Cu Sith

Variations: Fairy Dog

Cu Sith

The Cu Sith (pronounced coo-shee), “fairy dog”, is a great beast associated with the fairies of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Fairy dogs are almost always malevolent and implacable with no love for humans. There are some stories of fairy dogs treating humans with kindness, but these are best regarded with suspicion.

A fairy dog is hideous in appearance. It appears as an enormous dog the size of a two-year-old stirk, with paw-prints as broad as a man’s outspread hand. The fur is dark green, lightening downwards to the paws. The ears are a deeper green in color. The tail may be flat and plaited, or long and coiled over the dog’s back.

During the day the fairies keep their dogs tied up to keep watch, and even untethered fairy dogs will hide in caves by day. Night-time is when they roam free and are at their most dangerous. They run in straight lines, silently; sometimes they make a sound like a galloping horse. They are deadly to humans and beasts, although at least one tale has them driven off by ordinary, mortal dogs.

Most dreaded of all is the cu sith’s bark. A fairy dog will bark three times, with an interval between each bark. The first and second barks are warnings; after the third bark the dogs appear and tear their victims to pieces. On the island of Tiree, those who hear the first baying of a cu sith know to immediately go indoors to safety.

Finding a cu sith tooth, on the other hand, is a sign of very good luck. The tooth itself can be placed in drinking water to cure the illnesses of cows, or in milk to cleanse it of a witch’s influence. The teeth tend to be found in odd places and are abandoned after the animal feeds. MacGregor tells of a farmer in Lewis whose potatoes were being stolen on a nightly basis. Yet stakeouts accomplished nothing – he could never catch the thief in the act. Then one day he found a fairy dog’s tooth sticking out of one of the potatoes. The tooth was passed down in the family for generations.

Cu sith can be avoided. A man traveling near Kennavara Hill, Tiree, saw a large dog (Campbell describes it as black in color) resting on a sand-dune. He gave it a wide berth and made for home. The next day he revisited the dune and found prints as large as his spread palm. These prints made a trackway leading to and disappearing on the plain. The dog had ignored him.

A shepherd from Lorn, Argyll, came upon two cu sith puppies curled up in their lair behind some rocks. They had green backs and sides and – most worryingly – were larger than his own hulking sheepdogs. The shepherd and his dogs wisely left before the parents showed up.

References

Briggs, K. M. (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books, New York.

Campbell, J. G. (1900) Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow.

Fleming, M. (2002) Not of this World: Creatures of the Supernatural in Scotland. Mercat Press, Edinburgh.

MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.

Margot la Fée

Variations: Margot-la-Fée, Margot, La Bonne Femme Margot (The Good Woman Margot), Ma Commère Margot (My Godmother Margot), Fée Morgant

Margot

The Margot la Fée, “Margot the Fairy”, or more simply Margot, are fairies native to Brittany, particularly Collinée, Lamballe, Moncontour, and most of the Côtes-d’Armor. They are generally seen as benevolent and protective, but capable of deadly violence when provoked. The name of Margot – also used for magpies – is probably derived from Morgan or Morgana, as evidenced by the alternative name of Morgant; most local names are placatory terms of affection. Margot fairies are closely associated with megaliths, caves, treasures, and snakes, leaving the beaches to the Fées des Houles and the Groac’h.

Like most fairies, Margot fairies vary a lot in appearance, appearing as both young and old women as well as animals. They spend part of their time as snakes, both willingly and against their will, in which form they are most vulnerable. They possess considerable magical powers, dance in circles at night, haunt dolmens, swap babies with voracious changelings, and flee religious symbols.  Sometimes a Margot would take a fancy to a handsome young shepherd and choose to keep him in a cave for herself. In those cases time itself would seem to slow down, such were the pleasures that the fairy offered.

Margot fairies happily care for the livestock of their neighbors, even going so far as to feed them in the caverns while their owners were away. The Margot’s own livestock remained in the caves, emerging only to feed. On the other hand, hungry Margot fairies will tear a cow to pieces and devour it, only to restore it to life by the next morning, missing only any pieces that had been eaten by humans during the feast.

Margot fairies are often the guardians of fabulous riches. They will handsomely reward those who aid them, and punish any who take advantage of their generosity. If they tell you to take a certain amount of treasure and no more than that, you would be wise to follow their instructions to the letter. One man who took more gold from the Crokélien Hill fairies than he was instructed to had his son taken away from him, never to be seen again.

Other gifts of the Margot are more prosaic. They will offer piping hot loaves of bread to the hungry – loaves that never get smaller, no matter how many slices are cut from them. But if a piece is offered to someone else deemed unworthy by the fairies, the loaf will no longer regenerate.

Small acts of compassion are looked on with great favor. Two harvesters, resting after scything wheat, encountered a little grass snake eating the breadcrumbs they left behind. One tried to kill it, while the other stopped him, saying it would be wrong to kill a small, harmless animal. In the evening a Margot appeared to the second man and thanked him for protecting her daughter. She gave him two belts, one for him and one for his friend, telling him not to mix them up. His was of pure gold, while the other he tied to an oak tree, which wilted overnight.

Another man working near the hill of Crokélien encountered a Margot, who asked a favor of him. “Bring a large washtub with you”, she said, “and go to the Planchettes Bridge at sunrise. There you will find a grass snake. Put the washtub over it and sit on top. If anybody asks you why you’re there, tell them you’re waiting for the blacksmiths to fix the tub. At sundown, remove the tub, and you shall be richly rewarded for your help”. The man did as he was told, and sure enough, the snake was there at the bridge as the fairy had said. He covered it with the washtub and sat patiently there for the rest of the day, weathering the taunts and jeers of passers-by with aplomb. At sunset he removed the tub to find a beautiful maiden underneath. She was the Margot’s daughter, who transformed into a snake one day every year, and would have been killed had it not been for the man’s intervention. As promised, he never wanted for gold or silver for the rest of his life.

Human midwives will also be recruited by Margots to aid them in childbirth, gifting them with the power of second sight for the occasion. But woe to her if she let on that she could still see the fairies! A vindictive Margot would gouge her eye out, or spit in her face and blind her.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1887) Légendes Locales de la Haute-Bretagne: Les Margot la Fée. Maisonneuve et Ch. Leclerc, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1968) Le folklore de la Bretagne. Éditions G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris.

Dwarf

Variations: Dvergr, Dvergar, Duergr, Duergar (Old Norse); Dvärgher (Old Swedish); Dweorg, Dweorh (Anglo-Saxon); Twerg (Old High German); Dökkalf, Dökkalfar, Svartalf, Swartalf, Svartalfar, Swartalfar (Dark Elf, Black Elf); Dverge (Norway); Bjergfolk, Troldfolk (Denmark); Dvärg (Sweden)

Dwarf

“Dwarf” is a broad term that has been used to describe any supernatural being of short stature, often stunted and ugly in form, and living under the earth. Here it is used to refer specifically to the Scandinavian dwarfs, the chthonic master craftsmen who emerged from Ymir’s corpse, the personifications of the earth’s might and riches. They are also known as Dark Elves or Black Elves, distinguishing them from the elves living on the surface.

When Odin and his brothers slew the frost giant Ymir, they used his body to make the world. From his blood they made the seas and rivers, from his flesh the land, from his bones the mountains, and from his teeth the stones. The vault of Ymir’s skull was the heavens, and fire from the land of Múspellheim became stars.

Living inside the ruin of Ymir’s body were maggots digging through his flesh. Odin gave them consciousness and human form, but, much like maggots, they continued their existence digging through earth and stone. Odin tasked four dwarfs – North, South, East, and West – with holding up Ymir’s enormous skull.

Dwarfs were twisted, hunchbacked, bearded, short-legged, pallid like corpses, shunning the sun – which turned them to stone. As there were no female dwarfs, they carved new dwarfs out of the rock. While small and ugly by the Aesir’s standards, they were also unequaled as artisans, smiths, and jewelers.

The greatest of the Aesir’s artifacts were made by dwarfs. After Loki cut Sif’s hair as a prank, the other gods forced him under penalty of death to restore her beauty. The trickster god went to the sons of Ívaldi, who not only fashioned perfect golden hair for the goddess, but also the ship Skídbladnir, and Odin’s spear Gungnir. Impressed with their work, Loki dared the dwarfs Brokkr and Sindri to do better, wagering his own head in the process. Despite Loki’s best efforts to stop them, which included turning into a fly and biting them at crucial moments, he was unable to prevent the creation of the golden boar Gullinbursti, the gold ring Draupnir, and Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. All those gifts were presented to the gods, who decided that the hammer was the greatest item made by the dwarfs. Brokkr made for Loki’s head, but was outwitted by the god. “I wagered my head only, and not my neck. You’re welcome to it – if you do so without touching my neck”. Frustrated, Brokkr settled for stitching the impertinent Loki’s lips together.

Dwarfs also made Gleipnir, the silken ribbon that was used to bind the Fenris-wolf. It was made from a cat’s footfall, a woman’s beard, a mountain’s sinews, a rock’s roots, a fish’s breath, and a bird’s spittle. The wolf was immediately suspicious of the fragile-looking thread, and the god Tyr had to put his hand in the wolf’s mouth to humor him. As expected, the dwarfs’ cord held fast and bound the Fenris-wolf, but at the cost of Tyr’s hand.

The dwarf Alvíss, the “all-knowing”, lusted after Thor’s daughter. The god consented to give him her hand in marriage, but only if he could answer the questions he asked. Thor then proceeded to ask Alvíss questions about the world and the universe, which the wise dwarf answered proudly. In fact, Alvíss was so engrossed in showing off his intelligence that he failed to notice the approach of dawn, and the unfortunate dwarf was turned to stone by the rising sun.

Known Eddic dwarf names include Ài, Àlfr, Althjófr, Alvíss, Andvari, Austri, Báfurr, Bifurr, Bömburr, Brokkr, Dáinn, Dólgthvari, Dóri, Draupnir, Dúfr, Durinn, Dvalinn, Eikinskjaldi, Falr, Fidr, Fili, Frosti, Fundinn, Gandálfr, Ginnarr, Glóinn, Hárr, Heptifili, Hledjólfr, Hörr, Hugstari, Ívaldi, Kili, Litr, Mjödvitnir, Módsognir, Náinn, Nár, Nidi, Nípingr, Nordri, Nóri, Nýi, Nýr, Nýrádr, Óinn, Ónarr, Óri, Rádsvidr, Rekkr, Sindri, Skáfidr, Skirfir, Sudri, Svíarr, Thekkr, Thorinn, Thróinn, Thrór, Váli, Vestri, Vídr, Vindálfr, Virfir, Vitr, and Yngvi.

References

Aldington, R. and Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1972) New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Appenzeller, T. and the Editors of Time-Life Books. (1985) Dwarfs. Silver Burdett Company, Morristown.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Edwards, G. (1974) Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck. John Sherratt and Son, Altrincham.

Keightley, T. (1978) The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and other Little People. Avenel Books, New York.

MacCulloch, J. A. (1964) The Mythology of All Races v. II: Eddic. Cooper Square Publishers, New York.

Sturluson, S. (1916) The Prose Edda. Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, London.

Stray Sod

Variations: Ar Iotan, Egaire, Fairy Grass, Faud Shaughran, Fair-Gortha (potentially), Herb of Distraction, Herbe à Adirer, Herbe d’Egarement, Herbe d’Engaire, Herbe de Fourvoiement, Herbe Maudite, Herbe d’Oubli, Herbe à la Recule, Herbe Royale, Herbe des Tournes, Lezeuen Eur, Lezuenn er Seudann, Tourmentine

Tourmentine

“Stray sod” is a general term used here to refer to any plant that, if trodden upon, causes travelers to lose their way. Stray sods have been reported primarily from France and Ireland, and come about in a number of ways. Usually they are specific herbs with magical properties that grow along footpaths. At other times they form over the graves of unbaptised children, or are patches of grass enchanted by fairies. They themselves may be fairies or inhabited by fairies.

No matter the origin, the result is always the same. A solitary traveler at night will inadvertently step on a stray sod, and no matter how good their sense of direction, they immediately lose their path. All landmarks seem to vanish, all roads are dead ends. The unfortunate victim is compelled to wander aimlessly through the night, trudging through hedges and thorns, crossing rivers, slogging through marshes, and feeling their way through thickets. The spell is broken at daybreak, when they find themselves with their clothes torn and stained, their hands and feet bleeding, and miles away from home.

When this happens it is advised to turn one’s coat inside out to counteract the spell. Other remedies include the usage of metal as abhorrent to fairies, or finding certain plants or benevolent spirits to regain one’s bearings.

The stray sod is known as the herbe à adirer (“herb of misplacement”) in Anjou, the herbe à la recule (“herb of turning back”) in Besançon, the herbe d’oubli (“herb of forgetfulness”) in Brittany and Lorraine, the egaire in Normandy, and the herbe maudite (“damned herb”) or herbe des tournes (“herb of turning”) in Saintonge. The ar iotan (“golden herb”) of Brittany is inhabited by a spirit that shines like a glowworm; touching a piece of wood or metal breaks its spell, as does changing horseshoes on one side. The lezeuen eur (“golden herb”) and the lezuenn er seudann (“herb of dizziness”) of the Morbihan cause their victims to walk in circles until daybreak. The herbe royale (“royal herb”) of Saint-Mayeux causes even horses to lose their way. The herbe d’engaire of the Berry grows in vast plains, and causes those who step on it to lose sight of the path entirely. The tourmentine (Potentilla erecta, formerly Potentilla tormentilla) of Forez, which causes disorientation for 12 hours, can be countered by the parisette (Paris quadrifolia), a plant whose fallen seeds guide travelers by pointing in the right direction.

The faud shaughran of Ireland induces a sensation of flying, of being incapable of stopping until one is over twenty or thirty miles from home. There is a herb that counteracts its effects, but it is known only to the initiated. The similar fair-gortha causes unnatural hunger and craving for food if stepped on. One man in County Leitrim turned his coat and hat inside out but was unable to find his way home, ending up miles away from his destination.

References

Barton, B. H. and Castle, T. (1845) The British Flora Medica. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Duncan, L. L. (1893) Folk-Lore Gleanings from County Leitrim. Folklore, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 176-194.

Rolland, E. (1904) Flore populaire, Tome V. Librairie Rolland, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1894) Les travaux publics et les mines dans les traditions et les superstitions de tous les pays. J. Rothschild, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1898) Les Forêts. Revue des Traditions Populaires, t. XIII, no. 12, pp. 641-661.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Wilde, F. S. (1887) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, v. II. Ward and Downey, London.

Vouivre

Variations: Vaivre, Givre, Guivre, Wivre

Vouivre

Vouivres, the great fiery serpents of France, have been reported primarily from remote, mountainous regions, where they haunt springs, wells, caves, deep ponds, and ruined castles. They are known from Bourgogne, Franche-Comté, Savoie, the Jura mountains, and neighboring areas, with possible relatives in the Aosta Valley and Switzerland.

The word “vouivre” is derived from the Latin vipera, or “viper”. Vouivres themselves are the spiritual descendants of Mélusine, stripped of her human features. They have been described as dragons, serpents, and fairies in the form of great reptiles; they are always the guardians of priceless treasures.

In its most simple definition, a Vouivre is a female dragon. Vouivres vary wildly in appearance, but are always female and associated with fire and water. The classic vouivre, as observed in Faverges, Fleury-la-Tour, Mont-Beuvray, Rosemont, Solutré, and Thouleurs, is an immense winged serpent covered with fire. Instead of eyes, a vouivre has a single large diamond or ruby in its head that guides it through the air. She removes it when bathing, leaving it blind and vulnerable to theft. Possession of a vouivre’s eye-stone would bring riches and happiness to anyone who stole it. The immense vouivre of Boëge guards treasure and wears a priceless golden necklace. In La Baume she is 4 meters long and covered in gems and pearls. She sometimes leaves gems behind where she lands. The Lucinges vouivre is a glowing red viper that whistles eerily in flight. The Gemeaux vouivre, which appeared between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, was hooded like a cobra.

In Brizon, she is equally likely to appear as a bird or a winged beech marten with a brilliant necklace as she is to have the form of a great serpent with wings and a diamond on its tail. Vouivres may not even look like animals. In Chevenoz she appears as a burning fireball streaking across the sky, in Saint-Jean-d’Aulps and Vallorcine she is a single-eyed tongue of fire, and in Le Biot she is a star whose appearance foretells war and strife. The Orgelet Castle vouivre looks like a red-hot iron bar in flight, and the vouivre of Sixt-Fer-À-Cheval is a plumed golden necklace that flies through the air.

One of the more effective ways of slaying a vouivre has been making a spiked barrel to hide in. At Condes, a man managed to steal a vouivre’s diamond and hide in a nail-studded washtub; the infuriated, blinded dragon killed herself trying to get to him. While another man at the Aosta Valley slew a vouivre in a similar manner, other prospective thieves have not been so lucky. The vouivre of Reyvroz had a necklace of great value, which was stolen by a man in a spiked barrel; she died and the thief died soon after. The vouivre of Samoëns had her pearl necklace stolen in the same manner, but she constricted the barrel anyway and made the thief return the necklace; she then disappeared and was never seen again. In Manigod, where grass would not grow for a couple of years after the vouivre’s passage, a man who stole her diamond was killed, his barrel smashed, and the gem retrieved.

Finally, as with all dragons, vouivres are vulnerable to the power of saints and other holy persons. The vouivre of Saint-Suliac was cast into a deep cave by Saint Suliac after she killed one of his monks. The location became known as the Trou de la Guivre, the Guivre’s Hole.

In Thollon-Les-Mémises, among other places, “vouivre” has become a byword for an unpleasant, nasty woman.

Modern versions of the vouivre, perhaps conflating her with Mélusine, have embellished with her the features of a seductive woman. Marcel Aymé makes her a wild girl of the forest with an entourage of vipers, and Dubois makes her a beautiful fairy who sheds her dragon skin when bathing.

References

Aymé, M. (1943) La Vouivre. Gallimard.

Dontenville, H. (1966) La France Mythologique. Tchou, Paris.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Joisten, C. (2010) Êtres fantastiques de Savoie. Musée Dauphinois, Grenoble.

Monnier, D. (1819) Essai sur L’Origine de la Séquanie. Gauthier, Lons-Le-Saunier.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Fayette

Fayette

The Fayettes (“little fairies”) live in the Forez region in France, today around the Loire basin. They are believed to be the descendants of the Greek nymphs, having escaped the advance of Christianity in the Mediterranean.

In France they are much tinier versions of their former selves, but their magical powers are undiminished. They guard the caves and forests, and can be seen dancing in the woods of Couroux, in the Beaujolais. Like any self-respecting fairy, they like to abduct children and leave insatiable changelings behind. Those fairy children are best brought to the mouth of a cave and threatened with violence, causing the fayette to return the stolen child. Te, vequio le tio, rends me le mio (“There, here’s yours, return mine”).

During the night, the fayettes do their laundry under the moon. Travellers in the woods are advised to sing at the top of their lungs to make sure they’re not mistaken for threats. At daybreak the fairies dissipate like fog, sometimes leaving behind solid gold washboards that would make anyone’s fortune.

During the day the fayettes take the form of moles, and take pleasure in ravaging gardens. This is why moles have pretty little pink hands.

References

Proth, M. (1868) Au Pays de l’Astrée. Librairie Internationale, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Jetin

Variations: J’tin, Crion

Jetin

Jetins (from jeter, “to throw”) are tiny lutins native to the seaside caves of Brittany. Their appearance is uncertain; Dubois suggests they are hirsute and rough-looking, with silver shoes. Despite their size – ranging from thumb-sized to 1.5 feet tall – they are incredibly strong, capable of lifting and tossing huge boulders with ease.

Always looking for a chance to show off their strength, jetins amuse themselves by throwing rocks around, sometimes over great distances. Standing stones, menhirs, all manner of megaliths; such stones are discarded playthings of the jetins.

Rock-throwing was not the only pastime the jetins enjoyed. They were also fond of tying knots in horse tails and releasing livestock, and, like any good fairy, they often exchanged human babies for one of their own. The ugly, wrinkled changelings they leave behind are never weaned and never grow. Jetins can be convinced to return stolen children by carrying the changeling to a jetin hole and threatening to kill it. The human baby will quickly be returned and swapped with the impostor.

The jetins shared their territory with the even tinier Fions and the secretive Fées des Houles (“Fairies of the Sea Caves”). Due to their size and their reclusive natures, none of these have been observed in great detail, although the Fées have been benevolent towards humans. The Crions, perhaps the same as jetins, were tiny dwarfs who carried the stones of Carnac on their shoulders.

Elsewhere, the discobolous function of the jetins is fulfilled by Gargantua and other giants, whose size is more proportionate to their strength, and the fairies known as Fileuses (“Weavers”).

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Morvan, F. (1998) Vie et mœurs des lutins bretons. Actes Sud.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1907) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Quatrième: Le Peuple et L’Histoire. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Lavandière de Nuit

Variations: Lavandière, Laveuse de Nuit (French); Kannerez Noz, Cannerez Noz, Gannerez Noz (Breton); Bean nighe, Bhean Nighe, Caoineachag, Nigheag Bheag a Bhroin (Gaelic); Washerwoman, Night Washerwoman, Washer of the Ford, Little Washer of Sorrow (English)

Lavandiere

The lavandières de nuit (“washerwomen of the night”) are present in some form or other from Scotland to Provence. Their exact nature is uncertain; sometimes they are ghosts, other times members of the fairy kingdom. Their best-documented haunt is Brittany.

Lavandières are female, and can be seen washing laundry in the odd hours of the night. They usually take the form of tall, gaunt, and withered crones, but the Gollières a Noz of Romandie are as beautiful as they are cruel. Some of them sing as they wash, earning them the name of kannerez noz (night singers). Their song is sadder than a De Profundis. Those of Morbihan have had their song recorded as follows:

Tors la guenille, tors // Le suaire des épouses des morts.

(Wring the rags, wring // the shroud of the wives of the dead).

Often a lavandière is condemned to wash a shroud in atonement for a sin committed in life. Some merely did laundry on Sunday. Others were greedy misers who denied decent clothing to the poor. The grimmest were those guilty of infanticide. The outline of a baby’s corpse could be seen in their blood-soaked sheets; try as they might, the blood never washed out, and the bones never whitened.

The bean nighe of the British Isles are women who died in childbirth before their time, and who are doomed to wash the clothes of those fated to drown until the day when they were meant to die. Their appearance foretells death. Some are aligned with the Morrigan, and wash the corpses of the dead. Cú Chulainn saw one, the daughter of Bodhbh, washing bloodstained clothes and weeping; he died in battle not long after.

In France, especially in Brittany, they call passers-by to help them wring out the laundry. This isn’t a choice – those who accept out of ill will get their arms broken, and those who refuse are drowned. To escape their clutches, one must wring in the same direction they do, turning clockwise when they turn clockwise and vice versa. But this has to be kept up all night, and the lavandières never tire. One false move and the unfortunate victim is crushed, wrung out, their corpse mangled beyond recognition. Even the strongest man is no match for a lavandière, who wrings humans out as easily as a pair of tights.

Another way of escaping their clutches is to tell them Diwasket ho poan ha me diwasko ma hini (“wring out your sins, and I will wring out mine”). Running away at top speed always helps, and lavandières cannot cross recently-ploughed fields. Finally, making the sign of the cross or reciting Biblical verses is always helpful.

The lavandière of Chantepie was a stingy woman who buried her husband in a dirty shroud. She continues to wash it every night.

The lavandières of Fond-de-Fond hold up the bodies of the recently-deceased.

In Landéda, the lavandières are powerless against the goodhearted, but tie the sinful into knots.

The lavandière of Noes Gourdais, near Dinan, appeared early in the morning and had a skull for a head.

The Mille-Lorraines of Lower Normandy form fairy circles around ponds.

Several lavandières gather in the pond of Roc-Reu, and drown anyone who tries to touch them.

Around Dinan, the teurdous (“twister”) is a rare male counterpart. He does not wash, but instead offers to help washerwomen wring out their laundry. If they accept, he breaks their arms.

The true nature of the lavandières is more prosaic. Unfamiliar sounds have been invoked – the croaking of frogs or toads, for instance, might have suggested the sound of washboards. The lavandières themselves may have had nothing supernatural about them. A number of flesh-and-blood women may have had reason to do laundry at night: those who worked during the day, those who did not wish to be seen doing menial work, those who wanted to clean the clothes of their illicit lovers… Anyone coming upon them could be forgiven for seeing them as ghosts.

Others managed to exploit the superstitious fear of lavandières. A garde-champêtre in Vaucluse once stumbled upon a pair of lavandières in spectral white clothes. “Wring the laundry!” they cackled, grabbing him by the collar. And wring he did, all night long. He also noted the fine quality of the cloth they were washing, but did not dare stop until morning, when they left. Only later did the warden find out that a nearby castle had been robbed of various items of clothing. He had spent the whole night helping the thieves wash their ill-gotten gains.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Giraudon, D. La lavandière de nuit Ar gannerez-noz. In Loddo, D. and Pelen, J. (eds.) (2001) Êtres fantastiques des régions de France. L’Harmattan, Paris.

Kilfeather, A. (2003) Legend and wetland landscape in Ireland. Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 3, pp. 37-50.

Le Quellec, J. (1988) Le légendaire du Sud-Vendée: organisation spatio-mythique. Etuderies 3-4.

MacPhail, M. (1898) Folklore from the Hebrides III. Folklore, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 84-93.

Sand, G. (1877) Légendes Rustiques. Ancienne Maison Michel Lévy Frères, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1881) Littérature orale de la Haute-Bretagne. Maisonneuve et Cie, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1968) Le folklore de la Bretagne. Éditions G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris.

Umutwa

Variations: Abatwa (pl., often used as singular), Chitowe, Katsumbakazi, Maithoachiana, Mkonyingo, Mumbonelekwapi, Wabilikimo

Umutwa

First contact between different people is never easy. Sometimes one group ends up exaggerated, romanticized, altered until they are virtually unrecognizable. It was this process that turned Saracens into malevolent mountain goblins, and which caused the San bushmen to shrink to near-microscopic size in Zulu folklore, resulting in the Abatwa. The term is still used in Zulu to refer to bushmen, and some identify as Abatwa, but the Abatwa of folklore are supernatural and unmistakeable.

The Abatwa, Umutwa in the singular, are the smallest of all fairies. They live in the rugged uplands, where they use blades of grass as shelters and sleep in anthills. Abatwa have no fixed village apart from their bivouacs in the anthills. The only times they are sedentary are when they kill game; even then they stay around the carcass only as long as it takes to fully consume it. Sometimes the Abatwa ride horses in search of game. In such cases, dozens of the tiny warriors sit atop one horse, in a line from head to tail. If their hunt is unsuccessful, they do the next best thing and eat the horse.

Despite their size, they are deadly hunters, armed with poisoned arrows that can kill even elephants. Being stalked and killed by Abatwa is a nightmare, as you face foes too small to see; they are like driver ants, or puff adders, virtually invisible, yet disproportionately deadly. However, they are also self-conscious about being tiny, to the point of being very touchy about it. This insecurity is outweighed by an enormous ego. Abatwa are vulnerable to flattery.

When one meets an Umutwa and hails him with the traditional Sa-ku-bona (“I have seen you”), the Umutwa is immediately suspicious. “Where did you see me?” If you answer “I haven’t seen you before”, “Just now”, or words to that effect, the Umutwa, furious about this slight on his size, will immediately draw his bow and shoot you dead.

Clearly a more diplomatic approach is in order. Creativity is vital here, as is exaggeration and, above all, sincere delivery. “I last saw you on my way here. See that mountain on the horizon? I was on top of it when I saw you, I couldn’t mistake you for anyone else”. Then the Umutwa smiles with pride, secure in the knowledge that despite being tiny, he is still a towering and respected figure.

The motif of tiny warriors with height insecurity is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. All of these creatures, associated with different cultures, can be dealt with in the same way as the Abatwa, and respond negatively (and lethally) to going unnoticed.

If you flatter the Katsumbakazi of the Giryama, something lucky will happen to you.

The Maithoachiana of the Akikyu in Dagoreti are a cannibal race that are rich and skilled in metalworking.

The Wabilikimo of the Swahili live four days’ journey from Chaga, and are only twice the length from the middle finger to the elbow.

The Itowe (singular Chitowe) of the Machinga Yao rob gardens, rot pumpkins, turn fruits bitter, and leave footprints everywhere. Putting some of your crops at cross-roads will help placate them. They are like men but run on all fours. The related Mumbonelekwapi have long beards.

The Wakonyingo (singular Mkonyingo) of the Wachaga have enormous, misshapen heads and hide on Mount Kilimanjaro; none are bigger than a little boy. They have ladders that reach into the sky. They never lie down but lean against a wall, as getting up is hard with their top-heavy build. Wakonyingo take pity on people in trouble and will help them if they are lost. They leave bits of meat when sacrificing to their ancestors; the meat rolls down the mountain and turns into white-necked ravens. They are somewhat less touchy than the others mentioned, but can still exact terrible vengeance.

References

Ananikian, M. H. and Werner, A. (1964) The Mythology of All Races v. VII: Armenian and African. Cooper Square Publishers, New York.

Callaway, C. (1868) Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus. Trübner and Co., London.