Greetings everyone! On Podcast 8, I mentioned two stories which share remarkable similarities. I was speaking of a story in the W. B. Yeats collection Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, specifically a story called “The Witches’ Excursion” (I incorrectly called it something like “James and the Red Cap” on the podcast…my apologies to Yeats and anyone who went poring over that tome looking for that non-existent title). For comparison, I cited the tale “Greasy Witches,” in The Granny Curse, by Randy Russell. You can read most of that story here, on Google Books (though I can’t guarantee how long that much of the book will remain free to read). Briefly, I thought it might be fun to go over a few of the similarities and commonalities found in these tales, for the sake of seeing how Old World witch lore migrates and transforms in the New World.
In the Appalachian version, the cabin is located on Roan Mountain. In this case, I think that the “roan” referred to could be tied into the “red” of the red cap being used to induce magical flight in the Yeats tale. Or, “roan” could be a variant on “rowan,” which is a mountain ash tree (which derives its name from its red berries, and thus could still have the “red” connection). The rowan tree is loaded with magical significance—some of the most potent anti-witchcraft charms are crosses made from rowan twigs bound with red thread. However, it could also be used to make magical tools as well, such as wands or staves. Oh, I should also point out that Roan Mountain is actually a real mountain on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. (Side note: would there be any interest in me doing a sort of “Witch’s Travel Guide” to various parts of the US? Places with strong witch lore or with a history of magical activity, perhaps? Comment/email and let us know!)
There’s a strong indication that the Dobbs sisters use a powerful sleeping draught on Riley the same way that Madge and her cohorts attempted to drug James in the Irish version of the story. I’m not sure if I’d prefer my witch-administered pharmaceuticals via nightcap or squirrel soup, though.
The unguent used in both stories seems to be, basically, a flying ointment. In the version from Yeats, I would lean towards a mixture that uses amanita muscaria, but I base that almost entirely on the fact that the “red cap” is a key feature of the tale. It’s not unthinkable that such entheogens would grow on Roan Mountain, but it is a bit less likely. In both stories, the mixture is activated by the recitation of a short, rhyming phrase, which seems to be a common enough way to trigger witch-flight in many stories. In some tales, the non-witch makes a mistake, it causes some sort of comic misfortune, like being lifted up and dropped to the floor unexpectedly.
An interesting difference between the two tales comes during the heavy drinking portion of the tale (don’t all interesting things come during the heavy drinking portion of the tale?). In the Irish story, Red James never tries to go home once he starts drinking—he just passes out. Riley, in the American version, does try to leave (which is when he notices his body “felt like feathers or fur,” a sure sign of shape-shifting. Another difference worth noting is that in the Old World version, James knows his witch-lore and remains silent while in flight, but in the “Greasy Witches” variant, Riley has to say additional magical words while in flight to follow the Dobbs sisters. I’ve had a gifted witch tell me that when making a profound crossing like this, silence is better, and I trust that idea. But there’s clearly some flexibility, too.
The stories end quite differently, with Riley finally having to do what the witches have been manipulating him into doing the whole time: marrying one of them. Red James faces no such fate, but merely gets his red cap back and flies off at the last possible moment, avoiding his hanging in dramatic fashion. But they do both get away, and both with a little magical aid from witchcraft. It’s nice to know we witches are good for something other than breaking-and-entering, right?
I’m interested in your opinions on these tales. Is it all just metaphorical hedgewitchery? Do you think these sorts of events might have happened? And most importantly, do you think that as these stories evolve, anything is being lost or gained in the process? I personally love how much alike they are, but I also find myself pausing over the differences, too. What about you?
Thanks for reading!