Celtic Fairy Tales
Selected and edited by Joseph Jacobs (1892)
from Project Gutenberg
THE HORNED WOMEN (abridged)
One night a woman sat alone by her hearth carding and preparing wool. It was a wild night outside, scattering briar and twig against the door of her cottage. Suddenly above the wind she heard the clatter of a hard fist on the door frame. A low, husky voice called, “Open! open!”
“Who’s there?” said the woman of the house.
“I am the Witch of one Horn, bid me enter.”
The mistress, startled and confused by the sudden interruption, opened the door. A woman entered, tall and wild, her black hair flying loose around her face. In her hand was a pair of wool-carders. On her forehead was a horn growing from a ridge between her brows.
She nodded abruptly at the woman of the house, sat down by the fire in silence, and began to card the wool with violent haste. The woman of the house closed the door quietly and returned to resume her work. If truth be known, she had little option as she feared this new presence in her home.
After a while the one horned woman paused in her work, and said aloud: “Where are the women? they delay too long.”
She had hardly spoken when a second knock came to the door, and a voice called as before,
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; “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.
And they carded the thread, and turned their spinning-wheels, and wound and wove, all singing together an ancient rhyme, but no word did they speak to the mistress of the house. Strange to hear, and frightful to look upon, were these twelve women, with their horns and their wheels; and the mistress felt near to death, and she tried to rise that she might call for help, but she could not move, nor could she utter a word or a cry, for the spell of the witches was upon her. Her family had succumbed to the spell also, for despite the clamour in the kitchen, they could not be woken.
One of the witches called to her in Irish, and said, “Rise, woman, and make us a cake.”
The mistress did as she was bid, glad of a reason to put some space between herself and her callers. She 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.
With barely a glance in her direction, the one horned witch said, “Take a sieve and bring water in it.”
Against her better judgement the woman took the sieve and went to the well. Naturally the water poured from it as quickly as it was filled. She could fetch none for the cake. Finally, overcome by the horror and strangeness of her evening, the poor woman sat down by the well and wept. Her pain was felt.
From out of the mist that encircled her a voice spoke softly. It 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. The voice spoke again:
“Return, and when thou comest to the north angle of the house, cry aloud 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 inside heard the call, a great and terrible cry broke from their lips, and they rushed outside with wild lamentations and shrieks. Without acknowledgement or gesture they hurled past the women fled to Slievenamon, their home.
The voice spoke again – it was the Spirit of the Well who had helped her before. She bade the mistress of the house to prepare and protect her home against the enchantments of the witches should they return.
First, to break their spells, she sprinkled water in which she had washed her child’s feet, onto her threshold. Then she took the cake which in her absence the witches had made of meal mixed with the blood drawn from the sleeping family, and she broke it in bits. Each of the pieces she placed a bit in the mouths of her children and they were restored. She took the cloth the witches had woven, and placed it half in and half out of the chest with the padlock.
Finally, she secured the door with a great crossbeam fastened in the jambs, so that the witches could not enter. And she waited.
The witches came back. Finding their access barred they raged and called for vengeance.
“Open! open!” they screamed; “open, water!”
“I cannot,” said the 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 bruised, and my blood is on the lips of the sleeping children.”
The witches rushed through the air with great cries, and fled back to Slievenamon, uttering strange curses on the Spirit of the Well, who had wished their ruin. 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. This mantle was kept by the same family from generation to generation for five hundred years after.