Butter Witches and Churning Superstitions

This appeared in the North Clare Local in August. 

A traditional churn (via Wikimedia Commons)

A traditional churn (via Wikimedia Commons)

If we put ourselves into the shoes of a farmer in older times, it’s easy to see how important cattle were. Cattle meant milk, butter and sales. It all began with them, and if they sickened, or did not give milk, it mean disaster for the farm and family.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of superstitions about protecting them from evil and harm.

Fairies were a threat to cattle and farm as a whole. To disturb a fairy tree or even worse, a fairy fort, would lead to the farm being mired in bad luck. The cattle might stop giving milk, or worse, give bloody milk, making it unsaleable and unusable.

While blood in milk can be common in cows that have recently calved, some conditions and diseases can lead to more severe bleeding. Today, farmers have greater understanding of livestock illness and parasites. In the past, many of these were unexplained.

May Day, as I mentioned in a previous article, was an important time to protect animals. Cattle were adorned with red ribbons and had holy water sprinkled on them for protection. In Clare itself, sick cattle were driven into Lough Fergus for a cure. If they turned right, they would live; if they went left they were doomed.

Cattle faced other threats to their wellbeing. While the Irish, unlike most of their European neighbours, never had a strong belief in witchcraft, ‘butter witches’ were an exception.

Irish witches limited themselves to the small-scale business of stealing butter. By magic, they could divert cow’s milk from a neighbouring homestead to their own. The witch would prosper, and the hard-working farmer would be left with nothing. There were a lot of preventative measures that could be taken against these witches. Braiding the cows’ tails, sprinkling holy water, keeping a cinder or iron tongs near the churn were all ways of warding off butter witches or malevolent fairies.

WB Yeats collects two tales of butter witches in The Book of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. One is from Donegal and the other from Laois, but they are remarkably similar. The witch, while threatening the lifeblood of the farm, was relatively easy to dispatch. A call to a fairy doctor and a few complicated rituals later, and the witch has taken to her hare form, is summarily killed, and buried as a woman.

Lady Francesca Wilde collected an interesting tale of two brothers. The pair were churning butter one day on their farm, but the handle of the ‘dash’ (the stick used to churn the milk) broke off. One brother fetched a fallen branch from an elderflower tree and the work continued, until they suddenly found they had more butter than they could fill their pots with. Their good fortune did not abate. Selling, the butter they became wealthy. No doubt thinking this was all too good to be true, they called a fairy doctor.

The Milky Way (Andy via Flickr)

The Milky Way (Andy via Flickr)

The fairy doctor told them they had been fools to speak of their luck; the elderflower branch was from a fairy tree and to speak of it to outsiders had broken its spell. Although their churn never produced such quantities of butter again, the brothers had their money made and remained comfortable for the rest of their days.

What is unusual about that story is that men were churning. It was seen as woman’s work and a great many rituals surrounded it. It was always manners for a visitor to lend a hand in churning, or at least say, “bless the work”, lest they steal the butter away with them.

A particularly gruesome, if vague, story of ‘slow churning’ comes from Kilkee in the 19th century. A family reportedly used the preserved hand of a corpse to churn their butter. Three brothers allegedly did the same with their father’s hand in Oola, Co Limerick, around the same time. These stories may have been completely fictional, urban legends of their day, but it is worth remembering that strange beliefs did attach themselves to this element of food production.

Patricia Monaghan, who I mentioned last month, tells the story of Glas Gaibhleann, a mythical cow in ancient times. She gave cream rather than butter, and it never dried up. She could walk Ireland in a single day, and legend states that the rocky Burren was made by her hooves. Glas Gaibhleann fed all she met, and Ireland never starved while she was around. Of course, humans being what they will, people tried to enslave the cow and take her abundance for themselves. Glas Gaibhleann always escaped, but in the end she had enough of people. She went skywards, and left her trail behind on the Bealach na Bó Finne, or the Milky Way.  Something to think of next time you’re stirring milk in your tea!

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