Thursday, July 14, 2011

the witches were here

Today we found witches' handles in the horse's mane.

As a child my riding teacher told me that when you found these woven into the mane, it meant that witches had ridden the horse at night. What's strange about a witch's handle is that it is always woven the same way to make a loop - it's not just a knot in the hair.

I retold the story to my youngest daughter and she suggested we wait in the back yard tonight to catch the witch in the act. It would be okay, she said, because this was obviously a good witch...seeing as our little horse was returned unharmed. When we went inside I searched to see if I could find any other stories about the witches' handles. Here's one from Western Folklore, vol xxiii, April 1964, no 2.

In South rather than North America, a smaller creature has been credited with mane-braiding. In 1925, an English schoolteacher called Aime F Tschiffely (I’m saying nothing), was travelling on horseback from Buenos Aires to North America. One morning in the Columbian (sic) Andes he noticed that one of his two horses had its mane plaited. “I tried to undo it,” he wrote in Tschiffely’s Ride, “but found it tightly knotted. I asked the boy, Victor” – this was his Ecuadorian mozo (“boy” or servant) – “if he knew anything about this or if he had done it, and he immed­iately told me ‘El Duende’ had been with the horses during the night… It appears that El Duende… is a dwarf who lives in deep canyons and desolate valleys, where he can often be heard crying like a baby or, when he is in boister­ous mood, making noises rivalling thunder. Natives firmly believe that he is very fond of horseback riding; but being so small, is unable to sit on the horses’ back, so he sits on the animal’s neck, making stirrups by plaiting the mane in such a way as to be able to put his feet in it.” [1]  Duende is a complex and untranslatable word, but one of its meanings is what we would call ‘fairy’.

Interesting, I had always heard a European version of the story, but it seems that all over the world people are creating stories to explain the tying of the mane. Shakespeare mentions the handles in  Romeo and Juliet:
… that very Mab That plaits the manes of horses in the night

Have any of you heard of the Witches' handles? I'm thinking some of my British friends might be familiar with the superstition.

Do you know any other fun folktales that alert us to when the witches and fairy folk have made a visit?

This story inspired the girls to make some drawings after breakfast.

1 comment:

  1. I'm doing research on the history of this oral tradition. I've traced it back to its source in Europe. I'm currently trying to trace its spread in America. I see that you are from Virginia. Was your riding teacher from the same area? Did anyone else in your community know about this legend? Feel free to contact me at Thanks.



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