Catalan mythology about witches
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In Catalan popular culture, there are a large number of legends about witches (Catalan: bruixes; Eastern Catalan: [ˈbɾuʃəs], Western Catalan: [ˈbɾujʃes] or [ˈbɾujʃɛs]). In the popular imagination, a witch is a woman who, by means of a pact with the Devil, has acquired supernatural power, which she uses for her own benefit and for evil purposes. During the Middle Ages, the power of the Church strengthened these beliefs among the people, using witchcraft as scapegoat for all calamities, to marginalize, imprison, and finally execute people, especially women, who would not submit to the established social order.
Today, the general population no longer believes in witches, and many people view the witch only as a well-loved traditional character, appearing only in children's stories.
Catalan tradition distinguished between bruixeria ("witchcraft") based on an explicit compact with the Devil, and fetilleria (deriving from a word related to "fetish", and Old Portuguese feitiço); magic worked through charms and fetishes. The former was considered inherently evil, the latter might include the working of magical cures. This article is focused on bruixeria.
The mark of the devil
Witches supposedly have "the mark of the devil" on their buttocks, made by a forceful bite of the Devil's teeth, which takes the form of two crossed horns, of a toad, of a ram with large horns, or of a simple little circle. Legend also has it that the Devil can mark the witch's eye in various ways: with horns, or by making it empty, or with two pupils. Some traditions say that witches have two pupils in the left eye and deer horns in the right one. (This belief in the mark of the devil goes well beyond Catalonia, although these particular forms are specifically Catalan.)
According to Catalan tradition (again, this may not be uniquely Catalan), one can wash marks on the skin with holy water in order to know whether they are the Devil's work: the Devil's mark will not wash off. Witches were also said to have a heart-shaped mark on their left side; for a witch of great abilities, the heart-shaped mark would be hairy.
The presence of witches
It was said that the whispering of fallen leaves blown about a rooftop was the sound of witches criticizing the behavior of the family of the house.
To prevent witches from sowing evil herbs to damage the fields and crops, one would place to the right of the gate a figure of a guardsman, precisely vertical.
An old woman who could no longer hear the litany was in danger of being considered a witch for her deafness to the word of God.
Power and practices
According to one Catalan tradition, a person who wants to become a witch should go to the seashore, undress completely, and roll around on the sand. After giving seven full revolutions, stand and make three circles.
By the full moon of October and of January, witches were said to make marks on their buttocks, by means of which they maintain and strengthen their malign powers, which otherwise diminish and cool down by the action of time and age. In October, they were said to pray to the Devil with a rosary that had the cross broken off.
Witches were said to fly mounted on forks, poles, and especially brooms; in each case, the flying object was first anointed with an unguent provided by the Devil. It was said that, because in the past witches were always persecuted and garroted with brooms, the Devil had given them this particular power in order to be able to escape. While they fly, they supposedly would repeat, over and over"Per ací, per allà, cap ací, cap allà", ("Here, there, hence, thence") as if they were in a cavalcade of animals.
Witches were said to make unguents or brews from the flesh of the hanged, from live infants, from black flour or grain, in a cauldron big enough to hold seven witches, cooked over a fire lit by the heat from their furious dancing. This was the unguent that enabled them to fly, to turn into whatever species of animal they desire, to prophesy, and to make all manner of evil spells.
Witches were said to take the form of cats, in order to more easily enter houses and to enable them to take items of clothing, shoes, needles, and so forth. They supposedly stole in order to be able to bewitch and to do harm; they did not steal money nor valuable objects.
Witches were said to be able to see the stars through the roof, to see people naked even through their clothing, and to look inside a person and know what organ is making that person ill. (This last may be related to the traditions of witches as healers.)
Witches were said to climb up on top of the clouds, and make it rain or, especially, hail (which was particularly bad for the crops). One could ward this off by making certain signs of the cross or singing certain hymns, so that the devil would have to take the cloud elsewhere.
Witches were said to take toads as counsellors and to initiate to the novices.
Many traditions about witches related to specific days of the year, especially the eves of certain Christian holidays and saint's days; witches were also said to be very powerful during Lent, which is, in a sense, the eve of Easter.
All Saints Day
Certain traditional stories related specifically to All Saints Day (November 1).
On All Saints Day, witches were said to break the crosses from any graves they pass, destroying all proof of the existence of the buried dead.
Another tradition has it that one could destroy a witch by going to her house on November 1, and marking a star on the gate. One would then go to a mass dedicated to Saint Martin. When the witch got home, the star would have burned, and the witch would be slowly consumed, her own witchcraft turned against her.
On Christmas Eve, a witch was said to test the strength of her craft by looking upwards through the roof of her house; if she can't see all the stars, even the smallest, it is a sign that her condition is fading; then she must wait for the first full moon night, especially if it falls on Saint Silvester's Day, to mark her buttocks and restore the power of her witchcraft.
It was said that one must not leave a toddler alone in the house on Christmas Eve, because the witches take them. There is a story that a woman of Palau de Vidre went to Midnight Mass and left her infant child at home alone; the witches supposedly took the child outside and left him on top of the garden gate.
"Guardar un fil filat la nit de Nadal, guarda de les bruixes." ("To keep a thread spun on Christmas Eve, will keep you from the witches.")
New Year's Eve
On New Year's Eve, witches were said to have the most power. To maintain that power, a witch was supposed to make seven laps around her house, make certain gestures and sprinkle everything with holy water, blessed leaves from Palm Sunday, or some other blessed object. (Note the remarkable contrast to traditions from elsewhere in Europe, where witches would shy away from any blessed object.) At the stroke of midnight, she would go to dance inside the oven; merely to come near a witch during any of this was said to be particularly dangerous.
The witches of Alt Berguedà and Cadí were said to apply unguents, climb up the chimney and, mounted on brooms, head for Pedraforca to hold a great gathering. The main feature of the gathering was said to be a great circle dance. Similarly, the witches of the Alt Pallars and of the Vall d'Aran were said to meet on the plain of Beret. In Camp de Tarragona, the witches were said to assemble on the peak of Montsant, where they dance naked in the cold to the sound of a violin played by the Devil.
On this night, also, witches were said to carry children away. On New Year's Eve, one should put the children to bed early and make the sign of the cross over them to ward off the evil power.
Supposedly, at New Year's, more than any other night of the year, one must take measures against a visit by the witches. One would cover the embers of the fireplace with ashes, and make a cross over them with one or another fire tool, while reciting a formula (the text of which varies a great deal, from place to place within Catalonia). A householder would leave the fire tongs open in the form of a cross over the embers, or leave two fire tools crossed. These crosses were supposed to summon angels to come down and warm themselves by the embers and, by their presence, ward off devils and the witches.
An alternative tradition was simply to put salt on the chimney. It also was the custom to wash and sprinkle with holy water all the doors and windows, and above all the keyhole, pushing through it a blessed sprig of laurel or rosemary and reciting a prayer (which, again, has a great number of variants). In the region of Montserrat blessed palm leaves would be placed, crossed on the chimney to stop the witches from coming down it. In Lluçanés, they would pour out all the water in the house to prevent the witches from being able to bewitch the house by washing it on their visit.
The Eve of Saint John
Another time of year when witches were specifically to be warded off was the Eve of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, a night associated with the gathering of herbs: supposedly, herbs gathered on that night were particularly powerful. On this night, witches were also said to take the form of partridges or of flies, and also to fly overhead and pour their poisonous brews onto the heads of those whom they wished to harm.
Catalans would light bonfires to scare away the airborne witches. On that night, by the tower of Roquetes, outside Sant Andreu de Palomar the flying embers were said to be witches fleeing the smoke from the bonfires; the flying witches were said to take embers in their hands to try to light the mountain afire, but they would fail because of the virtue that all herbs were said to have on this night. On the peak of Pedraforca, witches were said to gather and to sing:
- Alfàbrega i valeriana,
- menta i ruda
- salven tota criatura
- Ruda i valeriana
- menta i alfàbrega,
- tot ho cura i tot ho salva.
- Menta i alfàbrega,
- ruda i valeriana
- salven tota persona nada.
- Ruda i Valeriana,
- alfàbrega i sàlvia
- tot el món salven.
- Basil and valerian,
- Mint and rue
- Save all creation
- Rue and valerian,
- Mint and basil
- Cure all and save all
- Mint and basil
- Rue and valerian
- Save every person born
- Rue and valerian
- Basil and sage
- Save the whole world
Their master, a goat, was said to leap and dance in the middle of the circle, and to answer as a refrain to each verse:
- Més val l'orella d'ós
- que ho cura i salva tot.
- The borage leaf is worth more
- Which cures and saves all.
Unsurprisingly, it was said to be very dangerous to encounter one of these gatherings, but one could tell where the witches had danced by the remnants of rue, basil, valerian, and sage, and by the "fairy rings" of mushrooms. There is a story from Sant Martí de Sarroca in Penedès, of an old man witnessing the witches' dance, with appropriately dramatic demonic appearances, the ground shaking like an earthquake from their steps, and so forth.
The witches of Andorra, of both sexes, were said to dance naked at the lake of Engolasters. (This legend appears to be reflected in the recently revived festival of El Brut i La Bruta, celebrated in the Catalan village of Torà in the comarca of Segarra. See external site http://www.brutibruta.com.) They form three concentric circles, and at a certain point in the music, they come together and the bump each other hard, rump to rump, dancing to the music of a demon, or a cavalcade of demons, with wooden flute and drum. Andorran witches also supposedly gathered at the summits of Font Argent and of Fra Miquel. Male and female witches were said to have intercourse with demons of the opposite sex.
Before this gathering, Andorran witches were required to fast and to sleep, but they sleep with one eye open, because if they were late for the gathering, the Devil would punish them.
Other stories of Catalan witches
Naturally, there are many other specific local stories of particular local witches, including one known as the Bruixa Napa del Prats del Lluçanès (or Bruixa Napa, or Bruixa Prats) who is often depicted accompanied by her daughter.
In Arbúcies, there is a rhyme that goes:
- dotze dones, dotze bruixes.
- Twelve women, twelve witches.
Other stories include a story from Girona that a particular gargoyle is actually a witch turned to stone, or a story from Canigó of witches producing a hailstorm by urinating into a hole and beating the liquid with vines.
It may be worth reiterating that Catalans today are no more likely to believe in witches than any other modern people. This article is strictly an attempt to give some specificity to the historic beliefs about witches in one particular region of Europe for which the beliefs are relatively well documented.
Note on references
This article was loosely translated (and rearranged) from the corresponding article in the Catalan-language Wikipedia. That article lacks references. Some related material can be found online at http://members.fortunecity.es/mitcat/bruixes.html, at http://www.brutibruta.com, and (offline) in the writings of Joan Amades.