Posted tagged ‘folktales’

Blog Post 195 – Old Betty Booker and Witch Bridles

July 13, 2015

John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781 – via Wikimedia)

Author’s Note: This post is largely based on material I gathered for an entry in the upcoming ABC-CLIO three-volume series, American Myths, Legends, & Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The views and lore presented here, however, do not explicitly reflect the views of that publisher, and are entirely my own.

American history—and more generally, legend—contains its share of witches. In most cases, we hear or read about a witch at the receiving end of a lot of harsh accusations: milk stealing, poisoning livestock, and so forth. Not infrequently, however, a witch’s story takes a slightly different turn, and she becomes something more like a protagonist than a villain, albeit one with shades of gray around her morals. One of the best examples of just such a story is from rural nineteenth-century Maine, and it tells of a woman named “Old Betty Booker,” who gets a bit of a raw deal from a local captain and brings the full brunt of her witchcraft to bear on him for a bit of gleeful justice. The account below is found in Benjamin Botkin’s collection, A Treasury of New England Folklore:

HOW OLD BETTY BOOKER RODE SKIPPER PERKINS DOWN TO YORK

These two skippers, Mitchell and Perkins, were both Kittery salts, but of the two Skipper Perkins was the worst curried. Old Betty Booker wanted some fish, and she suggested her need to the skipper, “Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper, when you git in—.”

“Show me your sixpence, ma’am,” was the thrifty reply.
And with an ill-boding scowl, and a shake of—
“Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And nose of a hawk, and eyes like a snake,”

She watched the skipper sail away. The sea beat him up and down. The gale tore his sails, and the fish sheered away from his trawls. His men got sick, and his schooner came home poorer than she went. Then it got bruited about that Betty Booker was making a witch-bridle for the skipper, and was going to ride him down to York some wild night, whereat, the skipper, when it came to his ears, got into a mortal terror. He was sure to be at home, always, before dusk; and his doors were barred double, and he quaked and shivered and shook until the sun came up. Finally Betty sent the skipper word that the first stormy night she would ride him to York…

[H]e waited for Betty Booker; nor was she long in coming. An unearthly wail came down the wind, and there was a scratching of a hundred witch-claws on his door, and above all sounded the cracked notes of Betty Booker’s voice—

“Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper!”…

With the cry of the hag, the gale rose higher, and with rougher buffetings it smote the old door that was built to look out on the sea; and then it began to open so the skipper felt a spatter of rain on his face. He heard the wild chatter of the witches, but he still held to his pushing, until he felt himself sliding along the rough floor. He made a leap for his bed, winding himself about in its coverings; the door flew open and in trooped the witches. They pounced upon the skipper, and stripped him to his skin; and while he cowered in his fear, old Betty bridled him and got upon his back, while the other witches climbed upon hers, and off they raced through the gale to York Harbor. When he lagged, they pricked him with their claws to make him go faster; and so they rode him as long as they wished, to get him back to Kittery before cock-crow, more dead than alive.

“Don’t say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again,” was Betty booker’s parting admonition, as she and her familiars vanished into the mists of the darkest part of the night.

After that the skipper took to his bed, where for three weeks he nursed his wounds and told his story to his neighbors.

Botkin reports that the legend of Old Betty Booker may have been in some part based in real witchcraft performed in the York area, or at least in the practice of regional and maritime folk magic. He notes that one of the Kittery houses was torn down and inside a “witch-bridle” was found, composed of horsehair, tow, and yellow birch. Witch-bridles were thought to be a tool essentially similar in design a horse’s bridle, which a witch could slip over the head and into the mouth of a person or animal to force it to do her bidding. Accounts from both sides of the Atlantic describe situations in which witches use the bridles to force someone (or in some instances, a neighbor’s horse or other livestock) to become a mode of transport for the witch. Belief in witch-bridling was widespread during the Colonial era, and the phenomenon even appeared during the infamous witch trials of Salem. As a mode of transportation, they are coequal to flying ointments and broomsticks in most accounts. In the collection of Irish folktales assembled by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, similar stories of spectral bridling pepper legends of witches. George Lyman Kittredge’s Witchcraft in Old and New England contains an account of a man bridled in the same way as Skipper Perkins. In almost all instances, the victim remains aware of what is happening throughout the ride, but his or her memories of the event quickly fade in the morning, leaving only bruises and a battered, weary body as proof of any supernatural occurrence. The folk phenomenon of “hag riding,” which has been linked to sleep apnea and sleep paralysis in modern medical diagnosis, may offer some explanations to the stories behind the malady, if one is inclined to make such connections (I personally tend to keep the two ideas only loosely connected for my purposes, and try not to make assumptions about medical conditions two centuries hence without at least entertaining the supernatural explanation with equal credence). A person under the influence of the witch-bridle felt no control of his or her body, but remained lucid and felt the pressure of someone on top of him or her. In the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis, sufferers report a feeling like a great weight on their bodies and an inability to control their limbs, which very much resembles the conditions described in the folklore (see Baughman motif G241.2 “Witch rides a person”).

Possibly my favorite element of the Betty Booker story is its clear assumption that Booker is not out of order for her treatment of Perkins. The story seems to recognize that Booker is in a vulnerable position in the community, and that Perkins is not doing his duty by acting in such a miserly way. Women like Old Betty provided social good in some ways, selling outbound sailors magical charms to raise winds or prevent drowning. For example, cords with knots tied in them could be used to raise winds on a becalmed ship, and dried cauls (amniotic sacs which sometimes surround a baby’s head after birth) taken from newborn infants were alleged to protect sailors from drowning. Widowed women and social outcasts were particularly susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft. In stories like that of Old Betty, witches were seen as a form of moral enforcement. The sailor’s miserly behavior goes counter to acceptable standards, and even the structure of the narrative seems to blame him for the misfortunes that follow. Maine witches in other stories often have righteous retribution as motivation for their occult activities. In one tale, a witch named Emma Alley gets slighted by a fish boat skipper in much the same way as Old Betty Booker, and curses him for his stinginess, which results in him not catching anything else for the remainder of the season.

Old Betty is associated with several other witches who lived in the “Brimstone Hill” area of Kittery, namely Mary Greenland and a woman named “Aunt” Polly Belknap. She may also have taken on other names during her tenure as resident witch, including Betsy Booker, Easter Booker (who is also referred to as Esther Booker and associated with a woman named Betty Potter, further adding to the confusion) or a character called “Black Dinah,” who reputedly used weather-pans in her magic and dowsed for buried treasure. According to George Alexander Emery, Old Betty’s home was on the land between Kittery and York, marked by “a stone wall extending north-west and south-east,” on which she and a companion raised a meager patch of vegetables and some chickens. An 1896 newspaper account from the Boston Evening Transcript recounts the Skipper Perkins story, but attributes the storm-raising and subsequent torments directed against the captain to a witch named Hetty Moye, and relocates the narrative to within fifty miles of Boston (to be fair, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820, so the fine line between one state and the other can be muddled in tales from the early-to-mid nineteenth century).

Witch Woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

None of this is to say that Old Betty comes out with a completely clean nose in all narratives. Other tales associate her firmly with diabolical activities. In one story, she allegedly dances with the devil out on the village green to fiddle music on moonlit nights. Additionally, witches were believed to have control over weather and storms by using devices such as “weather-pans,” which a sorceress would heat up over a fire to release a tempest out at sea.

In at least one account, however, I find it extremely heartening that a witch comes out very well, even dispensing a bit of needed justice without doing too much serious harm in the process. That seems much better than days spent stealing milk or blighting cattle, in my opinion, which are often ways in which a witch might express her ire in folklore. What do you make of Old Betty? Is she the sort of witch you would include in your spiritual ancestry as an American witch? Or do you see her story as just another sensational portrayal with a slightly positive twist?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES:

  1. Beck, Horace P. 1957. The Folklore of Maine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  2. Bliss, William Root. 1893. The Old Colony and Other Sketches. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  3. Botkin, Benjamin, ed. 1947. A Treasury of New England Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers.
  4. Dorson, Richard M. 1946. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
  5. Dorson, Richard M. 1964. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
  6. Emery, George Alexander. 1873. The Ancient City of Georgiana and the Modern Town of York (Maine) from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Boston: G.A. Emery.
  7. Gregory, Isabella Augusta, and William Butler Yeats. 1988. A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, & Folklore. New York: Gramercy.
  8. Kittredge, George Lyman. 1956. Witchcraft in Old and New England. New York: Russell & Russell.
  9. Muise, Peter. “The Witch Bridle: Ride ‘Em Cowgirl!” New England Folklore Blog. April 10, 2010.
  10. Sylvester, Herbert M. 1909. Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York. Boston: W.B. Clarke Co.

“Witchcraft Today: The Belief in Supernatural Feats in a New England Town.” Oct. 10, 1896. Boston Evening Transcript.

Podcast Special – Pushed

October 3, 2014

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – PUSHED

Summary
We begin our 2014 All Hallows Read scary story fest with this tale of bullying and revenge. Our focus this month is on urban legends, and be warned, things might get pretty scary.

Sources

I found versions of this urban legend here and here. The actual version I tell on the show is my own rendition of this story.

Play
Special Episode – Pushed

Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

Podcast 42 – Plants and Witchcraft

May 25, 2012

Summary
On this episode of New World Witchery, we look at the world of plants and how it affects the world of witchcraft. We talk about sourcing herbs and roots, wild vs. cultivated plants, and whether you need to work with them at all.

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 42

 -Sources-
We don’t cite a whole lot of sources, so I’m just going to list a few of the herbal books/resources we discuss or which I turn to regularly:

The Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham
Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, by Cat Yronwode
The Folk-lore of Plants, by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies, by Jude C. Todd, M.H
The Complete Book of Herbs, by Lesley Bremness
Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpepper
A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve (also known as botanical.com)

We mention Mountain Rose Herbs as a great source for buying herbs, and we make several failing attempts to recommend our shop, the Compass & Key Apothecary. You should also check out Sarah Lawless’s great herbal supply shop, Forest Grove Botanica.

You can now request Card Readings from Cory via email, if you are so inclined.

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!

 Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1 – Inciting a Riot
Promo 2 – The Infinite & the Beyond
Promo 3 – The Pagan Homesteader

Blog Post 150 – The Trickster’s Web

February 15, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of tricksters in folklore and fairy tales. I know it’s fairly well-trod ground to start looking at the mythical value of tricksters like Coyote and Loki and Hermes and all the other devious deities and demigods who so love to upend the orderly world in favor of a little creative chaos. I’m not going to dive into specific tricksters here (though I do intend to do some exploring of North American tricksters in the not too distant future), but I wanted to look instead at the folkloric need for these figures. After all, they’re not exactly protagonists, and they’re not exactly antagonists, but they are something else entirely. Their very identification and definition is tricky. So what is the trickster’s role in the tales we tell? According to Jane Yolen, author/editor of Favorite Folktales from Around the World:

“The figure of the trickster can be found in every folklore tradition. The trickster as hero or as god plays an important role: Anansi in Africa is sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, with definite supernatural powers. LIkewise his famous Native American counterparts, Coyote and Rabbit, act as both fooler and fooled….The German Tyll Ulenspiegel, a popular peasant jester, actually lived in the fourteenth century, but within another two centuries had become a legend around whose names volumes of anecdotes and jests had accumulated…Whether the trickster is an animal such as Brer Rabbit or Raven or the wily fox, or supremely human like the German master thief, he plays his tricks out to the end. And sometimes it is a bloody and awful ending” (From section “Tricksters, Rogues, & Cheats,” 127).

So then the trickster can be both a guide for overcoming adversity and self-empowerment, and he can be a sacrificial victim to fate—sometimes illustrating the tragically comic cycle of life and death we all must go through. In this latter capacity, the trickster attempts to operate outside the web of Fate (or natural order, if you prefer), and becomes deeply entangled in the threads he or she tried to avoid. I think here of Anansi, the spider, who in one tale learns of a magic spell which causes anyone who says the word “five” to drop dead on the spot and thus begins tricking various creatures to say that word so that he may eat them. Of course, the trick gets turned around on him, and he accidentally says “five” when a clever bird refuses to play by his rules, thus ending his own life. It is a storytelling picture of a spider weaving one web inside of another, only to be caught by the bigger web he didn’t see.

Why then do we need to have clever characters that can be so easily duped or destroyed? Do they play a similar role to folkloric devils, existing simultaneously as a threat and a challenge (and thus also functioning as teachers in some ways)?  I would assert here that when a trickster is overcome by his own tricks, it is because his deceit has crossed a line. Knowing how and when to play a trick is deeply important. Teachers understand that the process of discovery is very important to really gaining understanding as opposed to simply forcing short-term rote memorization (a topic we discussed in our recent podcast on riddles). I’ll get to the role of deceit a bit more in depth in a moment, but first let me briefly detour back to the ide of a trickster as an empowering figure.

Without diving too deeply into the sticky issues of what is “moral” in fairy and folk tales, I think it’s relevant to point out that concepts of “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” form central pillars around which many stories are built. At the same time, there remains an intense ambiguity about just about every “moral” decision in a fairy tale—the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” does seem to deserve to die, as she wants to kill and eat children, but is it a particularly happy ending for the children to return to a father who willingly (if reluctantly) abandoned them to that horrible ordeal? Bruno Bettelheim, in his controversial and classic fairy tale exegesis The Uses of Enchantment has this to say:

“Amoral fairy tales show no polarization or juxtaposition of good and bad persons; that is because these amoral stories serve an entirely different purpose. Such tales or type figures as ‘Puss in Boots,’ who arranges for the hero’s success through trickery, and Jack, who steals the giant’s treasure, build character not by promoting choices between good and bad, but by giving the child the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life” (10).

So then, the child, who knows intuitively that he or she is not as strong and capable in many ways as the adults around him or her, needs to understand that strength and physical skill are not the only methods for overcoming adversity. Brains count for something, too. For those of us who have outgrown the age of childhood (though you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me I’ve outgrown it in any way but the number of years shown on my driver’s license), that lesson can still be immensely invaluable. When we are faced with an ogrish boss or a monstrous task or a devilish choice, we need to believe that we have a tool in our arsenal that can beat the odds—and that’s where the trickster becomes more than a comical prop or sacrificial victim. As Bettelheim says, “Children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them” (28). We, too, as adults and as magical folk, deal with a number of dangerous situations all the time, and we must adopt the trickster’s cleverness if we hope to overcome the challenges we face in one piece. To illustrate this point, Bettelheim relates the tale of the “Fisherman and the Jinny” (one we’ve mentioned a lot), in which a fisherman is threatened by a genie that he releases and must trick him back into the bottle or be killed by him. The genie is clearly bigger and more powerful, and only by means of deviousness can the fisherman preserve his life.  If you want to lend a magical quality to your life, think about how often you bottle the genie of a ferocious argument with a lover or friend by a few carefully placed words or a well-timed gesture.

Still, one moral lesson that we so often teach our children (and one which we repeat to ourselves ad nauseum) is: don’t lie. Lies are bad. Always tell the truth. Except, of course, when you shouldn’t. And here we come to my last point of examination in the role of the trickster. In The Witch Must Die, scholar Sheldon Cashdan looks at lies and deceit by examining three fairy tales: “The Goose Girl,” in which lying is punished brutally when it is found out; “Rumpelstiltskin,” in which lies are accommodated and made true by the intervention of magic and/or fate; and “Puss in Boots,” in which trickery is rewarded because it is cleverly executed. What Cashdan uncovers by contrasting these stories is that trickery when performed for the sake of trickery is ambivalent, and when done in the service of another person (or a righteous cause) is praiseworthy, but deceit performed for the sake of harm to another must bring judgement or punishment down on the deceiver/trickster. As he puts it:

“[I]t is the intent behind the lie that counts rather than the lie itself. In other words, there may be instances in which telling lies is justified…These contrasting approaches to deception reflect the ambivalence people harbor about telling the truth. On the one hand, we know that lying is wrong. At the same time, it is hard, as Diogenes discovered, to find an honest man…In some fairy tales, lying is not merely treated with ambivalence but is actually rewarded” (140).

For an a magical practitioner, then, the power of the trickster is power that can be used reactively (to combat an attack or overcome an obstacle) or chaotic (to inspire the topsy-turvy energy that seems to surge up periodically in Nature), but if it is used offensively it must be justified. Willfully entrapping someone by magical means—and here I’d venture away from magic and say this principle extends to social behavior, too—has to have some solid reasoning behind it, or else the universe has a way of bringing its own justice down on the tricksy person who did the ensnaring.

What the trickster seems to say to me, then, is this: If you are a spider, spin for the beauty of your web; spin that you may catch the food you need; spin to keep your enemies away. But beware weaving the web of greed and harm, because there’s likely a bigger web you do not see, and a bigger spider who is very hungry dangling not far overhead.

Whew, enough philosophy, right? What are your thoughts on tricksters, especially as teachers? Do you agree about the idea of justification? Have you ever experienced a trickster in your own life or practice? Let us know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 148 – The Witch’s Ire

December 29, 2011

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!

-Cory


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