Tuesday's Tales - Irish tales

What I never appreciated about Ireland is that the country, even in ancient times, was never repeatedly overrun by foreigners, which means that it’s been easier for it to preserve the old forms of expression.  Also, the Irish language appears to have its roots in the East.  I guess that's why Irish tales have their own unique, otherworldly charm, so different to other European tales.

According to Sacred Texts: “Philologists … affirm that the Irish language is nearer to Sanskrit than any other of the living and spoken languages of Europe; while the legends and myths of Ireland can be readily traced to the Far East, but have nothing in common with the fierce and weird superstitions of Northern mythology.

The Horned Women

A rich woman sat up late one night carding and preparing wool as the rest of the household lay asleep.  Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and a voice called, “Open!”

“Who is there?” said the woman of the house.

“I am the Witch of the one Horn,” came the answer.

The mistress, believing she’d misheard and supposing that it was one of her neighbours requiring assistance, opened the door.

A woman entered, having in her hand a pair of wool carders, and bearing a horn on her forehead, as if growing there.  She sat silently by the fire, and began to card the wool in terrible haste.  Suddenly she paused, and said, “Where are the women?  They delay too long.”

Then there was another knock at the door, and a voice called, “Open!”

The mistress felt somehow compelled to rise and open the door.

Another witch entered, having two horns on her forehead, and in her hand was a wheel for spinning wool.  “Give me place,” she said, “I am the Witch of the two Horns.”  Then she too began to quickly spin.

And so the knocks went on, and more witches entered until at last twelve women sat around the fire, each with one more horn than the last who had twelve horns.  And they carded the thread, and turned their spinning wheels.

They spoke not a word to the mistress of the house, but all sang together an ancient rhyme.  Strange to hear, and frightening to look upon, were these twelve women with their horns.

The mistress felt near to death; but when she tried to rise and call for help, she could not move nor utter a word, for the spell of the witches was upon her.

Then one of them called to her in Irish.  “Rise, woman, and make us a cake.” Then the mistress searched for a vessel to bring water from the well that she might mix the meal and make the cake, but she could find none.

And they said to her, “Take a sieve and bring water in it.”

She took the sieve and went to the well, but the water poured from it, and she sat down by the well and wept.  Then a voice came to her and said, “Take yellow clay and moss, and bind them together, and plaster the sieve so that it will hold.”

This she did, and the sieve held the water for the cake.

Then the voice said, “Return, and when you come to the north angle of the house, cry loudly three times and say, ‘The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire.’” And she did so.

When the witches heard the call, they cried out, and rushed forth with wild lamentations and shrieks, and fled to the mountain, their chief abode.

The Spirit of the Well, for that was whose voice it was, bade the mistress to prepare her home against the enchantments of the witches if they returned.

To break their spells, she sprinkled water in which she had washed her child’s feet (the feet-water) outside the door on the threshold.  Then she took the cake which the witches had made in her absence, of meal mixed with the blood drawn from her sleeping family, and she broke the cake, and placed a tiny bit in the mouth of each sleeper, and they were restored.  Then she took the cloth they had woven and placed it half in and half out of the chest with the padlock.  Lastly, she secured the door with a crossbeam fastened in the jambs, to prevent them entering.  Then she waited.

She did not have long to wait, for the witches soon returned, in a rage and calling for vengeance.

“Open, open!” they screamed.  “Open, feet-water.”

“I cannot,” said the feet-water, “I am scattered on the ground, and my path is down to the Lough.”

“Open, open, wood and trees and beam!” they cried to the door.

“I cannot,” said the door, “for the beam is fixed in the jambs and I have no power to move.”

“Open, open, cake that we have made and mingled with blood!” they cried again.

“I cannot,” said the cake, “for I am broken and my blood is on the lips of the sleeping children.”

Then the witches rushed through the air with great cries, and fled back to their mountain, uttering curses on the Spirit of the Well.  But the woman and her household were left in peace, and a mantle dropped by one of the witches in her flight was kept hung up by the mistress as a sign of the night’s awful contest.  And it is said that this mantle was in possession of the same family from generation to generation for five hundred years after.