Now that the Ozark monsters series has ended I’d like to do a few posts (although maybe not in a row) comparing common folklore themes found in Ozark folk tales and their Old World ancestors. To start off I’d like to look at this common theme in many folklore traditions where a man or woman who is otherwise unfamiliar with witchcraft manages to spy on, and to follow witches to their gatherings using the same technique as the witch themselves. This theme can be seen in many forms and varieties from Northern Europe, to England, Ireland, Wales, and all the way across the ocean to the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains. Vance Randolph records one such story in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“Here is one of the old fireside witch tales, still told at Sparta, Missouri. A young boy worked on a farm for a widow and her two daughters. They all slept in a big one-room cabin. Several times the boy woke up in the night and found all three women gone, but the door bolted inside. In the morning he awoke to find them all in their beds as usual. Finally one night he just pretended to be asleep. About midnight he saw all three women get up and place a pan of water on the hearth. They washed their faces in the water, then each one said ‘Out I go and touch nowhere!’ and flicked up the chimney like a swallow! When the women were gone the boy got up, washed his face in the water and cried: ‘Out I go and touch nowhere!’ Before you could bat an eye he was up the chimney and flyin’ through the air. His hat blowed off. Pretty soon he lit in a big pasture, where all kinds of people was fiddlin’ and dancin’ and havin’ a regular picnic. Some of them gals didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun!…the next thing he knowed he was back at the house in bed, and the women was in their beds, and the door still bolted. It wasn’t no dream though, because there was soot on his nightshirt, and his hat was gone. He never did find the hat. But he quit the job before the moon changed and went to live with his kinfolks.”
A similar rendering of this theme can be seen in several Bavarian folk tales. This one was recorded by Franz von Schönwerth and translated by Prof. M. Charlotte Wolf Ph.D. in the book “Original Bavarian Folktales: A Schönwerth Selection”:
“On the Aich Farm, between the towns of Velburg and Hohenfels, in olden times there were a farmer’s wife and her daughter who were burnt as Witches.
“In fact, both were sworn members of the Guild of Witches and rode all night on a broomstick, through the chimney and on the Block Mountain. The manservant heard of this and hid in the kitchen to find out details. When the farmer’s wife and her daughter believed everybody in the house to be asleep, they entered the kitchen, took a broom, greased their foreheads and broomstick with an ointment hidden in a corner, and then flew up the chimney.
“When the manservant saw this, he also wanted to try it, to see what would happen; but no sooner had he applied the ointment to forehead and broom than he was involuntarily lifted up and swept off to Block Mountain. The farmer’s wife and daughter were enraged when they saw their manservant approach, and they turned him into a donkey which they let run away.
“Thus, he was caught by a farmer and sold to a miller, for whom he had to work for several years. By chance, one evening when he was grazing in a pasture close to some women, he overheard them recounting tales and one said among other things, that if someone were spellbound by Witches, he could undo the spell if, on Holy Thursday, he were able to snatch a little holy wreath from the head of a pure virgin. The donkey took note of this and, on the next Feast of Corpus Christi, with his teeth he snatched away a wreath from the head of a little girl; instantly he regained his previous form.
“He accused his enemies before a court of law, and both were burned to death. However, that was not the end of it; for their Ghosts were still haunting and teasing people in their former home until the manservant moved their bones from the execution site to consecrated ground.”
There’s also similar tales from Ireland, this one below is from the collection “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry” by W.B. Yeats:
“Shemus Rua awakened from his sleep one night by noises in his kitchen. Stealing to the door, he saw half-a-dozen old women sitting round the fire, jesting and laughing, his old housekeeper, Madge, quite frisky and gay, helping her sister crones to cheering glasses of punch. He began to admire the impudence and imprudence of Madge, displayed in the invitation and the riot, but recollected on the instant her officiousness in urging him to take a comfortable posset, which she had brought to his bedside just before he fell asleep. Had he drunk it, he would have been just now deaf to the witches’ glee. He heard and saw them drink his health in such a mocking style as nearly to tempt him to charge them, besom in hand, but he restrained himself.
“The jug being emptied, one of them cried out, ‘Is it time to be gone?’ and at the same moment, putting on a red cap, she added”
“’By yarrow and rue,
And my red cap too,
Hie over to England.’
“Making use of a twig which she held in her hand as a steed, she gracefully soared up the chimney, and was rapidly followed by the rest. But when it came to the housekeeper, Shemus interposed. ‘By your leave, ma’am,’ said he, snatching twig and cap. ‘Ah, you desateful ould crocodile! If I find you here on my return, there’ll be wigs on the green:
”’By yarrow and rue,
And my red cap too,
Hie over to England.’
“The words were not out of his mouth when he was soaring above the ridge pole, and swiftly ploughing the air. He was careful to speak no word (being somewhat conversant with witch-lore), as the result would be a tumble, and the immediate return of the expedition.
“In a very short time they had crossed the Wicklow hills, the Irish Sea, and the Welsh mountains, and were charging, at whirlwind speed, the hall door of a castle. Shemus, only for the company in which he found himself, would have cried out for pardon, expecting to be mummy against the hard oak door in a moment; but, all bewildered, he found himself passing through the keyhole, along a passage, down a flight of steps, and through a cellar-door key-hole before he could form any clear idea of his situation.
“Waking to the full consciousness of his position, he found himself sitting on a stillion, plenty of lights glimmering round, and he and his companions, with full tumblers of frothing wine in hand, hob-nobbing and drinking healths as jovially and recklessly as if the liquor was honestly come by, and they were sitting in Shemus’s own kitchen. The red birredh has assimilated Shemus’s nature for the time being to that of his unholy companions. The heady liquors soon got into their brains, and a period of unconsciousness succeeded the ecstasy, the head-ache, the turning round of the barrels, and the ‘scattered sight’ of poor Shemus. He woke up under the impression of being roughly seized, and shaken, and dragged upstairs, and subjected to a disagreeable examination by the lord of the castle, in his state parlour. There was much derision among the whole company, gentle and simple, on hearing Shemus’s explanation, and, as the thing occurred in the dark ages, the unlucky Leinster man was sentenced to be hung as soon as the gallows could be prepared for the occasion.
“The poor Hibernian was in the cart proceeding on his last journey, with a label on his back, and another on his breast, announcing him as the remorseless villain who for the last month had been draining the casks in my lord’s vault every night, He was surprised to hear himself addressed by his name, and in his native tongue, by an old woman in the crowd. ‘Ach, Shemus, alanna! is it going to die you are in a strange place without your cappen d’yarrag?’ These words infused hope and courage into the poor victim’s heart. He turned to the lord and humbly asked leave to die in his red cap, which he supposed had dropped from his head in the vault. A servant was sent for the headpiece, and Shemus felt lively hope warming his heart while placing it on his head. On the platform he was graciously allowed to address the spectators, which he proceeded to do in the usual formula composed for the benefit of flying stationers, ‘Good people all, a warning take by me;’ but when he had finished the line, ‘My parents reared me tenderly,’ he unexpectedly added, ‘By yarrow and rue,’ etc., and the disappointed spectators saw him shoot up obliquely through the air in the style of a sky-rocket that had missed its aim. It is said that the lord took the circumstance much to heart, and never afterwards hung a man for twenty-four hours after his offence.”
It’s interesting to look at common folklore themes like this. I’m reminded of S. Thompson’s “Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends” which can be accessed online. It lists and organizes common themes in folklore from around the world.
This is a theme that I’m going to keep researching, so if I find any more tales I will make sure to include them.