and corn, as well as the chthonic realm. She can be antagonistic toward humans, even consuming them if not provided a suitable alternative offering, but she can also help those who appeal to her for sympathy. She is probably not someone you’d want to meet alone on a dark night, but if you need help out of a sticky situation, you might go to her home underground, deep in the wild dark forest, for some helpful sleight-of-hand.


*The linguistic connection to Frigg is interesting, although I hesitate to say that this means that they’re one and the same for a number of reasons. Of course, they certainly could have been at some point; but another possibility is that the term *frijjo was originally a title, not a personal name, that was used for a variety of goddesses revered in various Germanic cultures. Perhaps each tribe had their own Frijjo — their own divine lady, beloved for her guardianship and guidance of their people — and the Norse later applied it as a personal name for their own particular beloved lady. This is all conjecture, but it bears mentioning.

 

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Isabel Cushman. “The Devil’s Grandmother.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 13, no. 51, 1900, pp. 278–280.

GardenStone. “The Old Frick.” Goddess Holle. Translated by Michelle Lina Marie Hitchcock, Books on Demand, 2011.

Hammer, Jill. “Holle’s Cry: Unearthing a Birth Goddess in a German Jewish Naming Ceremony.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, No. 9, Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Spring, 5765/2005), pp. 62-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40326618

Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Inner Traditions, 2015.

      —The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

“The Devil and His Grandmother.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Translated by Josef Scharl, Pantheon Books, 1972.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851.

 

Witches Incognito: The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle

spindleshuttleandneedle

“Once upon a time there was a girl whose father and mother died when she was still a little child. Her godmother lived all alone at the end of the village in a little house, and earned her living with spinning, weaving, and sewing.”

So begins the Grimm Brothers’ tale “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle.” We learn later that this godmother has certain tools that enable her success as a spinner, weaver, and seamstress — gifts that she passes on to her goddaughter when the elder dies. When the girl picks up her godmother’s work, she finds that:

“It was as though the flax multiplied itself in her kitchen, and whenever she wove a piece of cloth or a carpet, or sewed a shirt, she always immediately found a buyer who paid so well that she was never in need and always had something to share with others.”

Not only that, but the magical objects also help the girl attract a prince as a husband. Impressed by her industriousness while riding through the countryside, the prince is lured back to her home by the spindle unraveling a golden thread of spun flax; the shuttle weaves a beautiful carpet of its own volition to welcome the prince once he reaches her home; and the needle cleans her house to receive him properly.

How does she accomplish this? By singing or chanting magical rhymes (much like Aschenputtel):

Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away,
And here to my house bring the wooer, I pray.

Shuttle, my shuttle, weave well this day,
And guide the wooer to me, I pray.

Needle, my needle, sharp-pointed and fine,
Prepare for the wooer this house of mine.

As I mentioned in the linked post on Aschenputtel (more familiarly known as Cinderella), these rhymed songs may be descendants of the Germanic magical technique of galdralag, or songs employed in the use of galdr, a significant pre-Christian magical tradition — the first clue that the unnamed girl and her godmother are practitioners of an ancient magical craft.

Trancework

What really interests me at the moment, however, is the eminence of cloth-making implements in magic. I’ve written before about the potential of these activities to induce trances in crafters, and it seems significant that in this story the magical songs — and the magic itself — only come about during the act of spinning, weaving, and sewing. In fact, the girl only remembers the songs when she is in the middle of her work:

“The girl sat back down in the kitchen and continued to work at her spinning. Then a saying came to her that the old woman had sometimes said while she was at work…”

This suggests that, if the implements are the keys to magic, and the songs are the fuel, then the act of transforming fibers into thread and cloth is the vehicle itself.

Tools or Helping Spirits?

One way to view the crafting implements is through the lens of household helping spirits. I’ve written before about the Old Norse gandr — essentially, a magical stick or staff that aids a magical practitioner in their craft — and its significance not only as a magical tool but as a helping spirit. It would be easy to view the spindle, shuttle, and needle in much the same light. After all, the girl addresses them through songs that are very much like prayers, and they respond to her wishes as though sentient. Rather than wielding them to do the magic herself, she requests that they help her, and they oblige of their own accord.

Germanic Goddesses of Spinning and Magic

There is a wealth of lore and myth connecting spinning and weaving to the divine and to magic in various Germanic cultures, and in many other cultures as well. The Low German figure of Frau Holle (Holda) is one, who rewards industrious spinners with gold and punishes the lazy, and who is credited with conveying the skill of transforming flax into linen to humankind. There are several stories of her bequeathing wealth to those who spin or help her in some other way, such as the less well known Grimm tale “Frau Holle.”  She is also called a goddess of witches, leading them with her distaff (another spinning implement) through the night sky in one variation of the Wild Hunt. Farther south in the alps of Germany and Austria, Frau Perchta fulfills a similar role.

Among the Scandinavians, we have Frigg, who has a strong connection to spinning and is reputed to know everyone’s fate but keeps it wisely to herself. The Norns, too, are spinners who, with their threads, shape fate itself. Even the Valkyries, those demi-goddesses of fallen war-heroes, are said to weave with a giant loom composed of the body parts of the slain.

Spinning and weaving, therefore, are connected to fate itself. Even in contemporary cultures, people refer casually to “the threads of fate.” This image of fate as a great loom, with all of us led by threads to various destinations and to each other, is still with us. With this view, it makes sense that magic — the manipulation of the world around us, of fate and hearts and minds — would be the natural domain of spinners, weavers, and seamstresses.

Can We Call Them Witches?

Nowadays, anyone who employs magic is considered by most people to be a witch. The term has been destigmatized for many, lumping in healers with curse-workers. I don’t really have a problem with this development, but historically, the term “witches” was reserved for those magic-workers who stole, cursed, tricked, and even murdered with their craft. In Scandinavia, they were believed to steal butter and milk from their neighbors with the help of a familiar spirit called a buttercat (smørkatt in Norwegian, bjära in Swedish, and snakkur in Icelandic) (Lecouteux 131). Interestingly, considering the subject of this post, scholar Eldar Heide writes, “In Northern Sweden and Norway it looked like a ball of yarn, in Finland it was partly made of a spindle or spindles with yarn on them, and in Iceland it looked like a certain kind of bobbin used as a shuttle in the traditional, warp-weighed loom (977–78). These shapes all are variations on the theme of “concentrated yarn” (165). This certainly ties in with the concept of textile crafts as magical vehicles, and the buttercat is a good starting point for examining the historically “grayscale” ethics of magical practice.

It’s my belief that most moral designations of magic are relative. That is, whether a certain magical act is “good” or “bad” is determined by the beholder’s perspective — whether or not they gain or lose anything in the process. For those whose milk (a key to survival, especially in the past) was being stolen by the buttercat, that particular magic was evil and its possessor a witch. But for the witch utilizing the buttercat, perhaps it was the only plausible way of receiving that milk; therefore, it wouldn’t be evil but a necessity.

Similarly, I doubt any readers see a problem with the heroine of “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle” drawing a prince to her house through magic, but it might be viewed as more sinister to the wealthier girl who was passed over by the prince in favor of the heroine, as well as to that girl’s relations. Who knows what they might have accused our heroine of? So yes, even in the older sense, our heroine and her godmother might have been considered witches (or would at least have been subject to the scrutinizing gaze of their neighbors, which may have been why they lived at the edge of town), and we can certainly consider them witches by our contemporary definition.

 

Unlinked Works Cited

“The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. Josef Scharl. Pantheon Books: New York, 1972.

Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2003.

Bells as a Magical Tool

The boughs do shake
And the bells do ring,
So merrily comes our harvest in,
Our harvest in, our harvest in,
So merrily comes our harvest in.

“Harvesting” Nursery Rhyme

 

Bells, like drums, are very old instruments that have played important roles in many aspects of human life. For centuries, they have been part of religious ceremonies, folk music and dancing, and the rhythm of the day. Bells are mentioned in nursery rhymes, poetry, songs, plays and films, folk tales, and other art mediums. They are familiar to people both in the West and in the East, although I will focus here on primarily Germanic lore.

The first bells, archaeology tells us, originated in neolithic China around the 3rd millennium BCE (Falkenhausen 132). In his book Suspended Music, Lothar von Falkenhausen mentions that suspended clapper-bells, called ling in China, were found in “virtually every Bronze Age cemetery in the country,” and were also used on shamans’ belts, horse-and-chariot gear, dog collars, and canopy curtains (ibid. 133-134). As time passed and bell use spread throughout the world, they retained their simultaneous mundane and spiritual/magical values. Within these dual spheres, bells serve two basic functions: 1) marking time and transitions, and 2) interacting with forces. Sometimes, as I’ll discuss below, bells serve both of these functions at the same time.

Spirit Work

The English word bell has the following etymology: “common to the Low German dialects, cognate with Middle Low German belle and Dutch bel but not appearing among the other Germanic languages except the Icelandic bjalla which was a loanword from Old English. It is popularly but not certainly related to the former sense of to bell (Old English: bellan, “to roar, to make a loud noise”) which gave rise to bellow” (“Bell”). This connection of bells with the act of “bellowing” is spiritually and magically meaningful: bells can be used as a quieter, more discrete form of roaring — both to draw attention to oneself or one’s needs and to frighten away the things we do not wish to keep with us.

In the Norwegian magical tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which is related to the better-known “Beauty and the Beast” tale and the Cupid and Psyche myth, the enchanted prince (in the form of a white bear during the day) “gave [the heroine] a silver bell, and told her that when she needed anything she had but to ring this bell, and what she wanted would appear” (Lang 20). The tale doesn’t mention how the bell magic works, but it can be inferred that a helping spirit is attached to it by examining other folklore sources. 

Thorpe notes that “In the church of Coenhausen, in the county of Dassel, there is a bell, on which is the following inscription: ‘I call the living, bewail the dead, and drive away thunder.’ The people of the place have, from time immemorial, placed great confidence in this bell, and believe that in a storm, as soon as the bell sounds, the thunder must cease” (118). Not only does this church bell perform the usual church functions of calling in parishioners (see Keeping Time section below) and participating in mourning rituals as a musical “bellowing” of communal grief (see Signaling Transformations section below), but it is also credited with the power of ending storms by silencing thunder — the voice of a storm, the audible quaking of the sky.

The Handbell Society of Australasia, in its page on bell history, notes that bells “were baptised, and once baptised had the power to ward off evil spells and spirits. Bells were hung in doorways to protect visitors and the visited from the evil spirits which always wait around the door awaiting the chance to slip inside. A visitor would ring the bell to drive the spirits away then pass inside – which is the likely origin of the present day doorbell!” The belief in spirits lurking in doorways is possibly a pan-Germanic belief. Claude Lecouteux, in his excellent book The Tradition of Household Spirits, devotes an entire chapter on the lore of doorways and windows. He explains that “At one time the door was the sole opening of the house; windows made their appearance later” and that “The house…forms a protective cocoon, one that is sacred and magical” (49, 48). The openings, then, are spiritual and magical points of vulnerability, places in which malevolent spirits may enter if they are not well-warded. Lecouteux goes on to explain that “in the Upper Palatinate [of Germany], it is said that the recently deceased linger in the door hinges every Saturday, and in Bohemia [modern-day Czech Republic], that souls in torment live in doors. This explains a curious piece of advice that we come across in eighteenth-century Germany: ‘You should not slam a door because souls are performing penitence there'” (49-50).

Another type of bell — the wind chime — can be found in many houses, tinkling at the brush of wind as it sweeps past. Among the Romans, they were called tintinnabulum and were believed to ward away evil spirits. In Japanese folklore as well, wind chimes and similar instruments are believed to frighten away evil spirits and bring good luck (Gordenker). Thus, it can be said that the use of bells and windchimes for apotropaic purposes is near-universal.

Warnings and Alarms

In older times, bells were used on anything that required an alarm or warning of approach, such as sleighs and fire trucks (Poe). Bells are still hung on boats, docks, and trains for this purpose. And, again, door bells exist to alert inhabitants of visitors. Dinner bells, too, were once a fixture of daily life that alerted family members that dinner was ready.

For modern practitioners, bells can be used as warnings as well. I’ve read on Tumblr of some witches enchanting bells to ring at the approach of negative energies; I would imagine that they could also be used for positive warnings.

Signaling Transformations

Bells proliferate in English-language nursery rhymes and poetry, often to signal or symbolize changes and shifts. Shakespeare twice mentions bells as a form of signaling or honoring death. In The Tempest, he wrote: “Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell: / Hark! Now I hear them – Ding, dong, bell” (I.ii); there is an almost identical rhyme in The Merchant of Venice. The context of both of these passages is death or an ending: knell as a noun means “the sound made by a bell rung slowly, especially for a death or funeral.” It is traditional in the UK to ring funerary bells at the passing of an individual. For example, Paul Barber notes in an account of a revenant in Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality“Then they sent to the church fathers and ordered the burial, the grave site, and the ringing of the bells” (11). And, of course, there is the famous “Meditation 17” by John Donne (altered below from the original to make reading easier):

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….” 

The great power in Donne’s statement (in bold) lies in the implication that the bell that tolls signifies a death in the community. In fact, there was even a bell specifically for that purpose in Scotland and northern England: the dead or passing bell. The dead bell was rung for two reasons. One, “to drive away spirits who stood at the foot of a bed and about the house ready to seize a person’s soul as he died” (Handbell Society of Australasia). It was also rung, as noted in “The Passing Bell” chapter of the book Old Church Lore, “to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing” (Andrews). It’s important to note that the bells were rung in this fashion at the point of transition — at the point of death, not after, which created quite a bit of controversy as Christianity sought to dominate older spiritual beliefs.

There was also an official order for bell-ringing after death: “to ringe no more, but one shorte peale, and one before the buriall, and another shorte peale after the buriall” (ibid.). This seems less about frightening away spirits and more like closing a book, marking the beginning and ending of a final process. Then again, it could be both, as part of the tradition of preventing the generation of revenants.

Mourning bells also serve as an alarm, a notice to the surrounding population, that a death is occurring. As William Andrews noted in “The Passing Bell”:

“From the number of strokes being formerly regulated according to circumstances, the hearers might determine the sex and social condition of the dying or dead person. Thus the bell was tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man. If for a clergyman, as many times as he had orders, and, at the conclusion, a peal on all the bells to distinguish the quality of the person for whom the people are to put up their prayers. In the North of England, are yet rung nine knells for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child.”

Of course, death is not the only occasion for bell-ringing. It is also used in mass ritual, which W.H. Auden noted in his poem “Whitsunday in Kirschstetten“: “An altar-bell makes a noise / as the Body of the Second Adam / is shown…” The Liturgy Office of England and Wales elaborates: “A little before the Consecration, when appropriate, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful. According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice” (“The General Instruction of the Roman Missal”). In essence, a bell is rung to signify the transformation of bread to body and wine to blood.

Bell-ringing is also common at weddings as the newlyweds leave the wedding site. For example, at my sister-in-law’s wedding, guests were given small silver bells to ring as they departed. This likely has a similar purpose to that above: to frighten away any evil spirits that might want to harm the couple as they depart in wedded bliss, as well as to formally signal their social, legal, and spiritual transformations that matrimony brings.

Keeping Time & Marking Seasons

Yuletide

Benjamin Thorpe mentions in Northern Mythology a bell-pond in Lower Saxony, Germany, called the Opferteich (“sacrificial pond”) that “from the hour of twelve till one, a bell is heard tolling from its depth” (118). According to local lore in the town of Moringen in which this pond can be found, the Knights Templar forged and hung the bell in their church, planning to ring it for the first time on Christmas Eve, but had forgotten to consecrate and baptize it. This left the bell open to any and all spiritual powers. After the first stroke, it was lifted from its place in the tower by “a miraculous power” and dropped into the depths of the pond (ibid.). It is said that it rises every Christmas Eve, tolls once, and then sinks back down again. Clearly, a spirit claimed the bell, and this spirit must be connected in some way to the Yuletide (note: I use this as an umbrella term to include both Christian and pagan/heathen observances).

Yuletide celebrations often focus on imagery of light and warmth — things that are found lacking in the depths of winter when the celebration takes place in the northern hemisphere. There is the blessed Yule log, the star atop the tree, colored lights, and candlelight. Bells, too, play a prominent role in Yuletide celebrations. There are countless Christmas songs that mention or feature sleigh bells, hand bells, or large church bells. Bells are hung from doors, on the tree, over the mantel, etc. And, not long after Christmas (but still during the traditional Yuletide season), bells are rung at the cusp of the new year. It’s well known that scholars believe many Yule traditions are intended to beckon the return of warmth and sunlight — the small light of the hearth fire and candles, of the star imagery and Christmas lights, are reminders of the great, warm and life-giving light of summer. This could have an apotropaic effect as well — light, being so representative of warmth, fertility, vigor and health due to its connection with summer, may be used in this colder, darker time to stave off the forces of darkness, illness, and death that seem (to our ancestors, at least) to hunt us at every turn in the winter. So, too, it can be argued that bells, like light, are used to beckon the summer sun or frighten off the dangers of winter.

Morris Dancing

The Morris dance is an interesting English tradition with an uncertain history. On record, it seems to have appeared out of nowhere as an element of court celebrations in the 15th century. Current scholarship suggests that the word “morris” originated from a variation on the term Moorish, and that the dance developed from continental European folk dances that were inspired (at least in name) by North African culture (“Morris dance”). Certainly, stylistic similarities abound and likely have proto-Indo-European roots. In morris dance, the dancers often wear white clothing (consistently a color linked in Germanic and Slavic cultures with purity and holiness) with bells on their legs. Often a procession of fantastic, liminal characters occurs around and among the dancing: an androgynous figure (the nexus of binary genders), an animal-man (the nexus of animals and mankind, or wilderness and civilization), a fool (the nexus of maturity and innocence), a youthful hunter (the nexus of life and death), etc.

These dances are virtual staples at Whitsuntide, a holiday celebrated on the seventh Sunday after the Feast of the Pentecost, right around the beginning of summer. With the prevailing imagery of the dance revolving around fertility (the union of male and female) and virility (stags and horses), it’s not such a leap to draw a connection between the Morris dance and ancient solar veneration to bring forward fertility of the soil and the community. The bells, then, can be interpreted as tools with which to chase away the cold weather or evil spirits associated with death, illness, blight, etc., or to beckon forward the warm fruitfulness of summer. Either way, they help to mark the transition from one season to another.

Spirits of Community

Every day, bells are used to keep time, letting the people of a community know when the day officially begins and ends as well as other significant times. The popular English nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” works on this notion, characterizing different areas of London based on the events that occur around the church bells when they ring. It’s founded on the notion that church bells embody the spirit of their district, village, town, etc., providing a predictable rhythm throughout the day and (literally) setting a unique tone for their environs. They call people to wake, to work and to church, to lunch, to supper, and to bed. In a sense, bells work as the voices of the spirits of their communities (for further evidence, consider the legend of the Opferteich above in this light: that the pre-Christian spirit of that community used the bell to communicate with its inhabitants). 

Bells in Modern Magical Practice

It should be clear by now that bells have a multitude of potential uses in magical and spiritual practice. They can be rung at significant moments in ritual, including at the beginning and end, and at moments when we symbolically effect a change or transformation. They can be blessed to bring forth positive forces and things we need. We can hang them around our homes as apotropaic charms. They can be used as omens in divination and prophecy, and for contacting spirits. I’m sure there are other uses that I haven’t mentioned, and you’re welcome to note them in comments below.

Bells are versatile, subtle, elegant tools with a long and important history. As with most common objects, we often forget their significance to us and the long path our ancestors have walked with them in hand. But we can bring them back, use the everyday objects we see around us in our magic, making the mundane sacred and bringing sacredness into the mundane so that we are never without it.

 

Bibliography (Unlinked Sources)

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Pantheon, 1972.

Lang, Andrew. “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” The Blue Fairy Book. Dover, 1969. pp. 19-29.

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Trans. Jon E. Graham. Inner Traditions, 2013.

Witches Incognito: Aschenputtel

Aschenputtel

One thing I’ve begun to notice as I look more closely at fairy tales is that there are many more “witches” in them than previously believed, and that many of the beloved characters that are portrayed as helpless damsels in distress actually employ quite a bit of agency.

Quick note: I put the word “witches” in quotations above due to the varied connotations the word has. Historically, not all magical practitioners were called witches; the term typically denoted a practitioner of baneful magic (blighting crops, sinking ships, causing illness in people and animals, stealing butter and milk, etc.) There were other words for magical practitioners who performed healing, protective magic — cunning folk, spae wives, wise men and women, fairy doctors, etc. However, after the witch hysteria swept across Europe and the U.S. and the passage of time wore away much of Western Europe’s memory of its magic, the word “witch” was applied to any and all magical practitioners — all magical work, regardless of nature or purpose, was viewed as inherently sinister, superstitious, and therefore forbidden. Since the turn of the 20th century, pop culture has steadily filed down the teeth of witchcraft (think “Bewitched,” “Bell, Book and Candle,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Craft,” “Practical Magic,” etc.), returning to magical practice some of its more mild, beneficial aspects in the popular mindset while still clinging to the words “witch” and “witchcraft” as umbrella terminology. In this post, I largely operate from this morally neutral connotation of “witchcraft” and “witches,” although I will point out a more sinister aspect of Aschenputtel that is as overlooked as her potent magical skills.

So let’s talk about Aschenputtel’s power. For centuries, Cinderella and her variations have been treated as helpess victims of domestic violence, as she is in the French version. While this is certainly part of Aschenputtel’s story — she experiences a lot of abuse, from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of her stepmother and stepsisters to the trauma of her father’s neglect — there is much, much more to her character. In the Grimms’ version of the story, Aschenputtel (roughly translating to “ash-rummager” or “picker of ashes”) employs magic not only to cope with the abuse but also to give herself agency for social advancement and even revenge.

Protection Magic

When Aschenputtel’s father goes to the fair, he asks his stepdaughters and daughter what they would like for him to bring back.

“Beautiful dresses,” said one, “Pearls and jewels,” said the second.

“And you, Cinderella,” said he, “what will you have?”

“Father break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.”

This scene is often interpreted as an illustration of Aschenputtel’s humility and simplicity — rather than material wealth, she only wants a simple token from nature — but I view it another way. Hazel is regarded throughout Europe as a tree of wisdom and protection. In another Grimm tale, titled “The Hazel Branch,” it’s said that the Virgin Mary blessed hazel bushes with the powers of protection:

as she set out on her way home [the Virgin Mary] said, “As the hazel-bush has been my protection this time, it shall in future protect others also.” Therefore, from the most remote times, a green hazel-branch has been the safest protection against adders, snakes, and everything else which creeps on the earth.

Considering Aschenputtel’s poor home life, it’s no wonder that she would want to employ some magic to protect herself from the horrible cunning of her stepmother.

How does Aschenputtel do this? She plants the branch on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears (arguably, a form of offering), and it grows into a tree. She prays to this tree every day, and whenever she expresses a wish, a white bird alights on the tree and grants her wish. I’ve written before about the connection between sticks and spirit familiars, and it’s clear that the two are connected in “Aschenputtel.” The hazel tree functions as a channel for Aschenputtel to communicate with her familiar spirit, the white bird, which may in fact be her fylgia, considering its proximity to her mother’s grave and the ancestral and fortune-oriented nature of fylgjur.

Magic Songs and Animal Familiars

When Aschenputtel bargains with her stepmother to go to the king’s festival and her stepmother levies the condition that she must first pick lentils from the ashes on the hearth in two hours’ time, Aschenputtel calls on birds to help her:

“You tame pigeons, you turtle-doves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick

                                                             the good into the pot,
                                                             the bad into the crop.”

Then two white pigeons came in by the kitchen window, and afterwards the turtle-doves, and at last all the birds beneath the sky, came whirring and crowding in, and alighted amongst the ashes. And the pigeons nodded with their heads and began pick, pick, pick, pick, and the rest began also pick, pick, pick, pick, and gathered all the good grains into the dish. Hardly had one hour passed before they had finished, and all flew out again.

Aschenputtel’s ability to command “all the birds beneath the sky,” led again by white birds, to do her bidding is undeniably magical. In addition, her call bears a striking resemblance to galdralag, the Norse magical poetic meter, with its alliteration (“tame…turtle,” “birds beneath”) and the echoing rhyme of the last two lines. Galdralag was employed in galdr, a type of magic that involved singing or chanting incantations. Galdr is attested in sagas and eddas as a method of preventing fires, hastening childbirth, raising the dead, and countless other boons. It could certainly be used to call on animals for aid in accomplishing tasks, such as the ones set before Aschenputtel.

When her stepmother and stepsisters go to the festival without her, she goes again to the hazel and appeals to the white bird for help:

“Shiver and quiver, my little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me.”

Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver. She put on the dress with all speed, and went to the wedding.

Once again, she uses magic to acquire what she cannot by other means, and she does so with metered and rhymed couplets and through the aid of a familiar — all traditional methods of witchcraft.

The two white pigeons that arrived to help her pick out the lentils remain in her service throughout the story, later perching on the hazel tree (like the first white bird, and perhaps being a variation of it) and acting as truth-tellers for the prince:

[The prince and the first stepsister] were obliged, however, to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried,

“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
there’s blood within the shoe,
the shoe it is too small for her,
the true bride waits for you.”

Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was trickling from it.

The same happens with the second stepsister. When Aschenputtel rides in the carriage with the prince, the pigeons alter their tune accordingly:

“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
no blood is in the shoe,
the shoe is not too small for her,
the true bride rides with you.”

And when they had cried that, the two came flying down and placed themselves on Cinderella’s shoulders, one on the right, the other on the left, and remained sitting there.

It should be clear by this point that these birds, like the first white bird, are not ordinary birds but familiar spirits. They sing in human language and are strongly associated with the hazel branch-turned-tree, which (as I’ve mentioned) acts as a kind of spiritual channel in much the same the way that witches’ staves, brooms, and wands traditionally do. The pigeons serve as spiritual emissaries to protect Aschenputtel and carry out her wishes.

Illusion and Revelation

Another of Aschenputtel’s powers that is often overlooked is her ability to disguise herself from her stepmother and sisters at the festival.

Her step-sisters and the step-mother however did not know her, and thought she must be a foreign princess, for she looked so beautiful in the golden dress. They never once thought of Cinderella, and believed that she was sitting at home in the dirt, picking lentils out of the ashes.

While this is usually attributed to their vanity and low opinion of Aschenputtel, this seems a weak explanation to me. Certainly, her stepmother and stepsisters had seen her clean and in fine clothes when their families first joined together; why wouldn’t they recognize her now? What’s even more astounding is that they assume her to be “a foreign princess,” which is quite a departure from her actual appearance — not only does she not look like herself, but she looks foreign.

Aschenputtel’s ability to delude her enemies is contrasted by the prince’s recognition of her when he visits her house and bids her to try on the slipper:

And when she rose up and the king’s son looked at her face he recognized the beautiful maiden who had danced with him and cried, “That is the true bride.”

The only believable explanation for this selective delusion is the use of magic to mask or reveal her identity at will. Seidr practitioners were renowned for their ability to confuse minds and deceive sight. As the Viking Answer Lady writes:

The use of seiðr to affect the mind, with forgetfulness, delusion, illusion, or fear, a sudden mental or even a physical fog is the hallmark of this type of magic. This is called sjónhverfing, the magical delusion or “deceiving of the sight” where the seið-witch affects the minds of others so that they cannot see things as they truly are (Jochens, Old Norse Magic and Gender, 313).

She goes on to explain that these powers are well-attested in various sagas, such as the Eyrbyggja saga:

As the men approached the house, Katla told Odd to sit beside her without moving, while she sat spinning yarn. Arnkell and his men searched the house, but saw nothing beside Katla but a distaff. They returned a second time, to find Katla in the porch; she was combing Odd’s hair, but it seemed to them that she was grooming her goat. The third time Odd was lying in a heap of ashes, and they thought it was Katla’s boar sleeping there.

Similarly, Aschenputtel makes herself appear as a foreign princess at the festival in the eyes of her stepmother and stepsisters, but the prince sees her as she truly is, and he recognizes her as soon as he places the lost slipper on her foot.

Aschenputtel the Witch

Finally, let’s return to the role of the pigeons as emissaries carrying out Aschenputtel’s wishes. After picking out lentils from the ashes and revealing the truth to the prince, the birds also perform another service on Aschenputtel’s behalf:

When the wedding with the king’s son was to be celebrated, the two false sisters came and wanted to get into favor with Cinderella and share her good fortune. When the betrothed couple went to church, the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards as they came back the elder was at the left, and the younger at the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness all their days.

Far from being the selfless, forgiving soul that other versions of the tale present her to be, Aschenputtel exacts revenge for her years of abuse. This is certainly an instance where the term “witchcraft” is 100% applicable — Aschenputtel reveals herself to be capable of doing harm as well as other, more beneficent forms of magic previously shown, placing her well within the historical context of powerful, ethically and morally ambiguous magical practitioners.

Far from the helpless victim rescued from poverty and mistreatment by a prince, Aschenputtel shows cunning, agency, magical knowledge, and even a desire to exact revenge on those who hurt her. She wins her prince through her own subversive magical efforts, rather than by luck and beauty alone. She casts illusions as well as reveals truths. Her helping spirits and the wild birds that come to her aid do so not because of her innocence but because she has the knowledge and power to call them. Aschenputtel, rather than a damsel in distress, is a powerful figure — a wise woman, a witch — and should be honored as one.

Magical Animals in European Folk Tales and Lore: Chickens

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Chickens are humble animals. They’re heavy, mostly earthbound birds, spending their days pecking at the ground, clucking or crowing (not exactly musical), bobbing their heads as they strut around the farmyard. In media, they’re often depicted as fussy and silly — think Foghorn Leghorn and Prissy in Looney Tunes cartoons, or Lady Cluck in Robin Hood. They don’t exactly radiate mysterious elegance in the way that cats and rabbits do. However, when we look closely at European folk tales and medieval lore, we see that chickens very much had a significant place in European folk magic.

Mounts and Spirit Doubles

In his hugely important (and under-read) work Northern Mythology, folklorist Benjamin Thorpe sets down into writing a wealth of legends and lore from Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. Many of these stories include the use of certain animals by witches and other magical practitioners, and in many cases, these are chickens. A typical story in the collection is as follows:

“One night, when the peasant was gone to bed, but the wife was alone in the kitchen, in came Hans, as usual, and saw how she was anointing first her grey he-cat and then her own feet with some ointment or salve. ‘What art thou doing here?’ said he… ‘I am going to the Blocksberg,’ answered she, ‘and if thou canst keep from babbling, thou mayest go with me, and be my servant.’ Thereupon she desired him to fetch the black cock, and when both animals had been smeared with the ointment, there in one instant stood before them a grey horse and black stallion.” (81-82)

Thorpe also notes a belief that the enchanted emperor Frederic Barbarossa (in effect, the German King Arthur) lies entombed in a sleep-like enchantment in the Kyffhauser, guarded (and possibly enchanted) by a mysterious man riding either a horse or a cock (101).

The correlation between the cock and the horse is interesting. Horses are spiritually potent animals in many Indo-European indigenous beliefs, related to fae, elves, goddesses, and other powerful beings. In the excerpt above, a cock is used in spirit flight after being transformed into a horse. In the latter bit of lore, they are interchangeable as mounts for spirits. Thus, like other birds (such as geese and hawks), they seem to be strongly associated with the powers of spirit travel.

Substitutes in Sacrifice

In lore about the river-dwelling Nickelman, or Nixie, Thorpe notes that “in Thale they were formerly obliged annually to throw a black cock into the Bode [River]; for if they omitted to do so, someone would certainly die within the year” (87). Lecouteux makes note of this kind of sacrifice several times in his examination of household spirits in The Tradition of Household Spirits, one example being:

“An old woman holding a black chicken in her hand entered the first room; once she passed over the doorsill, she secured the bird between her legs and slit its throat with the blade of a knife. She poured its blood in front of the house and when the animal was on the verge of expiring, she spilled the last drops on the threshold. The dead bird would then be roasted and served at the meal following the sacrifice.

The witness questioned the old woman, who answered him as follows.

‘It is to avoid one of the inhabitants of this house dying during the next year. I do the same thing for all new construction…'” (29).

Lecouteux explains that when a new house was constructed, the nature spirit dwelling on the land would be compelled to become the spirit of the home. In order to appease this spirit, who would be offended that its home was being violated and occupied, a sacrifice would have to be made — human or animal. There are ancient accounts and archaeological evidence of humans being walled up in the home or laid in the foundation, but as time passed, animal sacrifice superceded that of humans.

I’ll take this time to note the recurrence of the color black, which we’ve seen above and will recur as we go on. Lecouteux explains that “among the Votes of Joenpera [in Finland]…before building, the ground would be worked while holding a black rooster by the wings, because it was said evil spirits feared the color black.” Therefore, black was a protective, warding color, meant to repel evil and protect the living.

Chickens also feature as sacrificial substitutes in folk tales, namely “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Seven Ravens.” In “The Seven Ravens,” a girl who is looking for her long-lost brothers (turned into ravens) comes to the stars for help:

“When the morning star arose, it gave her a chicken bone, and said, ‘Without that chicken bone you cannot open the glass mountain, and your brothers are inside the glass mountain.'”

However, she loses the chicken bone before reaching the glass mountain and sacrifices one of her fingers to use as a key in its place. It’s important to note the soul-retrieval theme in “The Seven Ravens” — the girl enters into the Otherworld to reclaim her brothers, receives help from other spirits, frees and heals her brothers of their ailments (their transformation into ravens), and brings them home again.

“Hansel and Gretel” flips the scenario: the witch wants to touch Hansel’s finger to test its fatness, but Hansel holds out “a little bone” to the poor-sighted witch instead, which convinces her that he’s still too thin for eating. While the story doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a chicken’s bone, it’s reasonable to assume as much because a) he is a child, and the size of the bone must be roughly equivalent to the size of his actual finger, and b) chickens were such essential fixtures in (especially rural) households in the past. It is interesting that folklorists Iona and Peter Opie consider this tale to belong to “a group of European tales especially popular in the Baltic regions, about children outwitting ogres into whose hands they have involuntarily fallen.” With “ogre” being a word of French origin (possibly derived from a word in the Etruscan language), it is more likely that the beings mentioned were more akin to giants (jotnar) or other semi-divine figures.

Each story shows the use of chicken bones as sacrificial objects to supernatural beings, either to escape death or gain entry into other realms, as decoys for human sacrifice, very much echoing Thorpe’s and Lecouteux’s research findings.

Harbingers

Roosters, or cocks, often serve as harbingers of light, both in a literal sense (crowing at dawn) and metaphorical sense. Dawn, the first light of day, is (forgive the pun) illuminating. People have long feared the night for its ability to limit our visibility — we can hear, smell, taste, and touch in darkness, but we cannot see, and this allows all sorts of frightening notions to take hold. Darkness is the unknown and uncontrollable. Distinctions are lost, and everything melds into a blank wholeness. In lore, this is when devils reign, preying on our blindness, fear, and uncertainty. Daylight limits darkness to shadows and reveals things as they are, thus forcing the devils into hiding until night comes again. With roosters traditionally being the first signal that dawn is approaching, they often figure in folklore as animals that ward off devils with their crowing.

Thorpe mentions several similar stories of a devil or other malevolent spirit offering to build something for a man in exchange for his life or soul. In each, the man (usually a farmer, builder, or smith) or his wife crows at night, causing the cock to crow in response well before dawn, which in turn frightens off the devil before he can demand payment for the work done.

Thorpe also briefly records an interesting belief that when a rooster turns either seven or twenty years old, “it lays an egg, out of which comes an animal, which is the basilisk” (29). Perhaps, then, the rooster is also a harbinger of danger, being the forebear of the deadly mythic King of Serpents.

Roosters are also reputed to be seers and/or truth-tellers, which is related to the “harbinger of light” theme in that truth is often associated with light. One example of this is in “Frau Holle,” in which two sisters descend into Frau Holle’s realm through a well. When they return, each with their well-earned reward or punishment, the cock at their household cries out to their mother: “Cock-a-doodle-do! Your golden/dirty girl’s come back to you!” (135-136). The rooster crowing at each of the girl’s return echoes its crowing at dawn, in that it serves as the harbinger of the reveal of each girl’s true nature and value.

In “The Bremen Town Musicians,” the rooster tells the other animals that “I just prophesied good weather…because it is Our Dear Lady’s Day, when she washes the Christ Child’s shirts and wants to dry them.” Here, the rooster is explicitly associated with weather prophecy — something not taken lightly by our agrarian ancestors. For them, good weather meant a good season, which meant a good harvest, which was good fortune. The implication in the story is that roosters were believed to provide an accurate weather prophecy. This joins nicely with the theme of the rooster-as-harbinger and truth-teller.

Chickens overall can also be considered harbingers of good luck or wish fulfillment. Many of us are familiar with the tradition of pulling on a “wishbone” (the furcula of a turkey or, originally, a chicken) with another person until it breaks, the act of which confers luck to the winner of the largest piece. This could be considered an act of divination (connecting even the bones with prophetic powers), but it could also be understood as an apotropaic act that drives away bad luck, leaving only the good.

Henwives and Wisdom

The rooster’s prophetic abilities and chickens’ overall association with spirit flight and other magical acts help to explain the role of the henwife in folk tales. These women often have small but crucial roles in plot development by way of their soothsaying abilities and occult wisdom. The fact that they are intentionally and specifically associated with hens, or chickens, (keeping in mind that nearly every household kept chickens, and yet not all women were called henwives) suggests that their abilities, at least in part, were linked to magical work with chickens in some form. Henwives are most notable in folk tales of the British Isles such as “Kate Crackernuts,” “Catskin,” and “Childe Rowland,” which I will discuss here.

In “Kate Crackernuts,” Kate’s jealous mother enlists the help of a henwife in order to ruin Kate’s step-sister’s beauty. After some failed attempts, the henwife magically replaces the sister’s head with that of a sheep, satisfying the queen. This event sets honest, devoted Kate off on a long, heroic journey with her beloved sister in tow that eventually leads to their happy ending — the return of the sister’s original head, along with wealth and marriage to princes for both of them. 

In the English version of “Catskin,” the eponymous protagonist seeks out the counsel of a henwife, an act that ultimately leads to the girl leaving home in a catskin coat. The henwife’s role in this story is more mundane — she provides the girl with advice on how to waylay an undesired marriage and, eventually, escape the situation altogether. This, as in “Kate Crackernuts,” leads Catskin on a long journey that tries her cunning as well as virtue before leading to a happy ending.

In the above stories, the henwife’s knowledge is the key plot catalyst, which could not move forward without her, and this knowledge is be both occult and mundane. She provides practical advice as well as spell-work, and women seek her out to remedy all kinds of problems. In many ways, she is a subversive character, defying the desires of the king, who is the ultimate symbol of patriarchy (in “Kate,” the henwife acts against the king’s daughter; in “Catskin,” she helps the king’s daughter escape a marriage that he has pushed on her). She is the character who provides other women in the stories with free agency. And much of this is due — either explicitly or implied — to her supernatural powers in association with chickens.

Childe Rowland” is unique from the above tales in many ways, one being that it features a fairy henwife, who while supernatural provides much the same service as her human counterparts. When Rowland enters Faerie through a mound and asks a fairy horse-herd where to find the king’s castle, the horse-herd says uncertainly, “I cannot tell thee…but go on a little further and thou wilt come to the cow-herd, and he, maybe, can tell thee.” The cow-herd’s reply to the same question begins similarly: “I can’t tell thee.” However, his advice to seek out yet another individual differs from the horse-herd’s in its certainty: “but go on a little further, and thou wilt come to the hen-wife, and she is sure to know.” Compare the italicized phrases — while the horse-herd says that the cow-herd might know, the cow-herd is certain that the hen-wife knows.

Sure enough, the henwife tells him where to go:

“‘Go on a little further,’ said the hen-wife, ’till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times ‘widershins’, and each time say:

‘Open, door! open, door!
And let me come in.’

and the third time the door will open, and you may go in.'”

Clearly, the henwife occupies a significant, if subtle, position in lore. As writer Terri Windling points out:

“The Hen Wife [is] related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic ‘witch in the woods’; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women’s mysteries, sexuality, and magic.”

So often, we envision magical practitioners as being separate from society, living on its outskirts, and indeed this was the case for many practitioners. But here we see that this was not always true. Like the hen, the henwife was a regular fixture of humble, everyday life — one that clearly included an element of mysticism and folk magic.

So yes, chickens are fussy, rotund, and humble. But why should that deny them power? If we magical practitioners allow them to, they can take us on journeys to other realms, provide spiritual protection against malevolent forces, unlock forbidden doors, reveal truth, and more. By reconnecting with them, we can perhaps regain a little of what was lost — that earthy, messy magic that still runs deep in some of us.

Mirror, Mirror: Glass as a Magical Tool in Fairy Tales

snowwhite

Thus, her mirror represents the ability to see through the ‘veil’ that mystics say separates the visible and spirit worlds. – Skye Alexander, Mermaids (200).

When I spirit journey, more times than not I enter the Otherworld through glass of some sort — a mirror or a window — a technique that has a long history in European folklore. Mirrors and glass objects have been viewed as passages for spirits by many, many peoples, and there is lore all over the world about spirits being trapped in mirrors or glass bottles or passing in and out of the physical world through mirrors. Claude Lecouteux in Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies explains this association through glass’s — like still water’s — ability to reflect images and the correlation of the image with the soul. This idea has merit, which I’ll go into with more depth later. But first, I’d like to take a look at the various glass objects, especially mirrors, in European fairy tales.

Scrying Mirrors

Scrying is a form of divination that involves gazing into an object to induce a light trance, through which one receives images (or other sensory information) that inform the scryer of remote events of the past, present, and future. Scrying has been done with many tools, the most popular today being crystal balls, flames, and still water.

Mirrors are slightly less popular clairvoyant tools, but the association remains strong. After all, what would “Snow White” be without the Queen’s magic mirror?

“[The queen] had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said:

                               ‘Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall,
                               Who in this land is the fairest of all?’

the looking-glass answered:

                              ‘Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!’

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth” (Stern 250).

In most versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” including a German one called “Summer Garden and Winter Garden,” Beauty uses a magic mirror to look after her family:

“One day she said to [the beast], ‘I am afraid, and don’t know why. It seems to me that my father or one of my sisters is sick. Couldn’t I see them just once?’

“So the beast led her to a mirror and said, ‘Look inside.’

“She looked into the mirror, and it was as though she were at home. She saw her living room and her father. He really was sick, from a broken heart, because he held himself guilty that his dearest child had been taken away by a wild beast and surely had been eaten up… She also saw her two sisters sitting on the bed and crying.”

In both instances, a mirror is used to gain information that would otherwise be unknowable. These episodes in fairy tales convey a pervasive belief in European lore of the power of mirrors to see not only the true reflection of the subject who looks into it, but all truth past, present, and future. Lecouteux cites mirror-based clairvoyant practices from various European cultures, including this from Oldenburg, Germany:

If, between eleven o’ clock and midnight — the hour of spirits (Geisterstunde) — an individual appeared in front of a mirror while holding a lighted candle in each hand, and if this person shouted his own name three times, he would be able to see into the future. (146)

Lecouteux asserts, quite convincingly, that the ability to see into the future in this way originates in the invocation of the Double (the individual’s “other” self, part of a multi-spirit soul conception) via the mirror. Within this framework, the Double is invoked by the shouting of one’s name at one’s own reflection. Therefore, it is not the mirror itself that provides insight but the spirit that is invoked through it. In essence, the mirror is a tool for accessing one’s own innate spiritual power. Perhaps, then, when the Queen in “Snow White” and Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast” look into a mirror to see the future, it is their Doubles who race from the other side to retrieve the information they seek.

Bindings and Barriers

The tale of “Snow White” shows not just one but two uses for glass. When the Queen becomes jealous that Snow White is fairer and kills her with a poisoned apple, Snow White’s dwarf friends build a glass coffin for her. This coffin preserves Snow White, keeping her beautiful and unchanged for “a long, long time,” as if she were only asleep (256). The glass, then, acts as a barrier against harsh elements as well as the decay that follows death, preserving her body until the prince comes and (inadvertently) restores her to life. 

“The Glass Coffin” has another maiden imprisoned by a malevolent magical worker, this time a spurned lover:

“I fell to the ground, and the stranger muttered some words which deprived me of consciousness. When I came to my senses again I found myself in this underground cave in a glass coffin. The magician appeared once again, and said he had changed my brother into a stag, my castle with all that belonged to it, diminished in size by his arts, he had shut up in the other glass chest, and my people, who were all turned into smoke, he had confined in glass bottles. He told me that if I would now comply with his wish [to marry], it would be an easy thing for him to put everything back in its former state, as he had nothing to do but open the vessels, and everything would return once more to its natural form. I answered him as little as I had done the first time. He vanished and left me in my prison, in which a deep sleep came on me.” (Stern 677)

In the end, the young tailor who comes upon the maiden hears her story and opens the glass cases to free the maiden, her castle, and her people who transform from smoke to their original forms.

In “The Seven Ravens,” a princess goes looking for her seven brothers who were turned into ravens, in the hopes of metamorphosing them back into humans and bringing them home.

“And now she went continually onwards, far, far, to the very end of the world. Then she came to the sun, but it was too hot and terrible, and devoured little children. Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold, and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child, it said: ‘I smell, I smell the flesh of men.’ At this she ran swiftly away, and came to the stars, which were kind and good to her, and each of them sat on its own particular little chair. But the morning star arose, and gave her the drumstick of a chicken, and said: ‘If you have not that drumstick you can not open the Glass Mountain, and in the Glass Mountain are your brothers.’

“The maiden took the drumstick, wrapped it carefully in a cloth, and went onwards again until she came to the Glass Mountain. The door was shut, and she thought she would take out the drumstick; but when she undid the cloth, it was empty, and she had lost the good star’s present. What was she to do now? She wished to rescue her brothers, and had no key to the Glass Mountain. The good sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, put it in the door, and succeeded in opening it.”

She then finds her brothers in raven form and appears before them; they are transformed by the sight of her; and they all return home together.

The Raven” is a similar tale but with the roles reversed: a maiden is imprisoned in a golden castle on a glass mountain. Her raven-formed Double appears to a man walking through the woods and tells him her story, and he promises to rescue her. After failing the initial trial set before him, he sets out to find the princess and rescue her another way. While on his journey, he meets a giant who tells him where the princess is located.

“The man journeyed on day and night till he reached the golden castle of Stromberg. He found it situated, however, on a glass mountain, and looking up from the foot he saw the enchanted maiden drive round her castle and then go inside. He was overjoyed to see her, and longed to get to the top of the mountain, but the sides were so slippery that every time he attempted to climb he fell back again.”

Fortunately, he meets three robbers who have stolen three magical items: a stick that will open any door that it strikes, a cloak of invisibility, and a horse that will carry its rider across any obstacle. The man tricks the robbers into giving him all of the items, and he rides up to the glass castle, opens the castle doors, and sneaks invisibly to the princess’s chambers to return a ring she’d given him as proof that he had come to rescue her. She goes outside, where she finds him waiting for her on the magical horse, and they ride off together to be married the next day.

While the above stories show good people held captive by glass, there are other stories involving bad spirits trapped in glass as well, such as “The Spirit in the Bottle”:

“The son [of a poor woodcutter]…went into the forest…until at last he came to a great dangerous-looking oak… Then all at once it seemed to him that he heard a voice. He listened and became aware that someone was crying in a very smothered voice: ‘Let me out, let me out! … I am down here amongst the roots of the oak tree…’ The schoolboy began to loosen the earth under the tree, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little hollow. He lifted it up and held it against the light, and then saw a creature shaped like a frog, springing up and down in it. ‘Let me out! Let me out!’ it cried anew, and the boy, thinking no evil, drew the cork out of the bottle. Immediately the spirit ascended from it, and began to grow, and grew so fast that in a very few moments he stood before the boy, a terrible fellow as big as half the tree.” (Stern 459-460)

Lecouteux mentions several similar mirror-related practices in European lore, including:

Not long ago people in Germany were persuaded that reading the Bible in front of a mirror would chase ghosts out of the house… the mirror has been seen as an open window to the other world, but also as a trap for the soul. In all of Europe, there was a very telling custom: that of covering the mirrors in a home where someone had just died. It was feared that the soul might remain stuck in them, or else that the spirit of the dead person would be reflected, resulting in dire consequences. (146)

Clearly, in European lore-based magic, glass — mirrors, bottles, cases, and coffins — can be used to protect and preserve, to bind and imprison. 

Reflection and the Spirit Double

Lecouteux notes a belief in many cultures that the “soul passes out of its possessor, totally or in part, into every representation, pictorial or otherwise, which explains the fear felt by many people when they are faced with their own image… There is a second reason for this fear, closely linked to the first: If the soul passes into the image of the body, anyone who has sufficient knowledge and science can act on the living through the channel of this Double” (143). So perhaps it is glass’s reflective nature — which reveals to us and gives us access to our spirit Doubles — that gives it the qualities listed above.

Referring to mirror images specifically, Lecouteux cites German author E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “A New Year’s Eve Adventure, a.k.a. The Lost Reflection”:

“How could you keep my reflection?” he continued. “It is inseparable from me. It accompanies me everywhere, is sent back to me by all calm and pure water, by all polished surfaces.”

“So,” says Giuletta, “even in this aspect, even in this dream of your being that stays in this mirror here, you refuse to give to me, you who just a moment ago were yet speaking  of belonging to me body and soul!”

“If I have to leave, may my reflection remain in your possession for ever and eternity!”

Giuletta held out her arms to the mirror. Erasme saw his image, independent of the movements of his body; he saw it slip into Giuletta’s arms and disappear with her into the middle of a strange vapor. (142)

At least in European folk belief, mirrors are passages and vehicles by which we can interact with our own and others’ spirits. As Lecouteux writes, “Connecting us to the other world — or rather, in accordance with the mind of our time, to the hidden side of the universe — the psychic Double has knowledge of the destinies of others through their potential alter egos” (129). With mirrors, Doubles can be both sent off and possessed, and they can be contacted and utilized for magical and prophetic purposes. Thus, the mirror functions as a medium through which we can come face-to-face with not only our reflections but our other Selves and the unseen world as a whole — and glass is a tool by which we can harness and direct those powers.

Bibliography

Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Trans. Clare Frock. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2003. Print.

Stern, James, ed. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.

To Ride Through the Air on a Very Fine Gandr: The Staff as a Magical Tool in Fairy Tales

esbenandthewitch

I’ve been reading Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages, which I was lucky enough to find at my local library. It’s a fantastic examination of the Double (also variously called the fylgja, familiar, fetch, etc., depending on where you’re looking) and the role it played in medieval and premedieval pagan magical practice in Germanic cultures (primarily Scandinavia, but also dipping down occasionally into Germany). Lecouteux mentions the role of the gandr, which is an Old Norse word alternately (or perhaps simultaneously) meaning “stick” or “spirit.” The term gandreið can be translated literally as “stick ride” but was used to indicate the witch’s ride or spirit journey. Scholars believe that this is the source of the belief  that witches ride on brooms (or staves or distaffs). It could also be the source of the familiar nursery rhyme:

Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander
Would ride through the air on a very fine gander.

With “gander” being understood as a transformation of the word gandr, it’s pretty clear that this little rhyme hearkens to old beliefs in the witches’ ride. The play on goose/gander works, too — if the gandr is more than a stick but a spirit familiar, or Double as Lecouteux calls it, it may very well take the shape of a gander, or male goose.

The Gandr in Folk Tales

Magic sticks have a long history in the folk tales of the Germanic people — from Scandinavia to Germany to Anglo-Saxon England — and their use and treatment in these stories provides insight into clinging pre-Christian beliefs native to northern and central Europe. 

The featured image at the top of this post comes from A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders, from the Danish fairy tale “Esben and the Witch.” Esben is the youngest of twelve brothers, and because he’s small and weaker than the rest, his father resents him. When the eleven older brothers are each given a horse, some food and drink, and money to set off in search of fortune better than their father’s farm can provide, Esben asks for his share, too. His father bitterly denies him, saying that if he could choose, he’d send Esben off but keep the other eleven to work the farm with him. As the poor and disenfranchised have historically done, Esben turns to magic — the subtle but powerful force that runs through these worlds — to supplant what he was denied:

Since he couldn’t get a horse, he went off into the woods and looked among the trees till he found a branch to his liking. And when he had found a branch to his liking, he cut it down, and chopped it and chipped it into the semblance of a horse, leaving four strong twigs for its four legs, a knobby end for its head, and a thin end for its tail. Next, he peeled off the bark and polished the wood till it shone more whitely than his brothers’ horses. And having done all that, he got astride it, and sang out:

‘Fly quick, my little stick,
Carry me into the world.’

And the stick kicked up the four strong twigs that were its four legs, and galloped away with him after his brothers. (46-47)

It’s with this animated stick — this gandr, in all senses of the word — that Esben eventually wins the favor of a king, saves his brothers’ lives, garners riches for his family, and finally wins the recognition of his father and brothers (his mother, of course, believed in him all along).

esbenandthewitch-detail

In the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella,” called “Aschenputtel,” there is no fairy godmother. It’s a hazel tree planted by her dead mother’s grave, watered with her tears, that provides all that Aschenputtel needs to win the prince’s hand in marriage. How does she come by the hazel tree?

It happened that [Aschenputtel’s] father was once going to the fair, and he asked his two step-daughters what he should bring back for them. ‘Beautiful dresses,’ said one, ‘pearls and jewels,’ said the second. ‘And you, Cinderella[sic],’ said he, ‘what will you have?’ ‘Father, break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.’ So he bought beautiful dresses, pearls and jewels for his two step-daughters, and on his way home, as he was riding through a green thicket, a hazel twig brushed against him and knocked off his hat. Then he broke off the branch and took it with him. When he reached home he gave his step-daughters the things which they had wished for, and to Cinderella he gave the branch from the hazel bush. Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother’s grave and planted the branch on it, and wept so much that the tears fell down on it and watered it. And it grew and became a handsome tree. (121-122)

Aschenputtel visits and cries before this tree whenever her step-mother and -sisters are cruel to her, and whenever she asks for something, a white bird descends on it and grants her wishes.

Tutelary Spirits, Protectors, and Guides

Lecouteux writes in his book: “The fylgja’s (the Norse tutelary spirit-double) primary mission is to protect the person to whom she has attached herself” (46). The fylgja often takes the form of an animal, depicted in “Aschenputtel” in the form of a white bird. It is significant that this bird is channeled through the hazel tree, which was grown from a branch cutting watered with Aschenputtel’s tears (which, of course, contain her DNA, coming from her own body). Thus, the gandr (stick) becomes a tree, which then serves as a channel for Aschenputtel to contact a corporeal Double. As in “Esben and the Witch,” it’s the Double that facilitates Aschenputtel in obtaining the material things she needs to achieve great ends — becoming a princess and, presumably in the future, queen. The fylgja, too, is associated with an individual’s luck or fate, preceding the individual’s body to its intended destination and sometimes appearing in others’ dreams before they meet the individual.

In the ninth century, the canon Episcopi declaimed against women who “with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company.” This, of course, refers to the classic ride to the Witches’ Sabbath, led (according to the canon Episcopi) by the continental Germanic goddess Holda. When the Christian veneer is peeled away, the witches’ ride is very clearly a spiritual journey — astral travel, in contemporary terms — to the Otherworld. The beasts being ridden, then, are the voyagers’ Doubles in animal form, which are known in Germanic folklore to leave the body and travel during dreams and ecstatic journeys to receive information, gain wisdom or power, fight enemies, transmit messages, etc.

The gandr, too, was believed capable of doing this. Lecouteux cites a chapter in the 12th century text Historia Norwegiae that discusses the magic of the indigenous Sami people, who according to the author worshipped a spirit called a

gandus…thanks to whom they make prophecies, see far-off things in space and time, and discover hidden treasures. A Christian doing business with them was sharing their meal when suddenly the hostess died. Not in the least disconcerted or affected, the ‘dead’ woman’s companions explained to him that she had been a victim of a hostile gandus and that they were going to bring her back to life. One of them was a magician… [He] started his incantations, ‘singing and leaping, then throwing himself on the ground…and with his stomach torn open and everything all red, he gave up his spirit.’ The other people then asked for the help of a second man, who proceeded as the first, but with success. The hostess then revived the dead magician, who explained that his gandus, having taken the form of a whale, collided with an enemy gandus that had metamorphosed into sharp stakes driven into the bottom of the sea, and these stakes opened up his stomach. (36)

This account illustrates that the gandr/gandus, or Double, can sometimes take multiple forms, depending on what is needed at the time. Thus, it’s not so far-fetched that a gandr could be, alternately, a stick or staff or broom on which to ride or an animal that (as with the fylgja) has a form that represents in physical form the character and fate/luck of the person to whom it is connected. This is subtly attested in the above-mentioned fairy tales as well — Esben rides his gandr over the river (bodies of water being portals to the Otherworld) to the witch’s house to steal her enchanted treasures for the king that holds his brothers hostage; Aschenputtel’s gandr helps her accomplish impossible challenges, manifests the objects she needs to gain access to her future husband, and in the end, pecks out the eyes of her enemies on her wedding day.

The Role of the Gandr in Magical Practice

Sticks in Germanic folk tales — whether they come as wands, staffs, riding sticks, cuttings to plant and grow into trees, or something else — do much more than transmit energy. By and large, they are shamanistic tools with which magical practitioners connect to their Doubles — the unseen companions that walk alongside us, or precede us, or follow us, goading us down our unique paths through life and aiding us when we struggle or lose our ways. It’s through this spiritual connection that magic is accessed and accomplished. The gandr is perhaps the most essential, and least remembered, magical tool — at least for those who draw from Germanic sources for their craft. Perhaps it’s time to reconnect with the gandr, to view it more as a comrade rather than a mere instrument, and to return it to its central place in magical practice.

 

Bibliography:
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2003.
Manning-Sanders, Ruth. A Book of Witches.  EP Dutton & Co.: Boston, 1967.
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. Josef Scharl. Pantheon Books: New York, 1972.

How It All Began

arthurrackham_fairies

When I leave my body, I call it traveling or hedge crossing. “Astral projection” is too New Agey; “out-of-body experience” is too vague and unwieldy. When it first started happening (completely at random), I’d just kind of float around the house for a little bit. Then, once, I went through a window and found myself in a leaf-strewn field in autumn with a giant tree on a hill with leaves in beautiful shades of orange and red, and a barn off in the distance. Later, I started traveling to other places and casually meeting and talking with spirits. One figure in particular kept showing up, but he always looked different. Even so, I could feel that it was the same masculine energy.

Then I had a very significant journey. I’d left my house through a window in the living room and took a walk down the street. At the end of the neighborhood, I met a blond boy around 7-10 years old. He told me that a group of people had stolen something from me and that we needed to go together to get it back. He offered me his hand, and I took it, but just as we were about to run off down the street, I hesitated. I sensed that familiar masculine energy, and I asked, “You’re L—, aren’t you?”

The boy smiled mischievously and said yes, he was.

“Show me to your true form.”

The boy began to change, but he kept changing and wouldn’t keep still. Sometimes he was a tall, broad young man with cropped brown hair and a square jaw; other times he was lean and red-haired; sometimes he was a middle-aged man with long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and round-framed eyeglasses; still other times he was just a boy. And on and on. He changed so quickly that, most times, he was nothing more than a blur and it was hard to see him at all.

When I found myself trying to see him in one particular form, he seemed to read my thoughts and settle a little, but then I’d realize that it was just another guise, so I’d let it go and he’d change again. Finally, I gave up and decided to see him however he would naturally appear, even if it was strange or difficult. It was then that he took on a single form: a ceaselessly shifting, featureless shape of a man that looked most like clear, rippling water – at once reflective and transparent and sometimes invisible.

He transformed back into a boy, and he took my hand as we ran down the sidewalk until we came to a house in another neighborhood with two small Japanese maples at the edge of the yard, their leaves bright red . There was a group of people standing on the lawn, many of them elderly, and the boy stole back the thing that was missing. We ran away, back to my house, and they didn’t pursue us for long.

When we got back to my bedroom where my body lay, he transformed into a tall, long-haired young man. He showed me the object, a beautiful pendulum. He dangled the pendulum between his thumb and forefinger and said, “This is your kwento.” He repeated the word several times so that I’d remember when I went back into my body. Then he kissed me and pressed the pendulum against me, and I laid back into my body and woke up.

He was my guide in the Otherworld for quite some time. Then he left me, for one reason or another, and my husband and I moved into a new house. I haven’t seen him since.

I did some research shortly after to figure out what kwento (spelled phonetically, as I heard it) meant, and for a long time, nothing showed up. Weeks later, though, I came upon q(w)ento during research about Proto-Indo-European religion and found that it means “holy.” So he gave me my holiness, or my holy power.

And that’s how my journey as a hedge witch began.

A Hedge Witch’s Holiday Calendar

arthur rackham_winter scene

Several months ago, I decided to write down and formalize my own cycle of holidays. While I’ve been inspired in some ways by some of the Wiccan and Celtic holidays, not all of them have meaning for me and I don’t feel comfortable celebrating them. I realized that I need a cycle of holidays that doesn’t feel tacked onto my life; they need to be a natural part of the rhythm of my life, highlighting what I value and find reflected within my practices, community and environment.

Some of these are holidays that I’ve celebrated since I was a kid that have a slightly new meaning for me now; others, I started celebrating later because they fill a void by honoring something significant to me and give me satisfaction and meaning at certain points of the year.

December 20-January 1
Twelve Days of Yule

The Twelve Days stems from die Zwolften, originating in Germany, and takes place during the deepest part of winter. In Christian tradition, the Twelve Days starts on Christmas Eve, but it makes more sense (for many reasons) for me to start celebrating on the solstice. The Yuletide begins the day after Thanksgiving for us, but the Twelve Days are the core of it.

We decorate a Yule tree and deck the house with evergreens, nutcrackers, Weinachtspyramide, snow scenes, etc. We build a fire in the hearth and read ghost stories before it. We give gifts and set out cookies and milk for Father Christmas. It’s a cozy, hearth-based holiday that celebrates the warmth of home and loved ones within the darkest part of the year.

It’s easier for me to cross the hedge in the fall and winter months, and this is the time in many cultures where the divisions between this world and the Otherworld are less firm, so this is a time particularly dedicated to spirit work and hedge crossing as well.

This is also a time to honor Frau Holle, goddess of traditional women’s crafts, the domestic sphere, and winter (especially winter weather). I want to do more to honor her from now on, as she’s been a huge influence in my life for a couple of years and I’ve been moving into deeper work with her. I’ll probably reserve the 24th and 25th for Father Christmas, focus the solstice and the New Year on Frau Holle, and do a blend or personal work on the other days.

Speaking of the New Year, this is also a time of endings and beginnings – the hinge of the annual cycle. It just seems natural to me that the beginning of the year would start, like all things, in darkness. So the New Year is still at the tail end of the Twelve Days for me (rather than on Samhain, per the Celtic calendar).

February 2
First Stirrings

This is inspired by Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day. The term “first stirrings” denotes the various ways that the imminent birth of spring begins taking root at this time – the soon-to-be-born lambs are stirring in the ewe’s womb, and the ewes begin lactating to prepare for the birth; the bulbs of the first spring flowers are beginning to stir in the ground; hibernating animals are coming to the end of their long “sleep.” It’s a time for the first movements of unseen things that will eventually come to fruition. As such, it’s a great time for I Ching divination, as doing so looks ahead at approaching changes.

As I mentioned above, the darker time of the year means shadow and spirit work for me (looking deeply inward and increasing interaction with the Otherworld), so on this day I wrap up that work until autumn comes again. Therefore, it’s also a time for a return to the light with the wisdom that came from that descent.

I love the tradition of putting candles in the windows on the Eve as a beckoning for the spirit of Spring. A good hearth fire also plays a part, as February is the coldest month where I live. We have a candlelit dinner with cheese fondue, freshly baked bread, and Grannysmith apples. During the day, I always plan to make candles but never get around to it – maybe I will this time around.

March 13-20
Shaking the Dust

This is when spring emerges where I live. I like the idea of making this a time for spring cleaning – dusting off the dregs of winter and darkness and emerging fresh and clean. So this is my holiday for self-purification as well as freshening up my home. Because it’s a lengthy process to deep-clean a whole house, it begins the week before the equinox, which serves as the culmination of the process.

Brooms are hugely symbolic for me, so I start with a broom blessing. Then I spend each consecutive day deep-cleaning, cleansing and dedicating each space in the house for its purpose. Then I cleanse myself.

It is significant that this is a time of balance of the dark and the light, which is a hugely important concept in Taoism. The cleansing, therefore, is not about shrugging off or suppressing “darkness” in favor of the “light.” This is a time to center myself, to dwell in the hinge of my existence in which I am neither my shadow nor my higher self and remember the root of my existence, which is limitless and inexplicable. I shake off the dust of preconceptions and socially determined morality in order to remember what is constant and true.

Late March to Early April
Easter

Growing up, Easter was a secular holiday for my family, and I’ve always enjoyed it as such and want to share it with my son. It’s such a great day for kids.

To me, this is basically Children’s Day, a day to celebrate children, youth and renewal. So we do the traditional Easter basket stuffed with fruits and chocolates left at the front door by the Easter Bunny (the spirit of Spring, in my mind), coloring eggs, brunch (I really like fruit crepes), and an Easter egg hunt. This year, we took a trip to the local botanical gardens.

April 30-May 1
Walpurgisnacht & May Day

Walpurgisnacht is a primal celebration of the coming summer with strong heathen overtones — bonfires are lit, wild dancing and feasting occurs in celebration, and witches are believed to congregate on mountain tops for their sabbaths. May Day, in contrast, is essentially a springtime Valentine’s Day — professions and gifts of love are made and given, picnics are had, a Maibaum (may pole) is erected and ribbons wound about it as a symbol of fertility and growth. I just recently started celebrating this holiday in an effort to reconnect with my German heritage and memories of living in Germany as a child as well as my entrance into heathenry. I’d like to make it more of a communal celebration in the future, but this year, it was more private. I poured libations to wights, household spirits, deities who had presented themselves to me recently, and my ancestors. My husband and I built a fire in our backyard, drank a couple of beers, and just enjoyed each other’s company.

June 21
Midsummer

For me, the height of summer is about extroversion, being out in the world, interacting with others, celebrating life and connecting with our bodies. It means reconnecting with wild nature – communicating with the trees, the grasses and herbs and flowers, the animals that run about at this time, and building relationships with and learning from them. Where winter is a time to honor the hearth and inner fires, Midsummer is a time to honor the outer fires of community bonds and our connections with nature as human animals.

This isn’t a holiday that I’ve always celebrated, but I really connect with it. It’d be a great time to host a garden party with friends and family, food and drink. The fireflies are out at this time, so ideally it would start in the evening and extend into the night for firefly viewing as well as moon viewing if it’s clear out. We’d have a fire in our fire bowl, play music, dance and imbibe.

First Monday (and the preceding weekend) of September
First Harvest

This is the beginning of the apple harvest in the Southeast, and there are some pretty major apple festivals held in various towns at this time. This is also Labor Day weekend, which celebrates the hard work done thus far over the year. It’s a time to honor those who do the often thankless jobs that keep society afloat as well as enjoy the fruits of our own labor. Crafts are a big thing at these festivals, and I honor that aspect of my practice during this time as well.

We start out the holiday by visiting an apple festival, which includes drinking locally made cider, eating treats like apple pie and apple ice cream, and buying fresh apples from local orchards. We also go camping, where we reconnect with the earth, eat campfire food, and spend uninterrupted (i.e. no computers, no phone usage, no work) time together. We rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor, whatever they may be.

First few weeks of October
Oktoberfest

As I mentioned before, I feel very connected to my German heritage, and this is a big holiday in Bavaria, where I spent about half of my childhood. While it originated as a celebration in honor of Prince Ludwig’s wedding in 1810, it has evolved into a cultural and harvest festival centered around beer.

Beer is sacred to me. As Wikipedia claims:

Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed, and is recorded in the written history ofancient Iraq and ancient Egypt. Archaeologists speculate that beer was instrumental in the formation of civilizations.

Beer is humble and earthy while also highly complex (at least, the good beers are). Beers embody the souls of the places and people that created them – the grains, the spices and/or herbs, the water, the hops. What you drink when you drink beer is the fruit of the earth, clean water, and the wisdom, tastes and hard work of the brewers. Drinking beers aligned with the seasons can very much be a part of any practice.

Beer also has magical and spiritual value. With alcohol being a psychoactive substance, beer can sometimes help to facilitate trance states by its gently sedative effect. (Note: you don’t have to get drunk in order for this to work, and being blackout drunk is sloppy, dangerous, and will just make you pass out instead of leading you anywhere – always drink responsibly, and only if you’re of legal age to do so). In addition, brewed alcoholic drinks are associated with wisdom and the power of prophecy in many, many cultures across the world. So (curbing this digression) I honor beer and the art of brewing at this time.

Beer also brings people together. Beer tents and beer gardens are a big thing at Oktoberfests (and, really, any German Volksfests), where strangers and friends gather together at large tables to drink beer together, and there are lots of stalls for crafts and agricultural shows, and fair rides, and there’s dancing and traditional music. It’s a time to reconnect with the community, enjoy good food and drink, and have a good time. In the States, it’s a chance for all German Americans (regardless of the state of origin of their ancestors) to celebrate their cultural heritage, and I really love it because it brings back well-loved memories for me and reconnects me to some of my ancestors.

October 31
Hallowe’en

This is a night of spirits and shadows. We watch scary (especially supernatural horror) movies, host or attend a costume party, trick-or-treat with our son, emulate and even celebrate the things that frighten us. It’s a time to be both scared and scary. It’s become my Witch’s Night – a night of power to celebrate my participation in mystery. I like to break out the ouija board and other divination/spirit communication methods on this night.

Last year, I set up an altar on the back porch for ancestors and other spirits coming by. This year, I want to make a point to honor the spirits I’ve been working with as well.

This is also the time that I’ll begin my annual descent into shadow work – either by working through personal issues or just acknowledging that darker side in order to maintain balance. I also reestablish home and personal protection spells for my household for the next year.

Last Thursday of November
Thanksgiving

This has always been about food and family for me – gathering together around a big table, eating and laughing and being thankful for what we have. It’s a good time to honor ancestors, too. And, of course, post-dinner nature walks. This is the last harvest festival and the doorway to the Yuletide.

Down the Dark Path

opossum

Last year, my husband found the top half of an opossum skull in our backyard, along with a few other bones and teeth. The skull was laid, almost as if deliberately presented to us (thanks, neighborhood coalition of feral cats), on the ramp leading into the storage shed. We aren’t sure what exactly happened to it, but a big female with babies had been living off-and-on under our back porch for a while. Life spans for opossums are only two to four years, so it could have been plain old age that killed her.

Because the remains had been outside for so long (at least through the winter and spring), there wasn’t much flesh left on it. I gently pulled off the remaining skin and muscle matter (fairly bark-like at this point) and some fur, then placed the skull and other bones (two teeth, a rib bone, a vertebrae) in a disposable plastic bowl with some warm water and dish soap to degrease for a few days. Then I soaked it in a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water to whiten it and then let it dry. It now occupies a shelf in our curio cabinet.

Opossums are known for their robust immune systems, partial-to-complete immunity to snake venom, and fierce defense of their young, all of which make it a strong protective spirit to have around. Opossums are also nomads, and as I’ve never been one to settle into one home for too long, this is another connective point for me.

Cultures across the world believe that the connection of a spirit with its body remains for as long as the bones do, including the Malagasy people who practice famadihana. In a recent I Ching reading before I took the bones in, I was told that I would “gain a homeless servant” to help me in my work. It makes sense that this opossum is that servant, and shortly after the bones were dried, I connected with her spirit, learned her name (or at least the name that calls her to me), and made a contract. She mostly guards our home, helping to keep harmful spirits away.

It’s funny – people who know me offline tend to think of me as a lighthearted, sunshiney sort of person. Not someone who works with bones and the spirits of the dead. It throws people off when they catch glimpses of my darker side. But I’m very conscious of death. I’ve seen it in various forms, and the dead have sometimes come to me after parting. Even so, I’ve hesitated going down that path in the past out of fear. I’m getting braver, though, and trusting my instincts more. I’m reaching through the veil and finding that it’s not quite as frightening as I once thought it was.