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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Irish Folklore: The Witch Revealed

It's common to oppose a modern sensibility to a pre-modern one by saying that the pre-modern worldview ascribed misfortune to personalities, and the modern ascribes many of the same sorts of misfortunes to impersonal forces. The classic example is disease, which was often said to be caused by witch craft or the evil eye, but is now said to be caused by tiny, invisible creatures that invade our bodies and use us as spawning grounds.

Where was I?

Ah, Ballymenone, right on the border of Ireland's North and south. The folklorist Henry Glassie did more than a decade of fieldwork there, the results of which were books such as All Silver and No Brass, about a Christmas mumming; Irish Folktales; and Passing the Time in Ballymenone. In that last one (actually, not his last book on Ireland--in 2005 he published The Stars of Ballymenone; we'll get to that one soon) he included the following story told by Hugh Nolan:
There was a shortage of milk being gotten from the local cows, so the folks of Ballymenone decided to watch the field at night to see if anything was causing it. They knew that people whose cows weren't producing enough were apt to go to a neighbor's cows at night to milk them. So they armed themselves.
They didn't see any people, but at a late hour there came a hare along, and the hare started sucking on a cow's teat. They waited until the hare had moved away from the cow (so as not to harm their own beast), and one of them took a shot, hitting the hare.
The next day, they noticed a woman walking around, bandaged from what appeared to be a gunshot wound.
That's a common type of story, with the injury from the night before revealing the identity of a criminal or witch. It's often told of butter theft, too. It's interesting that Nolan's tale, which I have paraphrased, doesn't include any reference to what the community does as response to learning there's a witch in their midst. Often the tales tell us that she's run out of town. And quite often it's a cat, not a hare.

There's a silver-age Superman story in which Lois Lane notices that Superman's hand is injured, and she seeks out Clark Kent to once again try and prove their identity. I don't seem to have the issue handy, but it's in one of those Showcase Presents volumes.

We generally don't ascribe hardship such as a paucity of milk to witches nowadays. But that worldview isn't entirely gone.

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