Emerald Isle

The Horned Witches

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Terrifying visitors come knocking in The Horned Witches

Strange are the ways of the Fairies of Ireland, and strange the look about them, but for all their wild and untamed manner they follow rules written in the ripples of willow-branches on still ponds, and laws murmured by the echo of birdsong in deep wells.

Once there was a woman sitting in her cottage, a humble enough abode, and she was making wool by the fire as women used to do, for it would fetch a fine price at market and help to buy butter and meat for the Sunday dinner, when she heard a thundering knock at the door.

“Open up and let me in,” cried a voice like cracking glass.

“Who's there?” asked the woman of the house.

“I am the witch of the one horn!” came the response. Puzzled but smiling a little, for she thought one of her neighbours was playing a Samhain joke a few days early, she laid aside her work and opened the door.

A woman came in, but an odd sort of woman, with skinny legs longer than her body which stepped slowly yet quickly like a spider, lank and matted grey hair, and a face hidden behind it from which two beady eyes glittered. But most striking of all was the creature's horn, which curved like a bull's straight from the middle of her forehead!

She sat down by the fire and began to make wool with violence and great haste, her knees up past her shoulders, and the woman of the house was too aghast to say anything or do anything but hold her hand to her mouth.

All of a sudden the strange visitor paused and hissed “Where are the other women? They delay too long!” And with that the door was hammered again.

“Open up!” came a peculiar voice from outside, and again the mistress felt herself obliged to rise and open to the call, and immediately a second witch entered, having two horns on her forehead, and in her hand a wheel for spinning wool.

“Give me place,” she said, “for I am the Witch of the two Horns,” and she began to spin as quick as lightning.

And so the knocks went on, and the call was heard, and the witches entered, until at last twelve women sat round the fire, the first with one horn, the last with twelve horns.

They carded the thread and turned their wheels, like great spiders weaving a dreadful web they spun, and grey wool hung in sheets and ropes from the beams and walls – all arms and legs they were, and as they worked they spoke no words but sang only an ancient rhyme. The woman of the house was struck dumb and could not move with it, nor her family either, who were trapped in sleep throughout.

Then one of the witches called to her in the old language, telling her to make them a cake, and she found she could move again. Casting about herself for something to bring water from the well so that she might mix a cake, she could find nothing except the basin she'd used to wash the feet of her children, but the witches hissed and spat.

“None of that feet-water,” they said, “take a sieve and bring water in that instead!” and oh how the villainesses cackled!

So the lady of the house went to the well, but of course she couldn't hold any water in it, and she began to wonder what mischief the witches were working on her family while she was away, when a soft light rose from the well, and with it a voice:

“Take yellow clay and moss,” it said, “and plaster the sieve with it – that will hold water for you!” And other things also it told her, but she did as she was bid and it held well enough. Then the voice said “Go back into your house and find the north corner, when you get there sing out – the mountain of the Sidhe women and the sky over it is all on fire!”

And so she did.

When the witches inside heard the call, they started shrieking and lamenting and tearing at the wool, which by now was like to a second wall inside the house. They ran forth howling and sprinting with haste that was horrific to see towards Sliabh Namon, where they lived for the most part, except for the times when oak leaves turned yellow.

Remembering then the other things the Spirit of the Well had told her, the mistress of the house prepared for their return – and she wasn't long waiting!

First to break their spells she sprinkled the water in which she'd washed her feet outside her front door, which was in truth her only door. Then she took the cake the witches had made while waiting for her, made from meal mixed with blood drawn from her sleeping family, and she put bits of the cake into the mouth of each sleeper, so restoring them to healthy normal rest.

She took the cloth they had woven and laid it half in and half out of a chest with a cold iron padlock, and lastly she dropped a great oak crossbeam across the door, and sat herself down.

When the witches came back they were in a rage of anger, and so high did they leap that they could almost look down the chimney.

“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 behind me 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 bruised, 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 Sliabh Namon, uttering strange curses on the Spirit of the Well, who had caused their ruin, but the woman and the house were left in peace, and a mantle dropped by one of the witches in her flight was kept hung up by the mistress in memory of that night; and this mantle was kept by the same family from generation to generation for five hundred years after.

Sliabh Namon can be found on the map here below.


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