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.

Arragouset

Variations: Arragousset, Sarregouset, Sarragouset

Arragouset 2

Jean Letocq, a shepherd on the west coast of Guernsey, woke up one morning to see hundreds of little people streaming out of the Creux des Fées (Fairies’ Hollow). They were armed to the teeth, carrying weapons made of sharpened shells. They told the man to bear their message: they wished to take human wives, and would be strongly displeased if women were not turned over to them. This ultimatum was refused, and so the fairies slaughtered every last man they encountered, dying the sea red with blood. The only survivors, a man and a boy of St. Andrew’s parish, hid in an abandoned oven for years.

They were the Arragousets, or Sarregousets as Hugo called them. We know that they were bellicose fairies of the sea, dwelling underwater and in seaside caves, ruling their own marine kingdom. One of their number once took a human woman for his wife, and her beauty and wit so enamored the other fairies that they had to follow suit.

With the men safely massacred, the Arragousets put down the sword and went native. They married the maidens and the newly-widowed, and lived peacefully on land. They made caring husbands and doting fathers, to the extent that the widows warmed to them, and the maidens were delighted with their fairy lovers.

Then, after years of peace, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. The circumstances remain mysterious. Sébillot suggests that they were recalled by their king, while MacCulloch states that their time on land was limited. Whatever the reason, all the Arragousets left the island and were never seen again.

Or rather, they went invisible, as their presence remained on Guernsey. They sired a new generation of boys and girls – intelligent, able sailors of small stature – and they returned regularly to watch over them. They did a hundred little favors in the hopes of finishing the work they had started. Arragousets are always ready to help their descendants, but they are pitiless in dealing with offenders.

Hugo said they can still be seen on stormy days, dancing in the clouds and longing to return to the land.

References

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

Hugo, V. (1866) Les Travailleurs de la Mer. Librairie Internationale, Paris.

MacCulloch, E. (1903) Guernsey Folk Lore. Elliot Stock, London.

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

Alp-luachra

Variations: Art-luachra, Arc-luachra, Airc-luachra, Dochi-luachair, Just-halver, Joint-eater, Mankeeper, Darklooker, Art-pluachra (mispronunciation)

Alp-luachra

Fairies are far removed from the sanitized Victorian ideal we are accustomed to. There are beautiful fairies; there are also ugly fairies, cruel fairies, and vile, parasitic fairies. The alp-luachra belongs to the last group.

Native to Ireland, where it can be found across the island, the alp-luachra is a small, newt-like creature not unlike Ireland’s native smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris). It was born of ignorance and fear of the unknown – in this case, the habits of the newt. Any similarities end there, however. The smooth newt is a harmless denizen of ponds, while the alp-luachra lives off “the Pith or Quintessence of what the Man eats”, as Robert Kirk put it.

Infestation is simple enough. Anyone asleep outdoors is at risk. Alp-luachras slip into the open mouths of sleepers, and from there work their way into the stomach. The entire process is painless, and hosts are never aware of their slimy new occupants. That is, until the symptoms manifest themselves: pain in their sides as the alp-luachras make themselves comfortable, and increasing, insatiable hunger. The alp-luachras eat the food ingested by their hosts, growing larger, reproducing inside them until their wriggling becomes unbearable; meanwhile, their hosts waste away, becoming gaunt and emaciated. In the span of a few years, the unfortunate victim eventually dies of starvation, and the alp-luachras move out to find new victims.

As the alp-luachra’s glamour prevents it from being seen by physicians, it must be tricked into leaving the body by other means. Inhaling the strong fragrance of savory food can coax them to come out, as can eating very salty food. Once outside the body, the alp-luachra can be licked to cure burns.

Douglas Hyde recounts the story of one farmer from Connacht who suffered from alp-luachra infestation for half a year, until an itinerant beggar and the Prince of Coolavin told him how to get rid of them. He started by eating a large quantity of salted beef. While this made him thirsty (and no less hungry), it made the alp-luachras thirstier. He then lay down with his mouth open above a stream; the alp-luachras, sensing water, crawled out of his mouth and into the stream, one by one. All in all, he had been host to a dozen alp-luachras and their mother, seven times their size.

He never slept on the grass again.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (2005) The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and Other Little Creatures. Abbeville Press.

Hyde, D. (1890) Beside the Fire. David Nutt, London.

Kirk, R. (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. David Nutt, London.