Butter Stealing Through Magic: Fears of an Agrarian Society

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Image 1: Jean François Millet Woman churning butter. Image 2: Ralph Hedley The Butter Churn 1897, wikimedia commons

Glassie (1999:41) describes Material Culture as being “the tangible yield of human conduct”. The element of human conduct I would like to investigate below is dairy production, specifically the superstitions associated with it, as well as the methods for stealing or the prevention of stealing. Dairy was for a very long time, as far back as we can trace, a very important part of the economy, especially when looking at rural areas. Cream, milk and butter paid to Lord as part of food rents (see Fergus Kelly “Guide to Early Irish Law” chapter on clientship). Both Old and middle Irish sources mention butter and it appears to have been considered a high status luxury food that could only be given to you depending on your status. Kevin Danaher (1969:99) describes Ireland as a land “flowing with milk” and he mentions an account by an English soldier from 1690 says that the Irish were the “greatest lovers of milk” he had ever seen. He mentions how they “eat and drink it above twenty several sorts of ways”. It would come as no surprise then, with claims such as these, that there is a rich and colourful tradition of folklore attached to dairy production. Below I will look at some of these traditions in relation to dairy production, specifically the production of butter. As churning was a common household chore, as well as the butter being an important source of dairy, especially during winter months, it was of the utmost importance to do as much as possible to prevent otherworldly forces from stealing it, and also with the milk it comes from.  Sometimes, when the butter did not ‘break’, supernatural interference was suspected as the reason for the milk not being turning into butter. In reality though, there were a number of reasons why butter would not come, ie temperature control, sterilisation issues and not separating the cream. Despite this, a number of tactics were adopted to help prevent this supernatural and malicious interference. For good luck, the lid of the churn could be spread with butter (unsalted) or have salt sprinkled on the lid to keep the fairies at bay. We also come across items being placed beneath the churn, such as hot coals or the shoe of an ass or horse (Iron and fire being common items of proven efficacy against supernatural forces and are well attested in the Irish corpus of folkloric material). There were also strict prohibitions against carrying out certain actions in the household as water not being allowed to leave the house, nor ashes be taken from the fire. Any person entering the house would have to “take a brash” (have a go off churning, to make sure they did not intend to steal any of the butter) and it forbidden to loan a churn (Rynne,1998:27). A number of these elements pop up in numerous accounts, a number of which can be seen below. There was a number of ways your milk or churn could be stolen. Either the cow was deprived of milk (by the evil eye overlooked, eyebitten) or the churn was ‘Blinked’ and the milk would yield no butter. Magic, ritual or medicine could also be used to cause this. Borrowing something from the house or byre such as burning turf, fire, freely given butter, a churn could allow people to place these enchantments and steal your butter or milk. They could also do this by putting something in the person’s house, such as butter, a butter substitute or metal implement which would enable them to magically transfer the profit to themselves.

 

Butter Stones

In a country with a rich tradition relating to sacred stones (such as ballaun stones, ogham stones, stones circles etc), it is no surprise that an everyday function as important as butter making would make it into the lore concerning sacred stones. These fascinating monuments are the so-called “butter stones”. These peculiar items are, from all outward appearances, essentially ballaun stones. These however have butter, or more specifically, butter stealing origins attached to them.  Since the nineteenth century, it has been surmised by some scholars that these were somehow a part of old dairies or involved in some folk magic practice to help with butter making. When the original use was lost ,then maybe the tales of transformation (that I will detail in a moment) then came into being to explain their unusual name (Zuchelli,2016:88). The tales of metamorphosis attached to them are similar to many folk tales of people being transformed, often into stone, generally for the transgression of some kind of geis or taboo. This of course is not unique to Ireland and is a common etiological tale explaining some feature of the landscape as having once been a person. Some examples of these butter stones here in Ireland are ‘St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps’  in Temple Feaghna, Co.Kerry and the ‘Butter Stone’ at St Peakaun’s Shrine in the Glen of Atherlow, Tipperary.

 

St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps: ( it is featured in the documentary here) Accounts from nineteenth century antiquarians tell us that people would visit the site around Easter times and turn the stones in the basin as the final ‘round’ on their pattern. The stones were considered to have healing properties and are also classified as ‘homing stones (meaning they will magically find their way back if taken) but local lore attributes there origin as ‘Butter stones’ to the sixth-century. Two different stories exist and we are told that the saint, Fiachna, either discovers that a women whom he had hired to work on his farm had been surreptitiously selling his butter at the market, or that an irate farmer complained about a woman who owned no cows but used charms to steal her neighbours profit. Whichever beginning you pick, the outcome is the same. Upon investigating the house of the woman he discovers her ill-gotten gains in the form of several rolls of butter. The vehement saint (hell hath no fury like an early Christian saint) turns the butter rolls and the wooden block they were on to stone (and later the women who is said to have been transformed into the nearby pillar stone), giving us the ‘Butter Lumps’ at the site today (ibid,87).

 

Butter Stone at Saint Peakaun’s Shrine: In older sources relating to this stone, we are told that the basins in the stone contained three, now lost, stones. One of these stones was said to be the Butter Stone. Newer sources now claim that the stone containing the basins, is itself the Butter Stone. The three distinctive depressions, the basins, are said to be from the fingers of a woman. The saint had visited a home of the woman who was engaged in butter making. He asked for food but was told nothing was available. The irate saint cursed the woman, turning the butter she was making into the stone, which still bears the print of her fingers (ibid:89).

 

“Gathering the Dew”           

In a common folktale (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3), we are told of a priest who encounters ‘an old hag’, a common, well attested, antagonist in tales of this nature that will be more than familiar to anyone who has read any stories relating to ‘butter stealing’. A common technique used by these so-called ‘hags’ is using a rope to ‘gather the dew’. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target. In this particular rendition we are not informed of the exact material of the rope, such as the rope woven on Mayday eve from the mane of a stallion without a single white hair found in another tale (Jenkins,1991:310-11) .we are also told elsewhere that “A woman who had the power had a rope made of hair”(NFSC,Vol.1038:362). So, in this instance involving the priest and the hag, the hag is using rope (although not said to be specifically made from hair) and chanting the words “all to me” (meaning that all the butter of the person she is stealing from would come to her). Here we are reminded of the divide between the lay and ecclesiastical belief system that often pops up in folktales. Most lay people, especially rural inhabitants would at once spot the actions of the ‘hag’ and would have known immediately what she was doing. The priest absentmindedly and jokingly says “and half to me” in response as he overhears her while passing by, only to discover more butter that usual in his own dairy next morning when he wakes up. Upon investigation, much more is discovered in the woman’s house. Her guilt in this case lying on the fact he she only owned a male goat, “leaving little doubt of her evil doings”. The tale also mentions that the townspeople took action to prevent her from doing the same in future, but as ominous as that sounds we are not informed of what this action was. As to people ‘taking action’ against the nefarious forces looking to steal their profit, I will explain further below. I will first however go further into the use of the rope as a method of stealing.

The act of stealing through the gathering of dew using rope is attested in a number of sources and was evidently a very pervasive belief. The process was more or less enumerated above and it is almost always associated with “the dark arts” or witchcraft. In most examples we see the physical act of dragging the rope coupled with an incantation, or charm, to the tune of “come all to me”. In one account in the NFSC we are told how “ In Ireland long ago…there were many kinds of stories of witchcraft and rascality (sic) of this kind told. The people in the locality not only believe them but would swear by them” (NFSC:Vol.1042:69). In an account titled “ The black art”, collected by Henry Glassie (Glassie,1986:193-4),  we are told by his informant, Hugh Nolan, that there were people who possessed this ‘black art’, which was “in the line of witchery” and was capable of taking milk from the cows. So, here we see that it was not only your butter that was in danger from being stolen, but that it could also be stolen at the source. Here again we see the same practice being employed, but it specifically states that it must be white, and in the shape of a rope. Hugh tells us how the milk would be transferred to the cows of the person carrying out the charm, and also that he believes that the rope was only “an accompaniment” to the spell, and that they needed “the charm of words that took the milk”. The exclusion of the charm here or the implication of it being unknown is no doubt just added to make the nature of the charm seem more esoteric and known only to those practitioners of these ‘dark arts’. He tells us of a case of how in his locality there was a person with only three cows that was producing more milk than another who had ten, clear evidence that they possessed this black art. These hags often had the ability to shapeshift into hares and in this guise we oft encounter them in folktales and accounts.

 

Hags as hares

This is a very old and persuasive belief and is by no means contained to just Ireland and is in fact found throughout Europe. In Ireland we have accounts of this dating back to the 12th century, given to us by the Cambro-Norman historian Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of wales) in his book “Topographia Hiberniae” (The Topography of Ireland). He says how it was believed in Ireland, Wales, Scotland about witches turning into hare to suckle the milk. This is mirrored in Irish sources, including in the laws. A 1586 (Brittania) account tells of “The Gaelic Irish believed that when a house was looked at through the shoulder-blade or bone of a sheep, and a spot or shadow appears in the middle of it , the owner of the house was a ‘wicked woman and witch’ who would next summer filtch away all their butter”. To counteract they would take some fire from the suspects house and look for “A hare amonst their heads of cattle on May-Day, they kill her, for they suppose she is some old trot , that would filch away their butter”. This also mentions a form  counter-magic: taking the thatch from above the door of the person who is stealing your butter and then burning it.  We also find an account from 1691 that mentions thatch but adds that anyone looking to “fetch fire” from them on May-Day was wicked— this of course follows through to modern day with the same belief found throughout the country. It is amazing to see the continuation of tradition, still fervently believed into the last century unchanged by modernity. As I mentioned, this phenomenon is not only found in Ireland but also throughout Europe. An interesting contrast is the Nordic tradition. The difference here is that instead of shapeshifting herself, the witch makes the creature. These “Milk-hares” were made by witches from various objects and can be sourced back to 15th century in church murals, witch trials and literature. In the Irish tradition the only way (in many cases) of injuring these shapeshifters is by shooting them with silver. If one were to follow the injured creature they would invariably find themselves following a blood trail to a house where they would find  and injured or dead old woman with wounds matching where the hare had been shot (there is a modern account of this collected by Michael Fortune. I will add the video here. It can be found from 1:41 onwards)

Lady Gregory*

(*note: Caution is advised when dealing with material from Lady Gregory and her friend W.B Yeats. The material below is found elsewhere in the folklore record so is likely genuine, but they are both prone to flights of fancy and prone to inventing Fakelore. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland is a reasonable resource due to the fact some of the material was actually collected by the author from people on her land, but it pays to be cautious). 

In lady Gregory’s book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, we get a short and concise section focusing on butter stealing. Here she tells us how to prevent “the others” (the good folk, daoine sídhe, fairies) from interfering with your work: “Sprinkle a few drops of holy water about the churn and put a coal of fire beneath it  (that you should always do), as was always done in the old time, and the others will never touch it” (Gregory:247).  In another account she is told of a woman who visited a wise woman to remedy the issue that day after day, no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to make butter. She was instructed to go to a running stream at sunrise and collect the water. After adding this to the milk while churning she ends up with rolls and rolls of butter, most likely her lost butter magically returning. Using water from a running stream often pops up in folklore and has many, often magical or healing properties, especially if it is taken from converging streams or streams that run on the boundaries of townlands. The fact it is collected at sunrise is also worth noting as this liminal time, not being either day or night, imbues the water with mystical properties (such as when morning dew is collected and believed to have healing capabilities). The final item in this section I would like to look at is the following quote:  “There was a Burke and he knew how to get it (butter) back out of some Irish book that has disappeared since he died”. Now what seems to be inconsequential at first glance, stood out glaringly to me. This “Irish book” brings to mind accounts that I have read of magical healing books often given to people by the fairies. These books are invariably written in the Irish language and filled with esoteric and otherworldly as well as terrestrial healing methods. Sometimes these are passed down the family line but they often disappear upon the death of the person they had been gifted to. Next I will move on to what is probably the most macabre element attached to butter stealing lore, the dead hand.

Dead Hand:

One of the strangest traditions you are likely to come across in relation to butter stealing is without a doubt the dead hand/ hand of glory. This was, as you can imagine from the name, a preserved hand from a corpse. The milk was churned using this preserved hand by stirring the milk with it. Some source say it has to be done 8-9 times accompanied by spells. An account from Co Longford tells us that you need to mix some of your intended victims milk with your own in order for it to work. The proto-folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker gives an account (early 1800’s) of one of these macabre hand’s being produced as false evidence in a court against an old woman (luckily for her the judge found that she was being framed).

This so called “hand of glory”, is made by drying or smoking the hand of a corpse to preserve it and if you could procure the hand of unbaptised infant, this was believed to be the most powerful version of this horrific magical device. As hideous and unspeakable this eerie talisman is (especially when viewed though the lens of modernity) it was not always used for malicious reasons. The hand is efficacious in cures when applied to the afflicted part of the body (although I’m not sure how bad one would have to feel to allow a desiccated hand to be rubbed on them). Another interesting use for it was the belief that it could also be used by someone who was committing a crime in the belief that it would render them invisible or help them evade capture. There is an interesting account where two thieves were apprehended in 1831 at loughcrew with a hand in their possession. An interesting tidbit found in the National Folklore Schools collection says the following: “If you go to the churchyard and take up a dead hand, take it home and clean it and leave it hung up behind the door it will take twice as much butter off the churning as you would get otherwise” (NFSC Vol.0267:070). Luckily there were a number of proven methods to stop people from stealing your profit. A number of these methods will be addressed next.

 

“Taking action”

To prevent your milk or butter from being stolen there were various safeguards you could employ to stop this from happening. People would have to be more vigilant on liminal days, such as mayday (described by Danaher as “a most important landmark in the Irish countryman’s year” (Danaher,1976:86)), when the threat of otherworldly forces was at it highest. It was a common practice of children on May eve to collect flowers to place on doorsteps, windowsills and in byres to protect the household and animals (ibid:86). These flowers can stop people with the power to ‘milk the dew’ by spreading them before the byre door on May-eve (NFSC, Vol.1038:362). These flowers were also tied, as a form of protection, to horns or tails of the cows or even to the churn dash itself (Danaher,1976:89). Hair can also be used for protection, with a hair spancel tied at the cow gap to prevent your cows being milked by fairies. Protection of the cows was also done by tying a red string to the tail after calving. This sort of protection was carried out because in many cases the cows of the people whose butter was stolen, went mad or got sick and died (Ní Bhradaigh, 1936:261).

Fire, salt and Iron are also Items that are efficacious in the prevention and nullification of these ill-boding forces, a factor that is not only confined to Ireland, but found in cultures across the globe. It would come as no surprise then that when looking at a profession that combines both fire and iron, that of a blacksmith, that they would feature in stories relating to the magical theft of butter or milk. Considering butter and butter making feature very prominently in Irish folklore it is no surprise that in my research I came across an account of a blacksmith who offered to help with “the cure” for butter stealing. The family in question were “black in the face” from trying to make butter. This cure involved the blacksmith having to make both a horse shoe and nails, both made by heating the iron in ‘different heats’ and placing them under the churn. The story then follows a  typical formula of the person who was stealing the butter is found in the form of a hare. It ends with everybody in the town getting their butter back (NFSC,IML.185:367-9). I found the inclusion of consulting the blacksmith in this story to be fairly unique as usually these types of tales involve a person just heating a piece of Iron and putting it into the milk to harm the person stealing the butter. In a society where butter stealing was a very real fear, I feel it speaks volumes about the status of the blacksmith in society due to the fact that he was consulted on in this matter in a situation like this. In another case where a blacksmith is indirectly involved in the cure, we are told how “among the locality there appears to have been a cure”. This involved a complicated ritual that got the butter back if “Worked properly”. The shoes for two male donkeys were to be “produced” (most likely from a blacksmith) and heated in a splendid fire”. This fire could have only red hot coals, no black sods of turf and there was to be no smoke in the room. As well as this the windows needed to be blinded and the door bolted. Similar to other tales where iron is used to dispel the evil force, the heated iron was to be placed inside the milk. One of the brothers had to hold the churn in its place to stop it from “jumping from place to place” in the kitchen. The ritual is “spoiled” though due to the door being opened but similar to other stories of this nature, we see that there has been a consequence of the hot Iron being placed into the milk. This action often has a direct effect on the person who is stealing the butter, and in this instance we see an old woman in the river next to house, splashing herself with water to cool down due to the heat generated from putting the red hot iron into the milk, and it affecting her in turn. She is identified as ‘being in league with the devil’ and being the one responsible for stealing the butter (NFSC:Vol.1042:69).

Diagnosis/cure:  the “witch” could be seen by wise man or victim by looking into a bowl of water.

There were 2 common rituals for the removal of the spell:

  • For the churn, it was linked to the hearth by the coulter and chains of the plough.
  • for milk supply of the beast, all openings of house blocked up. In a pot over the fire, new iron needles/pins placed into it with herbs and sometimes milk. Both these rituals were believe to bring the witch running in agony to make it stop begging that she will lift her own enchantment.

The connection to fire is also seen elsewhere with a prohibition on smoking and other lore associated with fire. I will address these next.

 

Smoking and fire related lore

In many areas there was a prohibition on smoking while the churning was taking place. The following examples illustrate this:

  • A man would not be let light his pipe whilst the woman of the house is churning (Volume 0095, Page 269). Mayo.
  • No one should smoke while churning (Volume 0705, Page 077). Meath.
  • If a person was making a churning and somebody was to go out smoking he was supposed to bring out the butter that would be in the churning with him. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030).
  • If a person comes in while you are churning and puts a coal in the his pipe and walks out without taking a hand at the churn, the churning will never be made until he comes back and puts back that coal under the churn. (NFSC Volume 0267, Page 070).
  • During the making of a churning, a live coal should not be taken from fire without being replaced by a [?] of turf. This is also to prevent the butter being taken. (NFSC Volume 0118, Page 48).

 

A few random pieces to finish

  • It is said that if a person puts a piece of a stick under the churn when churning it would keep the fairies from taking the butter. ( NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077).
  • You are not supposed to throw out water when making churning as it will bring the butter out with it. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030). *Proper disposal of water can be traced back to medieval times (cf . Eachtra Nerai, 12th century eachtra type tale and also the more modern practice of shouting “watch out” when throwing water out the door to alert and fairies in the vicinity so as not to anger them).
  • If there is thunder while the churning is made the butter will be white ( NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32).

 

In conclusion, we have seen just a brief selection of the lore attached to the everyday practice of dairy production. It is no surprise given the importance of both milk and butter to both the households economy and diet that there would be a wealth of superstitions relating to their production and that we would find a vast corpus of methods in preventing the stealing of these commodities, finding the culprits involved and the eventual return of the lost ‘profit’. The fact that these folk magic practices, whether they be the malicious ones for stealing or the apotropaic ones to avert the malevolent forces, remained in wide use up to the middle of the last century stands testament to  very real belief people had in these methods. Thank you for making it to the end of a relatively lengthy piece. Don’t forget to follow on facebook to keep up to date @  https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

Originally written as part of the Material Culture Module by Dr Clíona o Carroll of the UCC Folklore and Ethnology Department and handed in as class assignment.

 

 

Bibliography

Bealoideas 48/49.

Britannia (1586).

Carey, J. (1999) A Single Ray of the Sun, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth.

Danaher, K. (1969), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier press, Cork.

Glassie, H. (1999) Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gregory.A, Beliefs and Visions in the West of Ireland.

Jenkins, R. (1991), Witches and Fairies: Supernatural Aggression and Deviance among the Irish Peasantry, in P. Naráez (ed), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays

Location: Gortnacart Glebe, Co. Donegal.

NFC,IML.185:367-9, Patrick Fitzsimons (55), Postman and farmer, Rosehill, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Collector: P.J.Gaynor, 27th of January 1942.

NFSC Volume 0094, Page 474.

NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030.

NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32.

NFSC Volume 0199, Page 066.

NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077.

NFSC, Vol.0101:540, Informant: Sarah Mc Cormack, 48, Address, Rocksborough South, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Pádraig Pléimeann, School: Ceathrú Clochar, Location: Rocksborough South, Co. Mayo.

NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.

NFSC, Vol.1038:362.

NFSC, Vol.1038:362.

NFSC, Vol.1038:363, Teacher: Eamonn De Faoite, School: Urbal, Banagh, Killaghtee, Co Dún na Gall, 1938.

NFSC, Volume 0088E, Page 14_017

NFSC, Volume 0095, Page 269

NFSC, Volume 0107, Page 477.

NFSC, Volume 0108, Page 030.

NFSC, Volume 0118, Page 48.

NFSC, volume 0267, Page 070.

NFSC, Volume 0705, Page 077

NFSC, Volume 0773, Page 073.

NFSC,Vol.1038:362

NFSC:Vol.1042:69, Informant: Joseph Maguire, 60, Farmer, Clonconwal, Co.Donegal, Teacher: León Ó hÚallaigh, Gortnacart (roll number 15554),

Ní Bhrádaigh, C. (1936), Folklore of Co.Longford, Bealoideas, Iml. 6, Imh 2, December 1936, Cumann Le Bealoideas Éireann.

Rynne, C. (1998) At the Sign of the Cow: The Cork Butter Market, 1770-1924, Collins Press, Cork.

Topigraphica Hibernica.

Witchcraft and magic in Ireland.

Zuchelli, C. (2016) Sacred Stones of Ireland, Collins Press, Cork.

The Folklore of May-Day/ Bealtaine

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The 1st of May brings us to the start of summer and one of the most important cross-quarter days (being between the solstices and equinoxes) in the Irish calendar. May-day, like many festivals of its kind has no shortage of traditions attached to it. Also, similar to Samhain, it is considered an extremely liminal time where influences from the otherworld can be a genuine threat. The May festival, or Bealtaine in Irish, is also a time when the fairies, or Sídhe, are thought to be especially active. It is traditionally considered a fire festival so bonfires are an integral part of it (the name Bealtaine is believed to mean “bright Fire” and like many other festivals it has its origins in pagan times) .  Many of the traditions associated with the festival are concerned with protection against the otherworldly forces. As this was a time when cattle would be put out to pasture, many of the superstitions (for lack of a better word) of May-day are related to butter production and protection of the animals. In the course of this article I will be looking at some of them and will be drawing examples mostly from the National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter listed as NFSC).

 

Butter Stealing, Witches and Hags as Hares

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woman churning butter (1897)

As I mentioned above, a particular fear on May-day was that witches were roaming about to steal the milk and butter from households. As milk and butter were not only an important part of the house-hold economy, but also the diet, the fear of it being stolen supernaturally was a huge threat to the livelihood of the house for the coming year. There are charms for both protecting against butter stealing and also forms of sympathetic magic to steal the butter. This magic allowed the person who cast it to gain all the efforts of the other persons churning, while the person actually churning would get nothing but froth.

 

Ruby Stronge gives a story of this witchcraft in the NFSC. She tells us how: “Long ago, on May morning, lots of old women went out in the morning before the sun arose and swept the dew of the grass by pulling a long rope after them and calling, “Come all to me, Come all to me.” This was a kind of witch craft [sic], taking away butter of other people’s milk. One May morning, a man was going along the road with his horse and cart to the bog. He happened to see this old woman pulling at the rope and saying, “Come all to me.” He jumped out of the cart and ran over and cut a piece of the rope and brought it home and threw it in a barrel. A short time afterwards, he went to the barrel to look for the rope and to his great surprise, the barrel was full of butter”.

The rope that is mentioned collecting the dew is the form of sympathetic magic I spoke of earlier. As the dew is collected by the rope, it represents the butter that is being stolen from whoever the spell is cast against. It was most likely the land of the person it was being stolen from that the witch was on in the first place.

Hag as a Hare

72688d6b3243ac4c951bab1bbdb60ff0.jpgWhen it comes to witches stealing butter, one of the most prevalent forms that the story or account takes is in the form of the shapeshifting hag who transforms into a hare. They are quite often impervious to normal weapons as Mrs. Elis tells us in the NFSC: “when she was in that shape she could only be shot with a silver sixpence” (NFSC, Vol. 0949: 092). This element of the story pops up numerous times in the folklore tradition. Another story, told by a collector’s grandfather tells of a man seeing a hare every morning in the field by the cow. When the cow stopped giving milk he got suspicious. He decided to kill the hare and gathered a group of men and hounds. They tried to shoot the hare, but to no avail. The shotgun pellets would not harm it. When attempting again the next day the man had quicksilver in his gun and manged to break the hare’s leg. When they followed it back to a house they found an old woman there with a wounded leg. They refused to kill her because she was an old woman. A month later when she died the cow started giving milk again (NFSC, Vol. 0950: 366).

There was a genuine threat felt by the people in terms of hags in the form of hares. The larger National Folklore Collection is littered with accounts of people who remember patrolling the fields with their fathers with shotguns loaded with silver sixpences on May eve to shoot any trespasser, especially if a hare was seen, showing that this was far beyond just being part of the story telling tradition. It is quite often in the tales with the “hag as hare” motif that when the injured hare is followed back to a house which it enters, an old woman is found injured inside in the same manner as the hare was. This injury isn’t always as a result of silver as we see in the next example:

“There was once a woman who lived in the district and she was supposed to have the ‘evil eye’. One day she was supposed to turn into a hare. When she was going in through her window a dog caught her leg and hurt it. The next day she was {found} in bed with a sore leg” (NFSC, Vol. 0946: 094).

Flowers

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Hawthorn bloom

The collection of flowers was another important custom. The most common custom was the collecting of flowers and making them into posies. Usually they were gathered before dusk on May Eve but sometimes the tradition held that they should be collected before dawn on May Day (Danaher, 1972: 88). It was also a custom to tie flowers to the bridles of horses, the tails or horns of cows and also to milk churns/dashes. The flowers picked were usually yellow in colour as this was the colour of most of the available flowers in bloom at this time (such as primroses, furze etc.). Decorating in this fashion served both a protective and festive function. In the Schools Collection we find the following story in relation to the May flowers:

 

“There is a lot of customs connected with May-Day. The first and most important of those old Irish customs, was the scattering of May flowers on the threshold [of the house]. Long, long ago before the light of Christianity brightened this once pagan land, our forefathers believed that in each woodland flower there lived a tiny fairy who could throw a spell of enchantment on any person who held it. The May flowers were supposed to be the tiny golden mansions of good luck. The reason then for scattering the flowers on each doorstep is that the inhabitants of the fairy mansions may shower an abundance of good luck on the entire household. Another reason was to save them from witchcraft of the “cailleachs” or the old hags, who were supposed to go from house to house on May morning stealing butter and milk from the churns. Any person who did not have the fairies of good luck guarding their thresholds when the cailleachs came along, all their efforts at churning would be useless for the following year. They were supposed to battle with the fairies of good luck on the doorstep but the fairies always won the combat” (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 236).

In the province of Munster it was more common to bring a “May bough” instead of flowers into the house. These were small branches of newly leafed trees (Danaher, 1972: 89). These served the same purpose as the flowers, to guard against ill-luck and evil influence, especially in the case where a branch of mountain ash was used. They would be placed on windows, doors, roofs etc., all places that would be at risk of these malevolent forces entering the house. According to local customs that varied per region as certain growths (such as Blackthorn, Whitethorn, Elder, Broom etc.) may or may not be considered auspicious to bring inside of the house.

As to the witches mentioned in the butter stealing segment, one informant in the NFSC tells us how: “On May Eve, people put May flowers on the doors and windows and the out-houses to keep away the witches”. (NFSC, Vol. 1033:174)

 

May-bush

DSC_1038.jpgAnother form of protection commonly used against the malevolent forces, be they of the sídhe or otherwise, at this liminal time is the May bush. Like most other traditions this can vary in popularity per region. The practice was to get a branch of a flowering bush and decorate it with ribbons, cloth, eggs shells etc. In terms of decoration with eggshells, the egg shells collected from Easter Monday were especially prized for decoration (Bealoideas 9, 1939:929). An example can be seen in the photo of my own May-bush above. Again the species of bush used varied. For my example I used Hawthorn, the bush traditionally associated with the sídhe, often known as fairy bushes.

As the May bush was also concerned with luck in some areas people tried to steal other May-bushes in the belief that they could steal away the luck. (Danaher, 1972: 92). Thankfully with a resurgence of interest in the field of folklore and also with a rise in the number of people wanting to connect with the traditions of their ancestors, this is one of the many customs that has seen a revival.  There are now a number of towns and schools that decorate May-bushes each year. If you would like to watch a video of May-bushes being decorated check out the video by Michael Fortune here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-Sm9ZryHNI .

There are other accounts of people putting unadorned bushes outside their house from the middle of the 16th century (to bring an abundance of milk for the year), but from the 17th century we see accounts of the decorated variety. The description from Sir Henry Piers (1682) bears a striking resemblance to the more modern accounts of the May-bush. The account goes as follows:

“On May Eve every family sets up before their house a green bush, strowed over with yellow flowers, which the meadows yield plentifully. The May bush was a branch or clump of some suitable tree or shrub, among which Whitethorn was the most popular, which was cut down and brought home…It was decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and other bright scraps of material. In some places garlands of egg-shells were hung on it; often these were the coloured or decorated shells of Easter eggs that were saved by the children. Sometimes rushlights or candles were attached to the bush at May Eve” (Piers.H,1682).

In William Wilde’s account in Irish Popular Superstitions, he tells us how “it was erected several days before the festival and was illuminated every night” but also claims that it was erected in “some green or common, or at cross-roads, or in the market place in the town” (Wilde, 1852: 60). He makes no mention here of them being erected in each household but it is interesting to note that they were placed at cross-roads, places that are oft associated with the supernatural. As well as the connection of converging roads with the supernatural we will also see how converging streams played a part in May-Day rituals.

Other Traditions and Customs

Water: Although Bealtaine is traditionally thought of as a fire festival, water also played a prominent role. Mrs. Rutledge tells us how:” All young maidens go to a spot where 3 streams converge and wash their faces in the water to bring them good luck for the year and to keep them from being sunburned during the summer. Also, the person who carries the first can of water from the well will also have good luck for the year” (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 237). Washing the face in the dew at dawn was a common belief and the dew itself was considered magical due to its nature of just appearing on the grass and as we have seen, it could be used for bad as well as good (such as in the witch stealing butter that was mentioned earlier). It is thought to be more effective at dawn as it is a boundary/ liminal time (Not quite day or night).

Weather:  Since May-Day is traditionally considered to be the first day of summer, signs of the weather, the appearance of the sky and of the May moon, strength and direction of the wind and the amount of rain were all carefully noted on this day as indications of the coming weather. For example: a cold east wind or a touch of frost was an ominous sign of hard things to come (Danaher,1972:88).

Work: One should not sail, dig, whitewash or bathe on May Day. This is either explained as either a reluctance to engage in any activity which might seem to have a magical purpose or to avoid anything that could be dangerous at a time where bad luck or evil influence might prevail (Danaher,1972:88).

Other superstitions: People never gave butter or milk away on May-Day because they feared bad luck. The man of the house would go get a branch of mountain ash and place it in the manure heap. This was to guard the cows and keep them from harm. Salt was never leant or given away (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 237). Long ago it was customary not to put out the ashes from the hearth, or sweep the floor on May-Day (NFSCVol.0235:235).

I hope you enjoyed this quick selection of the many traditions concerned with this major festival and turning point in the Irish calendar. I hope you found this look at our old traditions as fascinating as I did while researching it. Why not decorate your own May-bush, make your own May-flower posie or garland, or leave an offering out for the Sidhe? Make it a yearly tradition and get your friends, family, or even better your children involved. Because it is with the next generation that the fate of these traditions lie.

 

Bibilography:

 

Bealoideas ix, 1939.

Danaher.K (1972), The Year in Ireland, Mercier press.

NFSC,Vol.0147:558, Collector: Bridgie McHale, Knockmore.

NFSC,Vol.0927:114.

NFSC.Vol.0235:235, Collector: Nan Rutledge, Boyle, Co.Roscommon, Informant: Mrs.McLoughlin.

NFSC.Vol.0235:237, Collector:, Nan Rutledge, Informant: Mrs.Rutledge.

NFSC.Vol.0946:094, Collector: Mary McGinnity, Derrynawilt, Roslea.

NFSC.Vol.0949:092, Collector:Paddy Ellis, Drumlillagh, Co.Monaghan, Informant: Mrs.elis.

NFSC.Vol.1033:174, Collector: Ruby strong, Dronmore,Co.Donegal.

Wilde.W (1852), Irish Popular Superstitions.