The medieval rituals of witches, as they have been recorded and passed down to us, are imitative of their Christian counterparts. One description of a witches’ coven is twelve women and a devil, a dark reflection of Jesus and his twelve apostles.
In “The Horned Women” we clearly have a witches’ coven. One Samhain evening, twelve witches (in one variant thirteen witches) make visitation on a hapless, good woman to occupy her home, where they go about the mundane tasks of carding, spinning and weaving wool. Having invaded the mistress’s home, they make the demand that she bake them a cake, and get the water needed from the spring with a sieve. After sending her off, the witches finish the cake with blood drawn from her family, putting it on the hearth to bake.
The spirit of the spring takes pity on the woman and instructs her in how to fool the witches into quitting her house, and then in how to bar them from entry. Water used to wash her children’s feet is poured over the threshold; the cake broken and placed in the mouths of her family; the cloth that the witches are weaving is placed half in and half out of a locked chest; and a crossbeam set against the door jambs. In this way she defeats the witches who, when they soon return, cannot reenter.
I can’t argue that there are strong correlations between the events in this story and Christian church rituals, but there are allusions that suggest such links.
Foot washing has ancient origins and carries on to the present. In the Christian tradition, it is a show of humility, practiced both by Roman Catholics and some Protestant sects. Christ famously washed the feet of his twelve apostles. In our story the mistress uses the water brought from the spring to wash the feet of her children (innocents) and pours it over the threshold as a talisman against the return of the twelve women.
The Eucharist speaks of the bread and wine of communion as the body and blood of Christ. In “The Horned Women” the cake the witches bake conflates these two elements. The cake is broken and placed in the mouths of the mistress’s family members, restoring them to life.
The cloth that the witches were weaving the mistress puts into a chest, half in and half out, locking the lid on it. Perhaps this is only me, but my mind jumps to the Shroud of Turin, probably the most famous of the Christian relics, which is said to have covered Christ when he was laid in the tomb and yet, according to Christian belief, not consigned to the tomb. The cloth that the witches made feels like the opposite of the Shroud. The Shroud of Turin is white and served a sacred purpose. In my imagination, the witches’ cloth is black and being made for some unnamed, nefarious use, in mockery of the Shroud.
I have gone too far in my assertions to stand on solid academic ground. Like the mistress’s sieve, they don’t hold water. However, in the untrained minds of the Irish peasants who listened to this story, I cannot help but wonder if they didn’t make the same loose associations that I have allowed myself. The distinction between the symbolic gestures of Christian ceremony and the shamanistic magic of peasant superstition might not have been too clear for the first listeners who gathered around the peat fire while their shanachie told “The Horned Women.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: Oct. 2011 The Horned Women – Part Two
Impossible tasks and spirit helpers
One of the mainstays of folk tales and fairy tales is the impossible task. Sometimes the task is the central thrust of the story, other times simply an obstacle as part of the storyline. In “The Horned Women” the impossible task is manifest in two ways: as an immediate problem and as a broader dilemma, both answered by the spirit of the spring.
Before I get started on the tasks, let me take a drink at the spring. In Celtic times numerous springs and wells throughout the British Isles and Ireland were held to have healing properties, be it for ears, eyes, nose and throat; or twisted limbs; or skin affliction. To assure a cure one needed only leave behind an offering to the resident spirit: a crutch no longer needed, a coin thrown into the water, a nail hammered into a sacred tree, or a rag tied to a bush. These springs and wells also could serve as an entry place to the fairy world.
As Celtic pagans converted to Christianity the spirits departed; springs and wells were assigned to saints, the water flowing from where the saint thrust his staff into the ground, or from the spot were a martyred saint fell. As Protestantism rose, the popularity of saints diminished in many areas and along with them the reputation of their springs and wells. Be that as it may, a spring refreshes, even one dispirited. I take a drink and move along.
Carrying water in a sieve, as was required of the mistress in “The Horned Women,” I see as the classical impossible task. Shakespeare refers to it in “Much Ado About Nothing”, when Leonato says to Antonio, “I pray thee, cease thy counsel, which falls into mine ears as profitless as water in a sieve.” There also is a Buddhist story of a master and a student contemplating the implications of water in a sieve. What our mistress held in her hand is a universal conundrum.
The spirit of the spring tells her to line the bottom of the sieve with yellow clay and moss, allowing the sieve to hold water. The solution is simple and uninteresting. Storywise, I find it a cheat, and, in the world of fairy tales and folklore, the usual, boring answer to the mistress’s problem. But, immediately, the spirit of the spring adds, “Return, and when thou comes to the north angle of the house, cry aloud three times and say, ‘The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire.’” Here the spirit begins to address the mistress’s broader dilemma.
With these words in our thoughts, we enter into a complex world of images and inferences. Holding water in a sieve is the entry point into a world of subtle and layered strata of magic. Although arcane and inexplicable, the advice the spring gives the mistress guides her through impending missteps, coaching her to drive out beings that would use her for their own diabolical ends.
Within this dark tale of evil manipulation emerges a heroine, who throws off the usurpers, over comes the impossible task by adhering to mystical injunction, and reclaims her rightful place. Might we take some encouragement from such a cautionary tale, each finding our own spring and our own life-giving sources, as we face those who would usurp our energies for themselves?
Fairy Tale of the Month: Oct. 2011 The Horned Women – Part Three
The Many Horns
The most striking feature of “The Horned Women” is, of course, the horns. I don’t recall encountering horned witches in folklore before this tale. Horns are usually reserved to accentuate masculine prowess, but this does not appear to be the case. As to the symbolism, meaning, purpose and origin of the witches’ horns—I haven’t a clue.
The first reference I know of to this tale appears in John O’Donovan, The Tribes and Territories of Ancient Ossory, (Dublin, 1853).The version in this work pre-dates 1851, collected by James Fogarty from the peasants of Ivewrk. This suggests the story is of folk origins and not from a literary tradition where we could expect fanciful elements to creep into the storyline.
There is a recognizable pattern. The first witch identifies herself as “the witch with one horn”. The second witch has two horns, the third has three, and so on, up to a witch with twelve or thirteen horns depending on the version. Nothing in the story indicates that the horns create any kind of ranking among the witches; the one with the most horns is not spoken of as their leader. There seems to be no functional purpose for the horns growing on their heads.
Medusa comes to my mind, because of the similarity of the image, but those are snakes coming out of her head. There are plenty of horned gods, but no horned goddesses.
Cuckoldry can involve horns, but they are placed on the heads of the deluded husbands. A devil, who has horns as a mark of his virility, is a member of the witches’ coven.However, I am not sensing any sexual allusions to the witches’ horns. Nor are the witches of an animal nature. They are doing the women’s work of carding, spinning and weaving wool, which comes from sheep, and the rams have horns, but I see no reason to make connections between witches and rams.
Enough. I feel I have adequately demonstrated my cluelessness. (I don’t think that is a word, but it is my condition.) Your thoughts?