Myth Monday: Baba Yaga, the Monstrous Russian Witch (Slavic Folktale)

Myth Monday: Baba Yaga, the Monstrous Russian Witch (Slavic Folktale)

By Kara Newcastle

Okay, if you’ve seen the John Wick movies, you probably heard the titular character being referred to as “Baba Yaga” by the terrified Russian mobsters he picks off. One character explains that the Baba Yaga was a boogeyman of Russian folklore.

Nyet, tovarisch … she was so much worse.

Well, of course, as with most legends and myths, it depends on who’s telling the tale. For the most part, Baba Yaga was described as a very old woman, hideously ugly, who lived in the darkest of the woodland and practiced powerful magic. She was a cannibal, preferring the taste of children, though she was not averse to any adults who might wander her way. Baba Yaga was capable of great cruelty and wickedness, but, surprisingly, could also be moved to help people in need.

Baba Yaga’s mythological evolution is interesting. In the mid-1700s, Russian scholar Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov compared the Slavic gods with their Roman counterparts. He suggested that the Slavic gods were really just Russian versions of the Roman gods (not entirely; the Romans always shoehorned their gods into the beliefs of the people they conquered, but that’s another blog.) The only Slavic deity that Lomonosov couldn’t match to a Roman god was Baba Yaga. There was no Roman or Greek equivalent to her. This would mean that A) Baba Yaga was 100% unique as a deity, B) belief in her was so strong that the Slavs refused to accept any outside influence on her myth, and, my personal theory, C) she freaked the Romans out so bad that they just didn’t want to have anything to do with her.

But what is that identity? Unfortunately, almost all we know about Baba Yaga and the other Slavic gods was passed on to us orally, so many of the early stories are probably lost forever. She’s probably an amalgamation of many Dread Goddesses and Mother Goddesses, cobbled together by various Eastern European tribes and clans as they met throughout history.

Because we’ve lost the early myths, we don’t know what Baba Yaga’s real name might have been, or which goddess she might have been most closely associated with. “Baba Yaga” is likely an honorific title given to her and was probably created only centuries ago when Christianity became the dominant religion in Eastern Europe and saying the true name of an evil entity was thought to draw it to you. With the influence of Christianity, the woodland death goddess was suddenly shrunk down into a nasty old lady and frequently recast as the Devil’s grandmother.

The term baba in Slavic cultures usually means “grandmother,” though it does have roots in the words for both “midwife” and “sorceress.” This isn’t surprising; in many cultures, older women worked as midwives, having spent the majority of their adulthood helping other women in their village or tribe give birth. They would have been highly skilled in herbs and medicines, and well-versed in charms for fertility, for helping the mother and baby during labor, and for preparing bodies in the sad event that one or both subjects didn’t survive the process. Having so much knowledge and practice, these older women were probably very successful in delivering healthy babies and helping mothers survive the ordeal, so the older women would have been looked upon as magic workers. 

However, the term yaga doesn’t have an exact translation, though it relates back to many Slavic words meaning, “abusive,” “angry,” “horror,” “dirty,” and even “evil woman.” Now that people weren’t worshipping her as a Dread Goddess, but still believed that she was a vile creature that haunted the woods, the Slavs reimagined her as a crotchety, ugly, evil old woman. Essentially, if we were to very loosely translate Baba Yaga’s name to modern English, it would come out as something like, “Grandmother Evil.”

Witch_with_Broom by Iryna Pustynnikova, wikimedia commons

Some tales even depict Baba Yaga as three sisters instead of a singular character, relating back to the myths of a Trifold Goddess (a goddess who is depicted in three forms, often in a girl/mother/crone aspect, such as the Fates in Greek mythology, or as three sisters each with special power, like Macha/Badb/Nemain in Celtic mythology.) Stories featuring the Baba Yaga sisters usually portray them all as being ugly and ferocious, but the eldest and middle sisters are more helpful, while the youngest is much more bloodthirsty.

As I’ve said before, Baba Yaga is incredibly ugly. It doesn’t matter if she’s portrayed as a benefactor or a villain, in every story she is just ugly. I mean, like advanced ugliness. Being so old, Baba Yaga is, of course, wizened, but she is often described as having grotesquely sharpened or even iron teeth, a severely longed or hooked nose, hands gnarled into claws, and might even be hairy to the point of sporting a beard—or having nose hairs so long that she could tie them together under her chin. Storytellers often note that there is something wrong with one or both of Baba Yaga’s legs: Baba Yaga may be completely missing one leg, she may have one normal leg and the other one is a serpent (again, relating back to the earth mother theme: snakes were associated with the earth and with infernal wisdom; they could travel to the Underworld and talk to the dead; due to their ability to shed their skin, were used as symbols for immortality), or might have had both legs except they’re nauseatingly skinny (leading to one of her nicknames, “Old Bony Legs,”) or missing all of their bones. She can be the size of a little old lady, or she can stretch herself the full width of her house. Baba Yaga is also said to be very filthy—remember, one of the root words for yaga is “dirty.”

Baba Yaga lived in possibly the most interesting house in all of mythology: it was a cottage that stood upon a set of giant chicken legs. Not a whole chicken, mind you, just the legs (sometimes a pair, sometimes only one, sometimes four. I never said that mythology was consistent.). If Baba Yaga became tired of the area where she was living, she would order her house to walk off to a new location. Sometimes the legs are constantly moving, turning the house round and round so only those who knew the special spell could get inside. Frequently, the house was said to be devoid of doors and windows, leaving only a chimney for Baba Yaga to come and go (sound familiar?)

If a hut set on a pair of T. Rex-sized bird legs isn’t enough to creep you out, then you should take a look at Baba Yaga’s fence circling her home; the fence is entirely built out of human bones, collected from the people she’s eaten. Every few feet a skull is driven down atop a spike … and there’s always one spike left empty for the next victim’s head.

Given that Baba Yaga has difficulties with her legs and is said not to be able to walk, she usually gets around by either hopping astride a broom or, much more likely, climbing inside a giant stone mortar (for those of you who don’t know what that is, a mortar is a sort of bowl designed to hold herbs or spices that will be ground up. Remember what I said earlier about older midwives knowing about herbs?) and propels it along with her pestle (grinding tool.) To make sure no one knows where she’s been, Baba Yaga sweeps away her tracks with her broom.

Even immortal witches have to eat, and Baba Yaga’s favorite food by far is human children. Every story I’ve read about Baba Yaga shows her threatening to eat the story’s hero for dinner. Like the Basket Woman, Jenny Greenteeth, and other monsters from mythology, Baba Yaga was probably used to scare small children to keep them from wandering off into the forest and becoming hopelessly lost. On the other hand, if we go back even farther, we find that many old religions described death and burial as returning to the Mother Goddess’s womb. Maybe the whole cannibalization thing was just a misremembered metaphor for going back to the goddess. One can only hope.

No discussion of Baba Yaga is complete without mentioning the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Since I don’t want this blog to be like fifty pages long, I’ll give you the shortest version I can:

Vasilisa was a beautiful Russian girl. When she was young, her dying mother gave her a magic doll and told Vasilisa that if she ever found herself in trouble, she should feed the doll and talk to it. After her mother’s death, Vasilisa’s father married a haughty woman with two daughters of her own. The stepmother and stepsisters hated Vasilisa and gave her the most grueling tasks to do. To accomplish them, Vasilisa fed her magic doll, told her what the trouble was, and the doll would come to life and finish all her tasks for her.

Determined to be rid of Vasilisa, the stepmother put out all the fires and candles in the house. She then ordered Vasilisa to go to their neighbor’s house and ask for a lump of live coal so they could relight their home.

Grandmother_and_the_granddaughter by vidgestr, wikimedia commons

Of course, that neighbor was Baba Yaga.

Vasilisa was frightened, but she consulted her doll. The doll assured her all would be fine and guided her to the witch’s chicken-leg hut. The hut was spinning around in place but, coached by the doll, Vasilisa said the magic spell, “Little house—turn your back to the woods and your front to me!” The house paused, righted itself, then sat down, allowing Vasilisa to enter.

At sunset, Vasilisa watched in horror as a monstrous woman dropped down from the chimney into the house. Covered in folded, wrinkly skin, a beak-like nose curving over jagged, bloody iron teeth, boneless legs dragging behind her as she pulled herself across the floor with her clawed fingers, Baba Yaga shrieked at Vasilisa, demanding to know who she was and why was she in Baba Yaga’s home. Vasilisa was terrified, but she did as her doll had taught her, telling the disgusting witch that she was a maid in need of work.

Baba Yaga eyed Vasilisa for a moment, then told Vasilisa that she did in fact have three tasks for the girl, but warned Vasilisa that should she fail in any of them, then Baba Yaga would eat her. Baba Yaga’s chores were impossible for Vasilisa to accomplish, but the brave girl fed her magic doll and the doll finished all the work.

As with basically every stinkin’ myth or folktale out there, there are two different endings to the story. In the first version, Baba Yaga is disappointed that Vasilisa finished the tasks, but agrees to give her a coal to bring home, placing it inside an empty human skull. As Baba Yaga hands Vasilisa the skull, the witch asks the girl how she was able to do all the work. Vasilisa replies, “With my mother’s blessing.” This causes Baba Yaga to freak out and she throws Vasilisa, her doll, and the skull out of her hut. Clearly Christian-influenced.

The second, possibly older version hints that Baba Yaga had suspected that Vasilisa’s stepmother had sent her to the hut in hopes that the witch would eat her. After Vasilisa finishes the tasks, Baba Yaga gifts her with a coal inside a human skull. She asks Vasilisa to make sure that her stepmother and stepsisters see the gift, escorts Vasilisa out of the house, and bothers her no more.

Either way, both versions have Vasilisa returning home with the skull. When she shows the skull to her stepmother and sisters, a brilliant light blasts out of the skull’s eyes sockets and burns the cruel women to ash. Vasilisa then moves to Moscow, where she becomes a famous weaver and marries a prince.

All thanks to a cannibalistic witch!

In recent times, Baba Yaga’s found a lot of new popularity. She pops up again and again as a reoccurring villain in the Hellboy comics, a character in the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, was featured in shows like The Witcher, Lost Girl and Supernatural, appears in a number of novels and movies, and, of course, is John Wick’s nickname in the franchise.

I don’t care how many people John Wick has killed with a pencil, he’s got nothin’ on the real Baba Yaga.

Myth Monday: Why is a Black Cat Crossing Your Path Bad Luck? (Superstitions)

Myth Monday: Why is a Black Cat Crossing Your Path Bad Luck? (Superstitions)

By Kara Newcastle

“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

-Groucho Marx

Black cat by Frostdragon wikimedia commons

Imagine you’re taking a nice leisurely stroll on a bright sunny day. You’re in a great mood. Everything is right in the world, you have no worries, no problems …

And then without warning, a black cat darts across the sidewalk in front of you. It doesn’t even spare you a glance as it trots by and vanishes under a shrub, but now you find yourself frozen in place. Your jaw drops and a chill riddles its way down your spine as you struggle to wrap your mind around what just happened.

A black cat crossed your path—now you’ve been cursed with bad luck!

Okay … but why? It’s just a black kitty cat that happened to walk past you. If it means bad luck, it should only be for whatever rodent it chances upon, not you.

So why are you so freaked out?

Cats in general and black cats in particular have a hand a long and complicated relationship with humans. In Ancient Egypt, cats were sacred, believed to be protectors of the home and the people within. The sun god Ra turned into a cat every night to fight the apocalypse snake Apophis, and the goddess of happiness was the extremely popular, cat-headed woman Bastet (see my blog on her here!) The Egyptians loved their cats so much that if someone killed a cat they would be condemned to death, and it was said that the Egyptians were conquered by the Persian king Cambyses II after he ordered his soldiers to paint cats on their shields and carry live cats into battle with them. The Egyptians were so afraid of harming the cats that they surrendered.

Lately, I’ve found many online blogs and articles that claim that black cats were especially holy in Ancient Egypt because Bastet herself was a black cat. I find that claim iffy mythologically speaking, since I’ve never found any myth mentioning that specifically. However, there are many statues of Bastet in cat-form that were carved out of black basalt, so that might be where that connection comes from.

The worship of Bastet had spread into Rome, and was a popular religion for hundreds of years, eventually going head-to-head with early Christian sects. At first the Christians were fairly unconcerned with Bastet, but as their own popularity grew and members became fanatical, many primitive church leaders began to claim that worshiping deities like Bastet was evil, that she was a servant of Satan and had to be destroyed. That attitude extended to the hundreds of cats that lived pampered lives in the temples, and when the cult of Bastet died (and it died hard), it became open season on cats. Black cats were probably especially targeted since so many of Bastet’s statues were of a black cat.

Gradually memory of Bastet died out and people became mostly disinterested in cats, regarding them as at best a farm animal and at worst little better than the rats they hunted. It was not uncommon to see dozens milling around a farmstead in the country, picking off the abundance of rodents that would chew their way through a family’s food stores. Since most men worked in the field and most women stayed to care for the home, cats became more accustomed to women.

Unfortunately, this spelled disaster for both women and cats; from the mid-1400s until the late 18th century, a combination of civil unrest, economic failure, epidemic, famine and religious fanaticism gave birth to the horrifying witch hunts. Fearful and uneducated people looked for scapegoats to pin their troubles on, and all too frequently blame fell on women. The women were targeted for any number of reasons—being too opinionated, outliving too many husbands, living long past the age when most people would have died, having knowledge of medicinal herbs, living alone, being disfigured—and the accusations of witchcraft spread to their cats.

According to the witch hunters, a witch was a person who sold their soul to the Devil. In return, the fiend granted his new servants magical powers, and a monstrous assistant known as a familiar. A familiar was a demon, but it had the power to transform itself to look like an ordinary animal and then go out to help the witch commit crimes against her neighbors. With all the cats on a woman’s farm, it was easy to assume that they could be demons in disguise. Witches were also thought to be able to transform themselves into animals, and more often than not that animal was a black cat.

 It wasn’t long before the hunters’ half-assed, biased research found tales of black Bastet. Additionally, the Greek goddess Artemis her Roman counterpart Diana, both associated with witchcraft, could turn themselves into black cats (this is probably where the idea that human witches could turn themselves into cats came from.) The Greek goddess of magic Hecate was said to keep black cats, and the Viking goddess Freya was not only a goddess of love, but also of war and magic, and rode in a chariot pulled by cats (it’s interesting to note that the Vikings loved their fluffy skogskatt, but a few hundred years later their descendants were murdering them in droves.) Furthermore, both the Scots and the Irish had legends of the malicious fairy cat Cat Sith (read the blog here and its most famous story here!) that was almost entirely black. The Scots also believed that one could summon a demon in the form of a huge black cat.

This did not help cats at all.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand: why is it bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Because the black cat might be a witch or a witch’s familiar, of course. Fear of black cats and witches became so bad that many people would have panic attacks at the mere sight of a black cat, thinking that it had come to do them harm. That cat crossed your path, cutting you off short … it might have just cut off the rest of your life right there.

It’s very symbolic and very full of crap.

By the time the plagues ended, cats were welcomed back into cities and town, albeit somewhat cautiously—though science was fast replacing superstition, many people had grown up with fears of witches and their feline sidekicks, and the superstitions remained. Not only did they remain, but they also traveled; the Puritans brought their distrust of black cats to the New World, and in the Salem witch trials, the afflicted claimed that they could see spectral cats, and the accused trying to escape death made up stories of devilish felines.

A_Black_Cat by Nino Barbieri wikimedia commons

Now, some of you might be wondering that if a black cat crosses your path and it means bad luck, would a white cat crossing your path mean good luck? Yes—depending on where you live. For reasons I’ve yet to find out, in America it’s believed by some that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck and a white cat crossing your path is good. In England the opposite is true: the white cat is bad and the black cat is good. An Irish belief states that it’s bad luck for a black cat for a black cat to cross your path in the moonlight—this means you will die in an epidemic (Ireland? Any recent reports on this?) And the Germans like to complicate it further by stating if a black cat crosses your path from left to right it’s good luck, but right to left is bad luck.

And other cultures say that if the cat is walking ­to you, then it’s bringing you good luck. If it walks away from you, then it’s taking the good with it.

Naturally, this is all a load of dirty litter. Me myself, I’m happy to see a black cat cross my path. About four years ago, I was on vacation on Cape Cod, walking along a sidewalk in Hyannis when a black cat suddenly sauntered across my path. I stopped and screamed, “KITTY!!!!” in delight. The cat took one look at me and ran off in terror.

It made me wonder if cats have a similar superstition about us?

Myth Monday: The Easter Witches (Swedish Folklore)

Myth Monday: The Easter Witches (Swedish Folklore)

By Kara Newcastle

Happy Easter everybody! Or as they say in Sweden, Glad Påsk! What a wonderful time of the year, isn’t it? It’s getting warmer out, the days are longer, the flowers are finally blooming, and the witches are to flying back to their infernal meeting place in the Baltic Sea.

Whoa, hold on, back up—witches? At Easter? How and why would witches ever be linked to the highest of the Christian holy days?

You may recall from my blog about Easter (here!) that the Christian celebration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ co-opted the spring festivals of Eostre, the Germanic goddess of springtime and birth. The absorption of the pagan holiday was deliberately made by the early church to help the pagan people more comfortably convert to Christianity by including elements of their own traditions and symbology into this new religion. In Sweden (and Finland, but we’ll focus mostly on Sweden here, and you’ll see why), this means the inclusion of witches.

Blå_Jungfrun,_bred by Fred J wikimedia commons
Blå Jungfrun

In the Kalmar Strait off the coast of the city of Oskarshamm lies the beautiful and menacing island Blakulla (sometimes Anglicized as Blockula, which sounds like Count Dracula’s cousin who sucks the essence out of Lego bricks, and not to be confused with Richard Roundtree’s Blacula … yes, that’s a thing.) The island is now a national park, but if you plan on taking a trip out there one day, just know that few people refer to the island by its true name; for generations it’s been known as Blå Jungfrun (literally translated into English as “The Blue Maiden,”) a name used by sailors when they passed by. The sailors took to referring to the island with this name because it was said that if you uttered the name “Blakulla” in its presence, the evil witches there would instantly whip up a monstrous storm to wreck their boats. It was common for the locals to leave gifts like pretty shawls and fine gloves on the island to make the witches happy.

The island has been regarded as the gathering place of witches for thousands of years—literally: archeological excavations on the island have revealed that rituals were conducted in the caves dating back possibly 9,000 years ago, placing the earliest practices back in the Stone Age. The most famous structure on the island is the Trojaborg Labyrinth, a maze of stones said to have been place there by the witches as a part of their ceremonies. The Trojaborg is a unicursal labyrinth, meaning that it is designed to be curved back onto itself (if you were to walk it, it would take about seven times to go around it) and totally enclosed. Unicursal labyrinths date back to the Bronze Age (3,000 to 4,000 years ago), but most of the ones found in Sweden are just around 1,000 years old, placing them well within the emergence of Christianity. It’s likely that the Trojaborg labyrinth on Blå Jungfrun, along with others that we know of, were used in ancient pagan ceremonies of initiation or fertility rites. Swedish botanist Carl Linneus visit Blå Jungfrun in 1741 and observed the Trojaborg, but he sniffed at the idea that it had been made by witches.

Labyrinth-at-bla-jungfrun by Mingusrude wikimedia commons
The Trojaborg Labyrinth

As I mentioned before, the island is a national park, and the visitors are regaled with tales of witches’ meetings (sabbats) at the Torjaborg. Tour guides frequently warn visitors against taking any of the rocks from the maze for souvenirs, as the rocks are supposed to be sacred to the island and removing them would bring bad luck. Of course, people are dumb and like to take chances, only to swiftly send the pilfered pebbles back once their lives start going to crap. The town of Oskarshamm receives many of these accursed stones and has yearly trips sent out to Blå Jungfrun solely to return them.  In May of 2004, for example, 160 rocks were ferried back to the island, returned by tourists who deeply regretted the choice they made.

Christianity arrived in Sweden by the 9th century, and by the 12th century had finally overtaken the land as the prominent religion, though there were still groups of people who refused to convert, and likely carried on their worship at places like Blå Jungfrun, continuing with traditions such as lighting bonfires to welcome back the sun after its long winter absence and to mark the start of spring, and possibly celebrating Freya, the goddess of love and magic. At this time, women, whether they were pagan or Christian, were still regarded as the most skilled in healing arts and midwifery, with generations of mothers passing their knowledge of herbs and lore down to their daughters.


In 1520, misogynist extraordinaire Heinrich Kramer, a German Dominican monk with a hatred of women so intense that it can assumed to be pathological, published a guide to identifying and hunting witches, titled Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches.) Until the book was published, witchcraft was seen more of a nuisance that was punishable with a fine, but Kramer ignited—somewhat figuratively, somewhat literally—a maelstrom of horrific violence against anyone accused of witchcraft … especially women skilled in medicine. Now known as the Burning Times, what followed was over two hundred years of inquisitorial torture, rigged trials and mass executions of European women, men and children, with the majority of the victims being burned at the stake (it was believed by many that a witch’s body was still dangerous even after death, so total immolation in fire would protect the innocent people nearby.)

Sweden was known for some of the most horrific trials and executions at this time. Though it had been mentioned briefly in one trial in 1597, Blakulla Island (Blå Jungfrun) became a serious focal point during the Mora trials of 1669, when a number of children were coerced through intimidation and torture to accuse local adults of being witches, kidnapping them and taking them to Blakulla to turn them into witches as well. The result was that about 23 innocent adults and fifteen children were executed for witchcraft, and another 148 children were whipped. What really boggles the mind later is that the death penalty for witchcraft wasn’t repealed until 1779 … to put that into some perspective, that means while we were fighting the British in the Revolutionary War, it was still possible for a woman in Sweden to be accused of being a witch and killed.

This sets up the backdrop for the legend of the Easter witches. No longer priestesses or wise healing women, these magic workers were recast as wicked villainesses who joined forces with the Devil to destroy Christianity. Blå Jungfrun was no longer a holy site of worship, it was now portrayed as the meeting place for a witches’ sabbat. Every Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday, when Jesus was betrayed by Judas—many cultures including the Swedish saw this as a day of evil), the broomstick-riding, black cat and copper cauldron-carrying witches flew en masse out of their chimneys and to Blå Jungfrun. There they would plot and sacrifice infants and brew spells for three days, fleeing the island on Easter Sunday.

To make the trip more difficult for them, the Swedes in the area would lock up their brooms, shovels and other long-handled tools so the witches couldn’t ride them, as well as safely locking their cows inside their barns (it should be noted that many of the children in the Mora trials said that they were made to ride cows when brought to Blakulla.) Chimneys were closed to prevent the witches from leaving. It was believed that the witches would dance so much at Blakulla that they became dizzy and would say things backwards; many suspected women found people listening to them closely on Easter morning, to see if they betrayed their identity as a witch and accidentally say something backward. The once sacred bonfire used to welcome back the sun and usher in spring was now used to hurt witches as they flew overhead.

So, what changed? How did the Swedish people go from goddess-worshipping to witch-phobic to linking what was once considered so unholy to the holiest time of the year?

It’s hard to pin down the reason exactly, but pagan traditions never really go away—they tend to evolve into something else, something that slides past the witch hunters’ notice or is resurrected once the furor has died down. It’s possible that people half-remembered stories from their youth before the trials, passed on their own versions of them, and unintentionally created a new folktale. In the 17-, 18- and 1900s, fairy tales became vogue, and educated people such as the Brothers Grimm went around their homelands collecting and analyzing the stories. These stories were published, the public would pick them up, say to themselves, “Oh, how quaint! That sounds like fun, we should do that at our next party.” Sort of like when you find something on Pinterest that you think is cool so you incorporate it into your next family gathering.

Starbucks is always so crowded, can never find a seat anywhere …

Like Santa Claus and the Italian Christmas witch Le Befana (read my blog here!), the Swedish witches were now seen to be benevolent spirits who would visit Swedish families’ houses and bless them with good luck. In exchange, the children would leave a pot of coffee for the witches on the stove overnight. By the mid-1800s, children were dressing up as witches and visiting local farms on Maundy Thursday, delivering gifts of pussy willows (similar to ancient pagan practices of a priestess acting out the role of a goddess such as Eostre, Freya or the Celtic Brigid, visiting households to bless them.) Farmers would take the pussy willows for good luck and reward the children with a coin or treat.

Easter_witches_Pääsiäisnoitia_IMG_5156_C by Anneli Salo
Boys dressed as witches. Note the decorated Easter tree held by the boy in the green jacket.

By the 1900s, the act of dressing up became a full-blown affair, a sort of mash-up of Easter and Halloween and shows no signs of stopping. On either Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday, girls dress as witches, or as they’re better known, påskkärringar (Easter hags), paint freckles and rosy cheeks on themselves with makeup, grab a broom and a copper kettle and go door to door, usually giving away handmade gifts such as cards. (Boys get in on the act as well, though they generally dress up as old men or hobos, and some kids have opted to go full-Halloween and dress up as superheroes or whatever they like.) Instead of gifts of fine clothes, these witches receive gifts of candy, cookies, money and edible, decorative Easter eggs. The children return home and Easter dinner is celebrated around an Easter tree (birch twigs placed in a vase of water that will hopefully sprout buds, symbolizing life after death) decorated with Easter eggs and brightly dyed feathers. Bonfires are lit, but instead of welcoming back the spring goddess Easter or singeing cackling hags, it’s more a way to celebrate the holiday—and an excuse to burn all the yard debris.

So, in a roundabout way, witches have always been in some way linked to Easter for the Swedish and Finnish people. It’s kind of a cool tradition. Next year I’ll wear a pointy witch hat to Easter dinner; maybe I can get a trend started. Or I could really tick off my ultra-conservative in-laws. Either way, it’ll be fun.

Move over, Peter Cottontail--here come the Easter witches! Learn about this unique Swedish/Finnish tradition and it's long, dark history here!

Myth Monday: The Twelve Horned Witches (Irish Folktale)

Myth Monday: The Twelve Horned Witches (Irish Folktale)

By Kara Newcastle

It was late at night, but Fidelma MacDonagh wasn’t ready for bed. Not just yet; she had put her little ones down some time ago, and her weary husband had turned in shortly after that. The maids had decided to go to sleep a little while before, but Fidelma wasn’t ready. She was always something of a night owl, and she valued this time after her family and servants had gone to bed. It was quiet, there were no distractions, and Fidelma could relax. Sometimes she would read by the fire, other times, like tonight, she would sit and work on her embroidery. She liked this time.

Fidelma paused in her stitching to examine her progress. She was adding a border to a dress she had made for her baby girl, Bluisne, all of three years old. Fidelma had wanted to treat her little girl to a new dress—nothing too fancy, as Fidelma was sure the baby would dirty it soon enough—but she wasn’t about to give a plain frock to her baby. No, Bluisne deserved the very best.

It was then Fidelma realized how dark the room had gotten—she had been working for so long that the fire had died down and her candles had melted to almost nubs. Shrugging to herself, Fidelma finished off the stitch and cut the thread, carefully returning her sewing to the basket at her feet. Fidelma stretched, then heaved herself out of her favorite chair. Time to go to bed—

A sound thundered at the front door and Fidelma jolted, a gasp hitching in her throat and her hands flying to her chest and her hammering heart beneath. Stunned, she stared at the door, jumping again when a second round of knocking pounded at the wood. Her eyes widened. Who could it be at this hour? It wasn’t unknown for neighbors to be up and about in the dead of night, but they typically didn’t visit her because they knew her children would be fast asleep. They wouldn’t want to disturb them.

Fidelma’s closest neighbors were the kindly Fitzpatricks from the road, a loving couple well advanced in their age. Maybe it was one of them. Maybe something had happened, and their stableboy had rushed down for help.

Alarm fast dissolving into worry, Fidelma rushed for the door, sliding back the bolt and cracking it open. “Aye, who is it? Is everything well?”

Something shoved hard against the door and Fidelma gasped, stumbling back with the impact. Instinct told her to throw her weight against the door, but it pushed open hard, sweeping her back as though she had been no heavier than one of Bluisne’s rag dolls. Staggering back, Fidelma looked up at the dark figure in her doorway, cursing herself for not bringing a candle with her, for not calling her husband first, for answering the door in the first place. She opened her mouth to demand the stranger’s name, but as they stepped into the light cast by the fire, all Fidelma’s protests died in her mouth.

Standing before her was a tall woman, a woman Fidelma didn’t recognize. She was dressed in a strange gown that hung straight down from her shoulders, and an odd robe swept in behind her as she strode into the house. Her face was pale and sharp, her eyes cold and hard like flint. She carried a satchel in one hand, a hand tipped in long, pointed nails that reminded Fidelma of icicles.

But the one thing that Fidelma could not stop staring at was what was in the middle of the woman’s forehead. From the center of her brow sprouted a single, long, straight horn.

Arching a thin eyebrow at Fidelma’s gape, the strange woman pushed past her, striding straight up to the fireplace. With her free hand, she pointed a finger at the hearth, and the fire roared to life. The woman then turned and pointed at Fidelma’s rocking chair. It slid across the floor towards her, pushed by invisible hands. Huffing, the horned woman gathered her robes around her and sat down, placing her satchel at her feet. Opening the bag, the woman withdrew a pair of carders and a large lump of wool. Placing the wool between the teeth of the carders, the horned woman began to comb out the fibers.

The woman went to work, silently moving the paddles through the knotted wool. Fidelma stared at her, unable to summon the will to move or speak, hardly able to even breathe.

After an endless moment, the horned woman glanced at her. The look was brief, but cold.

“Close the door,” she said.

Fidelma started. “Wh—?”

Huffing through her narrow nose, the woman looked past Fidelma and waved a carder at the door. Fidelma felt an ice-cold wind rush past her, and she jumped with a scream as the door behind her slammed thunderously shut.

Frowning, the horned woman turned back to her wool, combing out the knots and burrs. She continued this way in silence, pausing once to pass the cleaned wool onto the floor.

Her brow furrowing around her horn, the woman looked up at Fidelma. “Where is the witch of the two horns? She takes too long to arrive.”

Fidelma felt her heart drop. “Arrive … where?”

No sooner did the words pass her lips than another series of thunderous knocks rattled the front door. Fidelma screamed and spun around, backing away from the door as rapidly as she could.

The horned woman scowled. “What’s wrong with you? Open the door for your guest!”

Shocked anger shot through Fidelma and, forgetting whom she was speaking to, she rounded on the one-horned woman, her teeth bared. “’Tis no guest of mine!”

A bizarre light danced in the horned woman’s eyes, like a flicker of candle flame passing behind two dark windows. “Open the door.”


A shriek ripped from Fidelma’s throat as something hard and frigid and huge slammed into her, lifting her off her feet. She felt the toes of her shoes dragging across the floor as the invisible creature carried her swiftly over to the door, flinging her viciously against the wood.

The horned witch returned her gaze to her carding. “Open the door.”

Wheezing in shock, Fidelma shook her head, then choked on a cry as the cold thing grabbed her hand, lifted it up and slapped it down on the bolt. It folded her fingers around it as she struggled, holding her hand fast and forcing her to slide the bolt back again.

The second the bolt moved back, the door shot open again, slamming into Fidelma and knocking her back hard against the wall. Her head spinning, Fidelma staggered, barely able to register the form that glided into her house.

It was another tall woman, clothed in the same strange robes. She had two horns sprouting from her head.

The two-horned woman smiled and greeted the first, then beckoned for a chair to slide over to her. She sat down beside the single-horned woman, placed a satchel down by her feet, and from it removed a distaff and more wool.

The pair passed the wool between them, carding and winding, whispering back and forth in volumes that Fidelma could not hear. As she huddled there against the wall where she had been thrown, the door thudded shut of its own accord.

No sooner did the door close than the two-horned woman glanced up at Fidelma. “Where is the witch of three horns?” she asked. “She takes too long to arrive.”

All of the blood in Fidelma’s body turned to ice in her veins. She stared at the horned women, barely able to breathe. “Three horns?” she rasped.

Instantly, knocking hammered at the door behind her. The horned women raised their eyebrows expectantly at Fidelma.

Every inch of her body quaking, Fidelma shook her head hard. “I will not!”

The single horned woman curled back her thin lips. “If you wish to preserve the safety of your family, you will let your guest in.”

There was no mistaking the cold threat in the horned woman’s voice and, tears streaming down her cheeks, Isabel stiffly turned to open the door, admitting in a witch with three horns. For the next hour that was all Fidelma did: she opened the door and admitted another witch in, each with one more horn than the last. Each one entered, greeted her sisters, then sat down with wool and carders, distaffs or spinning wheels that they had conjured out of their bags, laughing and making merry as though they were ordinary women. When the final witch appeared, the tallest one in grand skirts, her head adorned with twelve arching horns, a great cheer went up amongst the witches. “Our queen is here!” they cried, prompting a devilish smile to spring to the face of the twelve-horned witch.

The queen strode into the room, unfurling one long finger and crooking it, as if beckoning for something to follow. Fidelma’s knees nearly buckled from terror as she watched a large loom glide silently through the door, following the twelve-horned witch.

The twelve-horned witch pointed that long finger to the center of the room, and her infernal loom floated forward, coming to a gentle stop before the blazing fireplace. Turning about to take in the progress that her coven had done, the queen nodded approvingly. “Very good, my dears. Let us continue our work.”

Trembling, Fidelma slowly closed the heavy oak door, sagging against it. She waited by the door, expecting yet another knock, and was only slightly comforted when none came. The entire coven must have been there in her home now.

The witches returned to their work and their queen took her place at the loom. They began to sing, a melody of words Fidelma couldn’t recognize, but the tone was vile and shook Fidelma’s very soul. The sound of their voices filled the house as they prepped the wool, passing the yarn to their queen, who began to work the loom with inhuman speed.

So engrossed in their work, not one of the witches spared so much of an eyeblink in Fidelma’s direction. Fidelma swallowed hard, then carefully slid along the wall, edging around the coven until she reached the hallway. Certain that she had not been seen, Fidelma bolted into the dark hall, charged up the stairway and raced first to her bedroom, where her husband slept. Fidelma grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him, doing her damnedest not to scream for him to wake up, lest she alert the witches. To her terror, her husband did not stir, even when she soundly slapped him across the face. He would not wake up.

Her stomach in knots, Fidelma abandoned her husband and ran to each of her children’s beds, shaking them and hissing their names, finding them just as still and silent as their father. As Fidelma tried to rouse the maids awake, she heard a dark voice call up from the floor below, “And where is the lady of the house?”

Her heart seizing, Fidelma shrank down beside the maids’ beds. She dug her fingernails into the bedpost, fighting to slow her breathing. Her mind raced; everyone in the house must have been under some sort of spell. She couldn’t wake them—she would have to leave them behind and run to the Fitzpatricks’ house, send the stableboy there to get help. The thought of leaving her children and husband behind made her want to die, but—

“It would please us greatly if ye would join us, Lady MacDonagh.”

It was the voice of the twelve-horned witch. Fidelma bit her lip hard; she did not want to go back down there …

Pain riddled through her body and Fidelma choked, her eyes blasting open as she felt her legs beginning to straighten, her fingers scraping as they pulled away from the bedpost. She struggled, feeling that ice-cold presence forcing her to stand, pivoting her around to face the doorway of the maids’ room.

“Come down, or we will make ye come down.”

Tears springing to her eyes again, Fidelma bit out, “All right! All right, I am coming down.”

A chorus of cruel sniggering answered her, but the presence instantly released its hold on her body, causing Fidelma to stagger forward. Quickly raking the backs of her hands over her eyes, Fidelma took a trembling step, moving back into the hallway, down the stairs, returning to the main room, though every fiber of her being screamed for her not to.

The witches were still gathered there, but they had paused in their work, each of their heads turned expectantly towards Fidelma as she hesitantly entered. The twelve-horned queen leaned against her loom, smiling frigidly. On the loom, Fidelma could see a blanket or banner of some sort, ornate with dark colors. Fidelma could clearly see that the yarn the witches had spun had not been dyed, and that they had already assembled several feet of cloth in a matter of moments, whereas it would have taken ordinary women several days to accomplish so much. It renewed the terror within her.

“Lady MacDonagh,” the twelve-horned witch said. “I would be most appreciative if ye would be kind enough to serve refreshments to me and my coven.”

Fidelma knotted her fingers in her skirts, hoping that would stop her hands from shaking. “Ye … ye are welcomed to any wine I have.”

The witch queen’s smile widened. “Nay. We would like water.”

The request stopped Fidelma short. For a moment, all of her fear evaporated, and she stared at the queen in confused disbelief. “Water?”

“Aye.” Lifting her clawed finger, the twelve-horned witch pointed first in the direction of Fidelma’s kitchen, then snapped it back to Fidelma. Fidelma jerked back in fright as something crashed loudly in the dark confines of her kitchen, then screamed in terror as a small object came hurtling out, flying across the room and smashing into her chest. It pressed hard against her, driving her back up against the wall until her hands flew up and grabbed it, tearing it away from her body.

Stunned, Fidelma stared down at the object in her hands.

It was her metal sieve.

“Collect well water in that and bring it to us,” the twelve-horned witch said.

Fear flaring into anger, Fidelma snapped her head up. “I can’t possibly collect water in a sieve!”

“Do yer best.” Grinning, the twelve-horned witch gestured to the front door, and it roared open on its own. Again, that cold presence slammed into Fidelma, barreling her forward across the room and out the door. All around her, the horned witches cackled in delight.

As she reached the threshold, the presence gave Fidelma one hard shove and she flew forward, crying out as she fell heavily onto the flagstone pathway, the sieve sent spinning out of her hands. The witches’ laughter grew louder and more horrible as Fidelma scrambled to her feet, snatching the sieve off the ground. Beside herself with fear, the poor woman stumbled towards the well in her front yard, not knowing what else to do.

Senselessly, Fidelma picked up the wooden bucket and heaved it over the tall lip of the well, feeling the rope burning through her palms as it passed. As soon as she heard the bucket plunge into the water, Fidelma wrenched it back up, tipping it over into the sieve. The cold water sluiced through the holes of the sieve, pouring back into the well and saturating her dress. Panicked, Fidelma threw the bucket back into the water, filled it, pulled it up, and dumped the water back into the sieve.

As the water streamed back out, Fidelma heard the queen of the witches shouting from her home, “Don’t tarry long, Lady MacDonagh—we need drink to go with our cake!”

Alarmed, Fidelma spun around, seeing the witch and each of her twelve horns illuminated in her doorway by the snarling fireplace behind her, making her look as though she stepped straight out of hell. The sight made Fidelma recoil. “C-cake? I have no cake in my house.”

The queen grinned wickedly. “No, my dear Lady MacDonagh, but my sisters and I are making our own … sweetened with the blood of yer family.”

Fidelma’s heart stopped dead in her chest. “No!”

“Oh, ‘tis just a wee bit. They’re all sound asleep and did not feel a thing.” The queen nodded her ugly horned head towards the well. “We are waiting for our drink.”

“I can’t fill a sieve with water!”

Unperturbed, the queen witch shrugged. “Then perhaps we should sate ourselves with the rest of your family’s blood,” she said mildly.

Without another word, the twelve-horned witch turned and walked back into house.

All of the strength seeped out of Fidelma and she dropped like a stone beside the well, burying her face into her hands and sobbed, screaming in despair. How did this happen? What could she do? Her family was going to die!

“Fidelma …?”

The voice was soft at first, so soft that Fidelma couldn’t hear it over the sound of her own weeping. It spoke again, louder, insistent, and yet gentle. The soothing sound, so alien after all that had happened that night, jarred Fidelma out of her tears and she froze.

“Fidelma … listen to me …”

Horrified, Fidelma wrenched away from the well. God Above … the voice was coming from the well!

Kenneth Allen / Well at Meenreagh / CC BY-SA 2.0

“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said, echoing softly up out of the confines of the well. “I am the spirit of the well. You have heard of beings like myself.”

Sure that she had lost her mind at this point, Fidelma stared at the well, blinking stupidly. “I … a-aye. Since I was a child.”

“Then you know that we seek to help good people such as yourself. I can help you save your family and drive the horned witches from your home forever.”

Shocked, Fidelma sprang to her feet. “Ye can? Oh, please, spirit! Help me save my children and husband!”

“I will. Listen to me closely, Fidelma. The first thing you must do is line the sieve with clay and moss, and then draw my water and fill it.”

Fidelma didn’t stop to question, but immediately set to work. She scraped up clay from her yard and peeled moss off the stones of the well, packing them into the holes of the sieve and then filling it with water. “Aye? What now?”

“Take the water and approach your home from the north. Go inside and say, ‘the mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire!’ This will drive the witches out of the house. You must then go to your children, and wash their feet in the water. Pour the water over the threshold of the house, then seal the door with a crossbeam. Feed your children and husband pieces of the blood cake, then take the banner the witches were weaving, and place it half in and half out of a locked chest. This will undo all their evil. Can you do this, Fidelma?”

Her hands tightening on the handles of the sieve, Fidelma nodded. “Anything for my family.”

Taking a deep breath, Fidelma approached the house from the north. Reaching the open door, she braced herself, then shouted inside, “The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky above it is on fire!”

 The queen witch’s voice shrieked, “Whaaaaaat?!”, and instantly all of the coven began to scream in horror. They all swarmed out of Fidelma’s house, crying out in horror, leaping into the air and swooping away like birds in flight, soaring towards their mountain home. Wasting no time, Fidelma raced inside and ran to her children’s rooms with the well water. She bathed each of their feet, then took the water and poured it over the threshold, as the spirit of the well instructed. Slamming the heavy door shut, Fidelma dropped the massive crossbeam over it, then turned and ran to the witches’ loom. There she found their wicked banner, pulled it free of the loom and rushed to one of her chests in the far corner. She stuffed half of the banner into the chest, leaving the other half hanging out. Closing the lid, Fidelma then fastened a weighty lock on it.

Hurrying to the fireplace, Fidelma recoiled at the sight of one of her cake pans set on the coals, filled with a dark red cake. Carefully pulling it free, Fidelma carried the cake to her husband and children, breaking off pieces of the cake and sliding them into their mouths. Instantly, the spell was broken, and everyone who had been under the sleeping spell roused themselves awake.

Before Fidelma could take a moment to rejoice and tell them what had happened, an eerie shrieked rattled every inch of the house. From outside, Fidelma and her family heard the twelve witches shouting, “She tricked us! She broke our spell and locked us out!”

What sounded like twenty-four fists all began pounding on the barred front door. “Blast you!” the queen of the witches shrieked. “Let us in!”

Herding her bewildered husband and children behind her, Fidelma faced the door and shouted, “Never! I broke yer curse. Ye can never enter here again!”

“How did ye know? Who told ye what to do? Wait … The well has a guardian spirit doesn’t it?! She told ye what to do! Curse ye both! Blast ye both to hell!”

Outraged by their defeat, the witches took to the air again, screaming obscenities at the Spirit of the Well as they departed. The twelve horned witches never returned to Fidelma’s home, but the following morning, Fidelma discovered that one of the women had dropped their cloak as they fled from the home. Fidelma hung it as a trophy, and it remained within her family for five hundred years.

Myth Monday: Cat Sith, the Fairy Cat (Scottish Legend)


Myth Monday: Cat Sith, the Fairy Cat (Scottish Legend)
By Kara Newcastle


I’m sure a great many of you are somewhat familiar with fairies. They’re small (not
always), they’re beautiful (usually, but looks can be deceiving), they have gossamer wings (occasionally), and they have their fairy pets.

Aha! I see the surprise on your faces. “Pets?” you’re asking. “Fairies have pets?” Yes, they do. They have fairy horses, fairy cows, fairy dogs … and fairy cats, called the Cat Sith (pronounced cat shee, and no, not the character from Final Fantasy VII.) Fairy animals abound in various mythologies of Great Britain and Europe, but the Cat Sith is best known
in Scotland, as you’ll soon see why.

The Cat Sith was said to be huge, the size of a large hunting dog—or even bigger. It was solid black, save for a white patch on its chest, and had intense yellow eyes that held intelligence that seemed to go beyond the range of any ordinary cat, big or small. It was frequently seen with its back arched and fur bristling along its spine, its ears laid back and huge fangs bared. It was not a friendly kitty.

Unlike some fairy folk, the Cat Sith was always ferocious, and while it didn’t actively seek out humans to harass, it was known to go after humans who had hurt other cats. A Cat Sith will never give an offender a warning—it will launch immediately into a vicious attack as soon as it is provoked because it is always ready for a fight. This made it the perfect heraldic animal for many Scottish Highland clans, such as the MacBains and the Mackintoshes. Please, no Simpsons or Brave jokes here.

At Samhain (the original name for the festival we now call Halloween), the Cat Siths were known to roam the land at night (this is why black cats are associated with Halloween!) If a family wanted to make sure that they were on the Cat Sith’s good side, they would leave a bowl of milk out in front of their door on Samhain. Like all cats, fairy and otherwise, Cat Sith loves milk and will bless the family that left them the treat. If a family neglected to leave milk out, the Cat Sith would curse them so that all their cows would stop giving milk.

However, in the Scottish Highlands, Cat Sith was known particularly for stealing the souls of the recently dead and carrying them away to the fairylands. All the Cat Sith had to do was spring over the corpse and snatch the soul straight out of the air as it hovered there, waiting to move on to the Otherworld. To prevent their loved ones’ spirits from being forced to eternally serve the fairies, Highlanders would hold a wake called the Feill Fadalach, or Late Wake, to make sure the Cat Sith didn’t jump over the dead body. Unlike
other wakes where sad people gathered to mourn, the Feill Fadalach was held all day and night until the body was buried, and it was essentially a party. The Highlanders would try to divert the lurking Cat Sith with riddle contests, music, and dancing, wrestling, not lighting any fires because the Cat Sith (like all cats) loved warmth, and—get this—spreading catnip throughout the house.

Apparently, even fairy cats are not immune to the ‘nip.

As Christianity took hold in Britain and the isles, the Cat Sith’s identity began to change, especially when the savage witch hunts began. Instead of being a fairy cat, Cat Sith was now believed to be the form a witch could shapeshift into to either cause chaos in the community or escape pursuers. It was believed that a witch could transform into a black cat eight times, but if she turned into a cat for a ninth time, then she would be stuck in that form forever. This is partly where the myth that a cat has nine lives comes from (nine was considered the perfect number by many pagan/pre-Christian cultures, because,
once broken down, it was three equal groups of three, and three was associated with Triad goddesses—I could go into it more, but that would make this blog way longer) and why  cats—especially black ones—are linked with witches.

Sightings of actual Cat Siths were reported in Scotland for years, but most people dismissed the reports out of hand—no way could there be that big of a black cat with a white chest patch roaming around the highlands and moors. There had never been any proof of anything larger than the native wildcat (sometimes called the Highland Tiger, with good reason) living in Scotland, and even then those cats looked like hefty striped tabby cats. Anything that was found had to be a hoax. The Cat Sith existed only in legends …

And then one was captured.


Kellas cat found in Aberdeenshire on display in the Zoology Museum University of Aberdeen by Sagaciousphil wikimedia
Kellas cat on display at Zoology Museum, Aberdeen, Scotland

In 1985, Ronnie Douglas, a gamekeeper in Kellas, Moray, was stunned to find a large, black cat with a white chest patch in one of his snares. About a year later, a live one was caught by the Tomorrows World team. Soon, a total of seven additional specimens were collected by alien big cat (in this case, “alien” as in “not supposed to be from around here,” not as in, “extraterrestrials made a pit stop here so their pets could go to the bathroom”) researcher Di Francis, who gave them all to the National Museum of Scotland. There, studies revealed that some of the “Cat Siths” were actually a cross between a domestic cat and a Scottish wildcat. They were then named the Kellas cat by cryptozoologist Karl Shuker after the village where the first one had been found.

While the Kellas cat might not be supernatural, they are BIG. The snared Kellas cat measured fifteen inches tall at the shoulder and was forty-three freaking inches long! That cat was roughly the height of, and longer than, a typical cocker spaniel. Can you imagine a cat that big getting the zoomies in the middle of the night? Yeah, and whatever it howled for, you would give it without a second thought … and if you’re thinking about getting one as a pet, lemme put a stopper in that idea right now: just like its mythical counterpart, the Kellas cat is fierce, more than ready to attack, and can never be tamed. And I don’t think you want a four-foot-long wild cat getting pissed at you for any reason. Or no reason at all.

Now that it was proven that these cats were real, many researchers have gone back and reexamined depictions of the Cat Sith in legend and pagan art. One scholar, Charles Thomas, theorizes that the cat depicted standing triumphantly on a salmon in the 1,000-year-old Golpsie stone in Dunrobin Castle Museum actually depicts one of these hybrid cats. Elsewhere in England, where sightings of unusually large black cats sometimes pop up, it has been suggested that the Kellas cat might account for a few of the sightings.

With less than 400 Scottish wildcats remaining in the wild, conservation efforts are being made to limit crossbreeding with domestic cats to preserve the species. You might see a few Kellas cats in zoos now, but if the conservation is successful, the Kellas cats, like the Cat Sith, made fade away into legend once more.