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Butter Stealing Witches, Hags as Hares & Other Tales on this Blessed Beltane

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Below is a collection of fables, folklore, and some May Day traditions that I was not previously familiar with. I have done my best to credit the authors of these yarns, along with a list of references at the end. Ordinarily I write these posts myself, but felt that sharing a collection pieces from my some of my favorite blogs, compiled with some illustrations by others and photos of my own may serve well for this sort of entry.


 

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Butter Stealing Witches

From:  The Fading Year

On May Day, or more particularly, May morning, witches are traditionally believed to be able to steal their neighbor’s milk or butter, so that no amount of churning will create butter. These witches, or hags as they were often known, were usually widowed women, frequently they were poor, and invariably they were known in their community as odd. Anyone visiting a household between sunset on May Eve and sunset on May Day would be treated with great suspicion. People were particular in not giving anything away, especially fire, milk, salt and water as to do so was considered to be risking the household’s luck and milk-profit for the coming year. Tradesmen who worked about the house would have to smoke by the hearth, and extinguish their pipes before they left the dwelling, while beggars who regularly received hospitality at other times of the year would know to avoid calling at Maytime.

To protect the household from harm on May Eve May-flowers, often marigolds or primroses, are strewn across the window-ledges and the threshold of the dwelling, while branches of rowan or mountain ash are placed above the byre and around the boundaries of the land to protect the cattle, who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to evil influence during Maytime. Holy water was sometimes used along with, or as an alternative to, May-flowers or boughs, while milk was in some instances poured on the threshold of the household as an offering to the fairies. Farmers went to special lengths to protect their cattle on May morning. R. Clarke in an 1882 article titled ‘Folklore Collected in County Wexford’ mentioned that on May morning cows are struck with a quicker-berry switch, which prevents any person putting any evil on them or taking their profit or butter.’ While William Wilde tells us that before the famine súgans (straw ropes) were sometimes placed around the necks of cattle on May Eve to protect them against ill luck and the fairies, while another method to protect the cattle against the powers of witchcraft was to singe the hair on the heads of each of the cattle, or in other cases a sod of coal was passed around the animal.

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Medieval Fresco of a woman churning Butter with the Devil, Tingsted church, Denmark 

Farmers would often watch the well though the night on May Eve to ensure that no one tampered with it, as there was great importance attached to being the first on May morning to draw water from the well, this first water was often referred to as the ‘flower of the well’, and was fed to the cattle in the belief that the milk-profit was protected from the power of witchcraft for the season. Conversely, if a witch managed to get to the well first on May morning, having retrieved a cinder from a fire on May Eve, it was believed that by dropping the cinder down the well, in an action known as “burn the well”, she could gain the milk profit of the well’s users for the year to come.

Witches were thought to have many methods for stealing a person’s milk profit on May Day. If a person was seen dragging a straw rope, a spancel, or other object connected with cattle across the dew of a neighbouring farm on May morning they would be presumed to be attempting to steal their neighbour’s milk and butter. On May Day witches were also believed to be able to transform themselves into hares and, in this form, steal the milk-profit from a neighbouring farmer by suckling on the udders of his cows. The ability of ‘old hags’ to transform themselves into hares is noted by Giraldus Cambernsis in his twelfth century text the History and Topography of Ireland, and is the subject of a local legend, still well known in many parts of Ireland that tells of how a farmer upon discovering a hare suckling one of his cow’s udders on May morning chases the hare with his dogs, one of which manages to bite the hare as it passes through a small gap in the wall of a house belonging to a local elderly woman. Upon entering the house the hare is nowhere to be seen, however a wound is discovered on the woman in the same position as the spot where the hare was bitten.

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Example of a spancel or noosed rope

Previously there was great reluctance to be the first household to light a fire on May morning as witches were believed to be able to steal the luck and the milk-profit from the first household that did so, with this in mind people would be waiting for their neighbours’ fires to be lit, watching their chimneys, before they lit their own. In some areas the people waited until the priest’s fire was going, believing that the priest’s close relations with God would act as protection against any threat of witchcraft. An inventive method to protect a household’s milk profit on May morning, noted in the 1890s in County Leitrim, was to ‘get a bunch of rowan leaves, and tie it up the chimney to dry, then on May morn, light this, and let that be the first smoke to go out of the chimney; for witches can do nothing with it.’

If a witch managed to steal your milk-profit there were a number of methods to regain what was lost. The woman of the house, in this situation, is often advised by an outsider to the community on how this can be achieved. In one such instance, an old woman from Mallow related to the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin that a firebrand was stolen from her house on May morning, the woman went on to explain that a ‘man was sitting there that knew what that meant. He took a piece of peat and threw it into the butter furkin. If he hadn’t done that, we would have been a whole year without butter.’ The Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeology Society provides a detailed account of how to retrieve the lost butter along with the consequences the perpetrator would face; ‘If on the May Day’s churning it is discovered that the butter has been already robbed by a witch-woman, a plough-chain should be looped round the churn, which should be placed on three stones, and the colter of the plough should be heated and placed under the churn; it will then be found, on commencing to churn again, that the butter will come; but during the operation no one on any pretex should be allowed into the house. During the heating of the colter the witch-woman will suffer torture; and it is she who will come and endeavour to gain admittance in to the house when the churning is again in full swing, if anyone thoughtlessly let her in, the butter would again disappear to the witch-woman’s house.


 

Hags as Hares

From: Irish Folklore

When it comes to witches stealing butter, one of the most prevalent forms that the story or account takes is in the form of the shapeshifting hag who transforms into a hare. They are quite often impervious to normal weapons as Mrs. Elis tells us in the NFSC: “when she was in that shape she could only be shot with a silver sixpence” (NFSC, Vol. 0949: 092). This element of the story pops up numerous times in the folklore tradition. Another story, told by a collector’s grandfather tells of a man seeing a hare every morning in the field by the cow.

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Moon rabbit netsuke, late 18c

When the cow stopped giving milk he got suspicious. He decided to kill the hare and gathered a group of men and hounds. They tried to shoot the hare, but to no avail. The shotgun pellets would not harm it. When attempting again the next day the man had quicksilver in his gun and manged to break the hare’s leg. When they followed it back to a house they found an old woman there with a wounded leg. They refused to kill her because she was an old woman. A month later when she died the cow started giving milk again (NFSC, Vol. 0950: 366).

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Eostre by Danielle Barlow

There was a genuine threat felt by the people in terms of hags in the form of hares. The larger National Folklore Collection is littered with accounts of people who remember patrolling the fields with their fathers with shotguns loaded with silver sixpences on May eve to shoot any trespasser, especially if a hare was seen, showing that this was far beyond just being part of the story telling tradition. It is quite often in the tales with the “hag as hare” motif that when the injured hare is followed back to a house which it enters, an old woman is found injured inside in the same manner as the hare was. This injury isn’t always as a result of silver as we see in the next example:

“There was once a woman who lived in the district and she was supposed to have the ‘evil eye’. One day she was supposed to turn into a hare. When she was going in through her window a dog caught her leg and hurt it. The next day she was {found} in bed with a sore leg” (NFSC, Vol. 0946: 094).”

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Desert Bunny Girl, Terri Windling


 

Blessed Beltane

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May Day traditions and rituals woven by:  The Goddess & the Green Man Blog

Sunset to Sunset

Beltane honours Life. It represents the peak of Spring and the beginning of Summer. Earth energies are at their strongest and most active. All of life is bursting with potent fertility and at this point in the Wheel of the Year, the potential becomes conception. On May Eve the sexuality of life and the earth is at its peak. Abundant fertility, on all levels, is the central theme.

The Maiden goddess has reached her fullness. She is the manifestation of growth and renewal, Flora, the Goddess of Spring, the May Queen, the May Bride. The Young Oak King, as Jack-In-The-Green, as the Green Man, falls in love with her and wins her hand. The union is consummated and the May Queen becomes pregnant. Together the May Queen and the May King are symbols of the Sacred Marriage (or Heiros Gamos), the union of Earth and Sky, and this union has merrily been re-enacted by humans throughout the centuries. For this is the night of the Greenwood Marriage. It is about sexuality and sensuality, passion, vitality and joy. And about conception. A brilliant moment in the Wheel of the Year to bring ideas, hopes and dreams into action. And have some fun…..

Traditions of Beltane

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Beltane Fire Festival, from the Bel Fire Society 

Beltane is a Fire Festival. The word ‘Beltane’ originates from the Celtic God ‘Bel’, meaning ‘the bright one’ and the Gaelic word ‘teine’ meaning fire. Together they make ‘Bright Fire’, or ‘Goodly Fire’ and traditionally bonfires were lit to honour the Sun and encourage the support of Bel and the Sun’s light to nurture the emerging future harvest and protect the community. Bel had to be won over through human effort. Traditionally all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. “This was the Tein-eigen, the need fire. People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility. Couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. Cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to start their fires anew.” (From Sacred Celebrations by Glennie Kindred) Green Man – Beltane

Handfasting

As Beltane is the Great Wedding of the Goddess and the God, it is a popular time for pagan weddings or Handfastings, a traditional betrothal for ‘a year and a day’ after which the couple would either choose to stay together or part without recrimination. Today, the length of commitment is a matter of choice for the couple, and can often be for life. Handfasting ceremonies are often unique to the couple, but

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include common elements, most importantly the exchange of vows and rings (or a token of their choice). The act of handfasting always involves tying the hands Handfasting (‘tying the knot’) of the two people involved, in a figure of eight, at some point in the ceremony and later unbinding. This is done with a red cord or ribbon. Tying the hands together symbolises that the two people have come together and the untying means that they remain together of their own free will.

Another common element is ‘jumping the broomstick’ – this goes back to a time when two people who could not afford a church ceremony, or want one, would be accepted in the community as a married couple if they literally jumped over a broom laid on the floor. The broom marked a ‘threshold’, moving from an old life to a new one. Catnach_broomstick-wedding_1822

Mead and cakes are often shared in communion as part of the ceremony. Mead is known as the Brew of the Divine, made from honey which is appropriate for a love ceremony (and is the oldest alcoholic drink known to humankind).

Going A-Maying

Handfasting or not, both young and old went A-Maying… Couples spent the night in the woods and fields, made love and brought back armfuls of the first May or haw thorn blossoms to decorate their homes and barns. Hawthorn was never brought into the home except at Beltane – at other times it was considered unlucky. Young women gathered the dew to wash their faces, made Flower Crowns and May Baskets to give as gifts. Everyone was free to enact the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God, and there was an accepted tradition of Beltane babies arriving nine months later…

Maypole dancers.

Maypole

The Maypole is a popular and familiar image of May Day and Beltane. A phallic pole, often made from birch, was inserted into the Earth representing the potency of the God. The ring of flowers at the top of the Maypole represents the fertile Goddess. Its many colored ribbons and the ensuing weaving dance symbolize the spiral of Life and the union of the Goddess and God, the union between Earth and Sky.

 

Blessed Beltane!

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