“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 “
“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….”
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.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” (
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.