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