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.