Magical Animals in European Folk Tales and Lore: Chickens
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.