“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The biggest philosophical and spiritual influence in my life is Taoism, and it has been for around seven or eight years now. I was introduced to it in an undergraduate humanities class, and it resonated with me immediately. The texts (primarily the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu) express a lot of the things I’d been thinking but had never seen anyone else say or write before, but they also introduced me to new ways of looking at the world and challenged me to rethink my perspectives and approaches. It has made me a more peaceful, open-minded, and rational individual.
What is Taoism?
Taoism is hard to describe succinctly, mostly because the Tao itself defies explanation. The best way I’ve found to describe the Tao is this: it’s the energy/force of the Universe, but also the absence of energy/force that preceded the universe; it’s also a path to a kind of enlightenment in which we don’t overcome existence but learn to live in harmony with it (which is one way in which it differs from Buddhism), but the path isn’t laid out step-by-step. It’s also just a way of being and perceiving.
Taoism focuses on deconstructing our sense of morality and ways of interacting with the world. It stresses balance above all: it cautions against being too active of a force, but also against being too inert. Self-preservation is key (why destroy yourself before your time?), but it’s also about accepting change as fate–e.g., everything waxes and wanes, lives and then dies. But Taoists don’t look at death as anything permanent because nothing is permanent; death is just another step in the process of change.
Taoism asserts that we are all interconnected, that we all rely on each other not just to thrive but to exist at all. This is where the ying/yang (taijitu) symbol comes into play – there is both light and darkness in everything, and each depends on the other, and each bears the potential to become the other, and each eventually transforms into the other. That includes things like right and wrong, power and weakness, energy and inertia, literal light and darkness, masculinity and femininity, life and death, and so on. And, like Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The Chuang Tzu states, “Things are so because they are called so.” That’s the power of words, isn’t it? Manifesting meaning. Imbuing things, people, ideas with real power. By themselves, the power of things is limited, and we give and take away power through our will and faith. If that’s not the essence of magic, I don’t know what is.
Of course, the above is a very rough synopsis that doesn’t even begin to cover the complexity of Taoist philosophy, or all of the ideas presented therein. In addition, there are different schools of Taoism and a continuum of applications, from a more agnostic, purely philosophical path to religious Taoism, with Taoist magic and mysticism being somewhere in between or present in either pole. Taoism is a living belief system, taking on many forms and roles throughout its history to the present time.
As for moral precepts, there’s basically this: be humble (but not ostentatiously so), be compassionate (and that means universal compassion, not having compassion for one person/thing and hating its opposite), and be frugal (not just because it allows you to share/give more to others but because it also unburdens you from having too much shit to carry and also keeps you from being a target for theft, envy, etc.; however, it doesn’t mean extreme asceticism, where you’re starving naked in the streets – it means having enough to be comfortable, and then having and wanting no more).
Taoism and Hedge Witchery
When I rediscovered my magical side (which I’d put on the back burner throughout high school and college), I wasn’t sure how that part of me would fit in with Taoism. Taoists are supposed to refrain from clinging to any one thing because, in doing that, you’re cutting yourself off from part of the whole; and acting on the world is presuming that we know what’s best and asserting that over everything else, when our viewpoint is so limited, and possibly throwing ourselves into the fire by taking that action. How could magic fit into this scheme?
I learned eventually that Taoism is often practiced in conjunction with Chinese folk magic, which I don’t practice but which gave me the confidence to say, “Hey, maybe there is a way to be both authentically – to be a hedge witch and a Taoist.” After all, flexibility is inherent to Taoism – it is literally universal, so it can jive with different practices as long as those practices philosophically adhere to Taoist principles. This isn’t to say that Taoism can be anything you want it to be (far from it). But it does mean that I can be a witch and a Taoist at the same time.
Once I realized this, I made a working list of Taoist principles and how they might find expression in my own path and for others searching for something similar:
1. Everything has a dark and a light side, and everything changes.
That means you, your spirits and deities, your practice, your magic. You have to be flexible, to be willing to change and learn and grow. Stagnation is an uphill battle not worth fighting. So do what is beneficial in the moment, and then do no more, and be open to the idea that what works once won’t necessarily work later.
The path of a Taoist witch is more about naturally wavering to maintain overall equilibrium and less about keeping to the straight-and-narrow.
2. Everything is both sacred and mundane, or has both sacred and mundane aspects, and perception is the only thing that divides the two.
This is why I have never really gotten into the habit of “consecrating” anything or drawing circles. I try to see the sacred in everything and not to get too hung up on “sacred” things that I don’t utilize for their mundane purpose. Maybe this is why I love cooking and sewing magic – both have a practical as well as magical use, often at the same time.
3. Spontaneity/naturalness in magical practice.
I do what feels right, and most often my work doesn’t involve the trappings of “high magick” — no preordained gestures or incantations. I work best in near-silence and minimalism, simple tools and whispered intent. Most of the rituals I write out are more sketches for this reason – it leaves the experience open to inspiration and intuition, which are key for me.
4. Action through non-action.
In other words, doing as little as possible to reap the greatest rewards, or taking the path of least resistance, and thinking before you act. Magic in itself kind of applies this principle, in that you’re working behind the scenes to make something happen, but another way of looking at it is: what is the best way to get what I want, causing the least amount of disturbance? Sometimes, doing nothing says more than acting (especially when people are looking for a reaction); other times, approaching something in an unexpected, subtle way makes the biggest impact; and still other times, making a lot of noise all at once and then following with silence is the most effective route. It’s cunning, which often has negative connotations these days, though it doesn’t have to be. It’s subtle and intelligent. Compromise is important, too.
Doing what’s truly best is complicated work, and it really requires an in-depth, impersonal look into a situation from various angles. While a little disruption and destruction can be very good medicine sometimes, I try to limit the scope as much as possible.
This coincides with the above – finding what’s lacking and providing that, or figuring out what there’s too damn much of and doing the opposite. Too much passion can lead to violence, for example, so you can try to cool it with rational thought. Or maybe there’s too much logic and the human element isn’t taken into consideration, so you throw in some warmth.
You can also implement balance literally in ritual – balancing heat with cold, or something hard with something soft, or something light with something dark. For example, for a spell to cool passion, you could boil water and then, at the right time, turn off the heat and add cold water so that it’s lukewarm. You can also implement balance in ritual/spellwork by allotting time for both silence and sound, and movement and stillness.
And then there’s the Wu Xing concept of the interactions between elements–each either overcomes or generates another, e.g. water overcomes fire but generates wood; fire overcomes metal but generates earth; earth overcomes water but generates metal; and so on.
Regularly. Empty your mind to a) open yourself up to the spiritual world to gain insight; b) reconnect with your whole self and the Tao; and c) consider a problem in depth and find the best solution before acting. There are a lot of still water analogies in Taoist texts because that’s where reflections become most clear–if you make your mind like still water, you can see and understand better. That idea extends to non-meditation, too: listen more than you speak, and withhold making decisions and judgments until you’ve considered every aspect and perspective. Tend more toward receptivity than activity, and then you’ll know when it’s time to act and how.
Also, meditation allows you to transform yourself, which is the most important thing in Taoism. Most of the time, we are (at least part of) the problem. So we have to deconstruct and neutralize our values and senses of self. It’s like internal bioremediation–you’re taking all of that noxious nuclear energy inside you and transforming it into something natural and non-toxic. (Side note: mushrooms are great teachers in this respect.)
7. Humble things are more powerful because they’re closer to the Tao.
The Tao is supremely natural–rugged, irregular, uncarved. So, stick with simple, natural objects (things found in nature or handmade tools) that aren’t “perfect” or super-ornate. The Japanese concepts of wabi-sabi and kintsugi are relevant – objects that bear little imperfections or quirks, that are beautiful and special because they’re idiosyncratic. Also, you don’t have to go out of your way to get special tools–if you really need it, it’ll come to you; just be creative and use what you have.
I look at magic as a process of aiding the Tao, rather than a tool with which to dominate it to suit my desires. The same goes for spirits, people, animals, etc. I find that a lot of my power lies in realizing that I’m part of a larger structure. Even so, it can be challenging to remember that I want in a given moment may not be in the best interest of the whole, and if it’s not in the best interest of the whole, it’s probably not in my best interest, either, since I’m an inextricable part of it.
I think that the greatest Taoist lesson for a witch is not to be too absolute. There’s power in being flexible enough to consider other ideas and routes. Chaos and destruction are sometimes necessary, and so are order and creation. It’s the cunning ones, the wise ones, who find that middle space and, within it, see which strings to pull and which to leave unplucked.