Or, Why Witches Cast Curses & Steal Milk
Until relatively recently, most stories about witches in folklore and literature did not portray them as intensely helpful, benevolent creatures in touch with the natural world and working on behalf of cosmic balance. Fairy queens, enchantresses, and other witch-types did perform beneficient acts, of course (think of the benevolent fairies of “Sleeping Beauty” or the kindly-but-righteous “Mother Holle”), but one had to be careful not to run afoul of their temper or risk angering others of their kind. And acts of benificience performed for one person could easily result in tragic consequences for another (think here of Medea’s sacrifice of her own brother to save her beloved Jason). When most people think of witches, though, they are imagining the wicked kind, the one working curses on unsuspecting victims or blighting crops or summoning up armies of flying monkeys to steal flashy footwear.
Today I thought it would be worth looking at just why witches in stories—particularly New World tales—might be doing such heinous deeds. What did people do to get on the witch’s bad side, and what could be done to remedy that problem? Let’s start by looking at a story from S.E. Schlosser’s American Folklore site, about a New Jersey witch named Moll DeGrow. You can read the full story at her site, but the basic idea is that DeGraw (who may or may not have folkloric connections to Maryland witch Moll Dyer) was an evil witch, who “took delight in the misery of others, and made things miserable for the folks living near her. If a neighbor slighted her, she would sour their milk. If anyone called her a witch, she made their dogs turn vicious.” She reportedly causes all manner of calamity, including the use of spectral hellhounds to torment a family which speaks ill of her and magically slaying a number of infants from families against whom she bore a grudge. “When she was accused by a hysterical mother of causing the death of her baby girl, Moll DeGrow just laughed and didn’t deny it.” When the townsfolk collect themselves to go and kill her, they find she is already dead, her corpse grinning cruelly at those who find it, and her ghost lingering on to haunt the area.
DeGrow’s story may seem essentially like a cut-and-dry case of wicked witchery, but perhaps the townsfolk aren’t the only victims here. Kieth Thomas, in his excellent essay “The Relevance of Social Anthropology to the Historical Study of English Witchcraft” (found in Elaine Breslaw’s Witches of the Atlantic World) makes a strong case that in most accusations of witchcraft, the alleged witch almost always acted in a roundabout form of self-defense, taking justice into her own hands when necessary and using one of the few tools at her disposal—magic—to effect real change on her own behalf. “Contemporaries were horrified by the witch’s activities,” Thomas says, “But they seldom denied that she had genuine reason for wishing ill upon her victim” (66). Thomas then goes on to point out that in many cases, the ‘witch’ in question was known to her accusers, and her persecutors frequently had turned away a request for aid in a time when the interdependence of a community was a nearly sacred bond. “The requests made by the witch varied, but they were usually for food or drink—butter, cheese, yeast, milk, or beer…They are not to be confused with simple begging. Rather, they illustrate the breakdown of the tradition of mutual help upon which many English villages communities were based” (67). So in the context provided by Thomas, a witch was a victim—even a begrudgingly acknowledged one—within the social rules of her community. With that in mind, let’s look at the story of Moll DeGrow again.
In the DeGrow tale, the witch may have taken delight in the misery of her neighbors, but every instance of her wreaking havoc follows upon some perceived injury—a slight which led to sour milk, an accusatory epithet which led to animal bewitchment. And her grudge against local families must have been severe if she unleased death on their households. What exactly had they done to her? Of course, DeGrow may also be innocent of the last and most heinous of these acts, as she never admits guilt but merely “laughed and didn’t deny it.” Considering how often I’ve laughed in uncomfortable situations, I cannot help but wonder if maybe a little bit of shock and a lot of disbelief might not have been at play in that strange episode (that is, of course, all speculation on folklore, so please enjoy it with a hefty grain of salt).
With a worldview in which a wicked witch is merely fighting back against those who have done her wrong (or done those she loves wrong, as a mama witch is probably one of the scariest people a young beau can face), let’s look at a few cases of seething sorcery from other New World sources. The book Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau, by N.D.P. Bivens, uses a format in which a supplicant comes before the Voodoo Queen Marie (here a sort of witchy godmother) to redress some injustice and gain his or her heart’s desire. Here are a couple such cases:
THE LADY WHO WISHED TO CROSS HER ENEMIES
Oh good mother I come to you with my heart bowed down and my shoulders drooping and my spirits broken. For an enemy has sorely tried me. Has caused my loved ones to leave me, has taken from my worldly goods and my gold. Has spoken meanly of me and caused my friends to lose their faith in me. On my knees I pray to you a good mother that you will cause confusion to reign in my enemies house and that you will cause hatred to be on my enemies head and that you will take their power from them and cause them to be unsuccessful (8).
TO CONTROL TROUBLESOME NEIGHBORS
Oh dear Mother I come unto you to tell you of my unsettled mind and my grave troubles. There is some one who lives near me, but who has no neighborly love for me nor anyone else, but is only full of selfishness and of a mean mind and makes continual trouble for everyone who lives close near and around me, so that there is a continuous strife and wailing wherever that person may be. When I pass near their place of living they at once utter mean words loud enough so that they will reach my ears, in order that I may stop and say to them mean words in return so that this will lead to a court scrape and that the men of the laws may interfere with me, also when any of my loved ones pass the place wherein they live. Then again slander reaches their ears so that there shall be no peace in the neighborhood. When anyone comes to visit the place where I live they lie in wait for them until they come out and words of blasphemy and reproach reach their ears. Can you not in your great wisdom tell me which evil spirit makes them successful in their work of the devil so that I may hope to protect my home and my loved ones and in the end attain peace of mind (26).
In both situations, the victim is obviously the supplicant (though we only get the supplicant’s point of view, of course, a detail worth noting). In both cases, the supplicant appeals to the powers of witchcraft and conjure to fix the problem, and the prescribed solutions to fit these circumstances are not the gentle type (the latter story results in something like an intense hot-footing charm). Again the idea of neighborly duties are inverted, with the supportive role transformed into a grotesque exercise in social ostracism. In such a situation, a little manipulative spellwork hardly seems unjustified. Reacting to an enemy is not the same thing as offensive magic, and in both cases the supplicant likely could perform countermagic with a clean conscience.
There are numerous other tales of witches who receive the short end of the stick in life and take it out on their callous neighbors, such as:
- The tale of Granny Lotz in The Silver Bullet, an elderly woman whose neighbor “got after” her about forgetting to close her gate, which allowed his cattle to get loose. Because he ignores her age and persecutes her (a point the story makes as a mark against him), she bewitches his cows to give bloody milk (Davis 35).
- A pair of stories entitled “How Witches got Milk and Butter” and “The Milk Witch of Wood County,” from Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. In both tales the witches are portrayed as poor members of the community who keep their families fed and healthy by magically stealing milk from neighbors. In neither case do neighbors take any relatilatory action, however, recognizing that the theft is occasional and non-debilitating, and that they witches seem to need it more than the dairymen do (Gainer 167-8).
- Two stories in Ozark Magic & Folklore tell about witch-theft, too. In one case, two women “who lived all alone in a nearby farm” managed to siphon off milk from neighbors’ cattle using an enchanted dishcloth. In another story, a woman refuses to sell some ducks (at a low price, admittedly) to a reputed witch, who tells her the ducks will be dead by the following Monday. Sure enough, the ducks die, and the witch is blamed for the deaths (though it could be argued, of course, that the witch merely knew about the impending deaths and wanted to get some ducks on the cheap, ensuring a positive outcome for both parties, but that is certainly not implied by the story) (Randolph 270-1).
None of this is to say that a witch’s ire was fairly earned. In fact, most illustrations of such cases seem to side emotionally with the victims, even when recognizing the marginalized and abused position of the witch. The witch is thought to overreact, bringing death and destruction in turn for slights and offenses. She, too, neglects her neighborly duties by neglecting social norms in many ways within these tales. Yet it is worth remembering that keeping on a witch’s good side is possible in every version of these tales, and frequently it seems that only those who deliberately set out to poke a sleeping dragon truly get bitten. The central message of all these tales seems to be, “Don’t make the witches angry; you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.”
Of course, if you happen to know your own counter-curses and spells, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. When magical workers earn the ire of one another…well, that’s a post for another day, I think.
Thanks for reading!