In Irish legend, 12 horned women,
all witches, who take over the household of a rich woman
and bewitch her and her sleeping family. No reason for
the bewitching is given in the story—perhaps, in times
past, no reason was necessary, for witches were believed
to bewitch simply because they were witches. The legend
tells of how the distressed woman breaks the spell.
The bewitchment began late one night, as the woman
sat up carding wool while her family and servants slept. A
knock came on the door, and she asked who was there. A
female voice answered, “I am the Witch of the one Horn.”
The woman thought it was a neighbor and opened the
door. She was greeted by an ugly woman from whose forehead
grew a single horn. The witch held a pair of wool
carders. She sat down by the fire and began to card wool
with great speed. She suddenly paused and said, “Where
are the women? they delay too long.”
Another knock came on the door. The mistress of the
house, who seemed to be under a spell by now, felt compelled
to answer it. She was greeted by another witch,
who had two horns growing from her forehead, and who
carried a spinning wheel. This witch also sat down by the
fire and began to spin wool with great speed.
The house soon was filled with 12 frightful-looking,
horned witches, each one having an additional horn, so
that the last witch bore 12 horns on her forehead. They
worked furiously on the wool, singing an ancient tune,
ignoring the mistress, who was unable to move or call
Eventually, one of the witches ordered the mistress to
make them a cake, but the woman had no vessel with
which to fetch water from the well. The witches told her
to take a sieve to the well. She did, but the water ran
through the sieve, and she wept. While she was gone, the
witches made a cake, using blood drawn from members
of the sleeping family in place of water.
As she sat weeping by the well, the mistress heard a
voice. It was the Spirit of the Well, who told her how to
make a paste of clay and moss and cover the sieve, so that
it would hold water. It then instructed her to go back to
her house from the north and cry out three time, “The
mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is
all on fire.” The mistress did as instructed. The witches
shrieked and cried and sped off to the Slivenamon, “the
mountains of women,” where they lived.
The Spirit of the Well then told the mistress how to
break the witches’ spell and prevent them from returning.
She took the water in which she had bathed her children’s
feet and sprinkled it over the threshold of the house. She
took the blood cake, broke it into pieces and placed them
in the mouths of the bewitched sleepers, who were revived.
She took the woolen cloth the witches had woven
and placed it half in and half out of a padlocked chest. She
barred the door with a large crossbeam.
The witches returned in a rage at having been deceived.
Their fury increased when they discovered that
they could not enter the house because of the water, the
broken blood cake and the crossbeam. They flew off into
the air, screaming curses against the Spirit of the Well,
but they never returned. One of the witches dropped her
mantle, which the mistress took and hung up as a reminder
of her ordeal. The mantle remained in the family
for 500 years.
The legend of the horned women appears to be a blend
of pagan and Christian aspects. The well is inhabited by
a spirit, a common pagan belief. The horns of the witches
symbolize the maternal and nurturing aspect of the Goddess,
who is sometimes represented by a cow. The horns
also symbolize the crescent moon, another Goddess symbol.
In ancient Greek and Babylonian art, the Mother Goddess
often is depicted wearing a headdress of little horns.
Yet the horned women of the legend are not maternal and
nurturing but hags who cast an evil spell, fly through the
air and shriek curses—the portrayal of witches spread
by the Church. The cardinal point of north is associated
with power, darkness and mystery in paganism, but in
Christianlore it is associated with the Devil.