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EducationProverbs referring to Witches, Gypsies, and Fairies

Proverbs referring to Witches, Gypsies, and Fairies

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Of Fairies, Witches, Gypsies,
My nourrice sang to me ,
Sua Gypsies, Fairies, Witches,
I alsua synge to thee.”
         (“Denham Tract.”)

DR. KRAUSS has in his work, “Sreca, Gluck und Schicksal im Volksglauben der Südslaven,” collected a number of sayings in reference to his subject, from which I have taken some, and added more from other sources.

p. 195

Of an evil woman one says, as in all languages, “To ie vila“—that is, “a witch”; or it is uttered or muttered as, “To je vila ljutica“—that is, “a biting (or bitter) witch”; or to a woman whom one dislikes, “Idi vilo!“—”Begone, witch!” as in gypsy, “Jasa tu chovihani!”

Also, as in German, “Ako i je baba, nje vjestica“—”Though she is an old woman she is no witch”; while, on the other hand, we have, “Svake baba viestica, a djed vjestac“—”Every old woman is a witch, and every old man a wizard.”

The proverb, “Bizi ko vistica od biloga luka“—”she runs from it like a witch from white garlic”—will be found fully explained in the chapter on “The Cure of Children,” in which it is shown that from early times garlic has been a well-known witch-antidote.

Another saying is, “Uzkostrsila se ko vistica“—”Her hair is as tangled, or twisted, as that of a witch”; English gypsy, “Lâkis balia shan risserdi sâr i chovihanis.” But this has a slightly different meaning, since in the Slavonian it refers to matted, wild-looking locks, while the Romany is according to a belief that the hair of a witch is curled at the ends only.

Allied to this is the proverb, “Izgleda kao aa su ga coprnice doniele sa Ivanjscica“—”He looks as if the witches had done for him (or brought him away, ‘fetched’ him) on Saint John’s Eve”; English Romany, “Yuv dikela sá soved a lay sar a chovihani“—”He looks as if he had lain with a witch.”

Svaka vracara s vrazje strane“—”Every witch belongs to the devil’s gang”—that is, she has, sold her soul to him and is in his interests. This is allied to the saying, “Kud ce vjestica do u svoj rod?“—”Where should a witch go if not to her kin or, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Jasa ga vjestice“—”The witches ride him”—refers to the ancient and world-wide belief that witches turn men into animals and ride them in sleep.

The hazel tree and nut are allied to the supernatural or witchly in

p. 196

many lands. For the divining rod, which—is, according to “La Grande Bacchetta Divinatoria O Verga rivelatrice” of the Abbate Valmont, the great instrument for all magic and marvels, must be made of “un ramo forcuto di nocciuòlo“—a forked branch of hazel-nut”—whence a proverb, “Vracarice, coprnjice, kuko ljeskova!”—”Sorceress, witch, hazel-stick.” This is a reproach or taunt to a woman who pays great attention to magic and witchcraft. “This reveals a very ancient belief of the witch as a wood-spirit or fairy who dwells in the nut itself.” More generally it is the bush which, in old German ballads, is often addressed as Lady Hazel. In this, as in Lady Nightingale, we have a relic of addressing certain animals or plants as if they were intelligences or spirits. In one very old song in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” a girl, angry at the hazel, who has reproached her for having loved too lightly or been too frail, says that her brother will come and cut the bush down. To which Lady Hazel replies:—

“Although he comes and cuts me down,
    I’ll grow next spring, ’tis plain,
But if a virgin wreath should fade,
    ‘Twill never bloom again.”

To keep children from picking unripe hazel-nuts in the Canton of Saint Gall they cry to them, “S’ Haselnussfràuli chumt“—”The hazel-nut lady is coming!” Hence a rosary of hazel-nuts or a hazel rod brings luck, and they may be safely hung up in a house. The hazel-nut necklaces found in prehistoric tombs were probably amulets as well as ornaments.

Among popular sayings we may include the following from the Gorski Vijenac:—

“A eto si udrijo vladiko,
U nekakve smućene vjetrove,
Ko u marču što udre yještice.”

But behold, O Vladika,
Thou hast thrown thyself into every storm,
As witches throw or change themselves to cattle.”

p. 197

And with these we may include the curse, “Izjele te viestice“—”May the witches eat you!” which has its exact parallel in Romany. Also the Scottish saying, “Witches, warlocks, and gypsies soon ken ae the ither”:—

“Witches and warlocks without any bother,
Like gypsies on meeting well know one another.”

I may appropriately add to these certain proverbs which are given in an extremely rare “Denham Tract,” of which only fifty copies were printed by JOHN BELL RICHMOND, “in. Com. Ebor.” This quaint little work of only six pages is entitled, “A Few Popular Rhymes, Proverbs, and Sayings relating to Fairies, Witches, and Gypsies,” and bears the dedication, “To every individual Fairy, Witch, and Gypsy from the day of the Witch of Endor down to that of Billy Dawson, the Wise Man of Stokesley, lately defunct, this tract is inscribed.”


Vervain and Dill
Hinder witches from their will.

The following refers to rowan or mountain-ash wood, which is supposed to be a charm against witchcraft:—

If your whipstick’s made of rowan
You can ride your nag thro’ any town.

Much about a pitch,
Quoth the devil to the witch.

A hairy man’s a geary man,
But a hairy wife’s a witch.

Woe to the lad
Without a rowan-tree god.

A witch-wife and an evil
Is three-halfpence worse than the devil.

p. 198

Hey-how for Hallow-e’en!
When all the witches are to be seen,
Some in black and some in green,
Hey-how for Hallow-e’en!
Thout! tout! a tout, tout!
Throughout and about.

Cummer goe ye before, cummer goe ye,
Gif ye will not goe before, cummer let me!

“These lines are said to have been sung by witches at North Berwick in Lothian, accompanied by the music of a Jew’s harp or trump, which was played by Geilles Duncan, a servant girl, before two hundred witches, who joined hands in a short daunce or reel, singing (also) these lines with one voice:—

“‘Witchy, witchy, I defy thee,
Four fingers round my thumb,
Let me go quietly by thee.’

“It will be seen that this is a phallic sign, and as such dreaded by witches. It is difficult to understand why these verses with the sign should have been given by witches.”

The anti-witch rhyme used in Tweedesdale some sixty or seventy years ago was:—

“‘Black-luggie, lammer bead,
Rowan-tree and reed thread,
Put the witches to their speed.’

The meaning of ‘black-luggie’ I know not. ‘Lammer bead’ is a corruption of ‘amber-bead.’ They are still worn by a few old people in Scotland as a preservative against a variety of diseases, especially asthma, dropsy, and toothache. They also preserve the wearer from, the effects of witchcraft, as stated in the text. I have seen a twig of rowan-tree, witch-wood, quick-bane, wild ash, wicken-tree, wicky, wiggy, witchen, witch-bane, royne-tree, mountain-ash, whitty, wiggin, witch-hazel, roden-quicken, roden-quicken-royan, roun, or ran-tree, which had been gathered

p. 199

on the second of May (observe this), wound round with some dozens of yards of red thread, placed visible in the window to act as a charm in keeping witches and Boggle-boes from the house. So also we have—

“‘Rowan-ash and reed thread
Keep the devils from their speed,”‘

Ye brade o’ witches, ye can do no good to yourself.

Fair they came,
Fair they go,
And always their heels behind them.

Neither so sinful as to sink, nor so godly as to swim.

Falser than Waghorn, and he was nineteen times falser than the devil.

Ingratitude is worse than witchcraft.

Ye’re as mitch
As half a witch.

To milk the tether (i.e., the cow-tie).

This refers to a belief that witches can carry off the milk from any one’s cow by milking at the end of the tether.

Go in God’s name—so you ride no witches.

“Rynt, you witch” quoth Bess Lockit to her mother.

Rynt, according to Skeat, is the original Cumberland word for aroint,” i.e., “aroint thee, get thee gone.” Icelandic ryma—”to make room, to clear the way”—given, however, only as a guess. It seems to have been specially applied to witches.

“‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cried.”

Halliwell gives the word as rynt, and devotes a column to it, without coming to any satisfactory conclusion. I think it is simply the old word rynt or wrynt, another form of writhe, meaning to twist or strangle, as if one should say, “Be thou strangled!” which was indeed a frequent malediction. Halliwell himself gives “wreint” as meaning “awry,” and

p. 200

wreith destordre“—”to wring or wreith” (“Hollyband’s Dictionarie,” 1593). The commonest curse of English gypsies at the present day is, “Beng tasser tute!” “May the devil strangle you”—literally twist, which is an exact translation of wrinthe or rynt.

“The gode man to hys cage can goo
And wrythed the pye’s neck yn to.”
                        (“MS. Cantab.” ap. H.)

Rynt may mean twist away, i.e., begone, as they say in America, “he wriggled away.”

They that burn you for a witch lose all their coals.

Never talk of witches on a Friday.

Ye’re ower aude ffarand to be fraid o’ witches.

Witches are most apt to confess on a Friday.

Friday is the witches’ Sabbath.

To hug one as the devil hugs a witch.

As black}as a witch.
As cross
As ugly
As sinful

Four fingers and a thumb—witch, I defy thee.

In Italy the signs are made differently. In Naples the gettatura consists of throwing out the fore and middle fingers, so as to imitate horns, with the thumb and fingers closed. Some say the thumb should be within the middle and third fingers. In Florence the anti-witch gesture is to fare la fica, or stick the thumb out between the fore and middle fingers.

You’re like a witch, you say your prayers backward.

Witch-wood (ie., the mountain ash).

You’re half a witch-i.e., very cunning.

Buzz! buzz! buzz!

In the middle of the sixteenth century if a person waved his hat or

p. 201

bonnet in the air and cried ‘Buzz!’ three times, under the belief that by this act he could take the life of another, the old law and law-makers considered the person so saying and acting to be worthy of death, he being a murderer in intent, and having dealings with witches” (“Denham Tract”). Very doubtful, and probably founded on a well known old story.

“I wish I was as far from God as my nails are free from dirt!”

Said to have been a witch’s prayer whilst she was in the act of cleaning her nails. In logical accuracy this recalls the black boy in America, who on being asked if he knew the way to a certain place, replied, “I only wish I had as many dollars as I know my way there.”

A witch is afraid of her own blood.

A Pendle forest witch.

A Lancashire witch.

A witch cannot greet (ie., weep).

To be hog, or witch-ridden.


So many gypsies, so many smiths.

The gypsies are all akin.

One of the Faw gang,
Worse than the Faw gang.

The Faws or Faas are a gypsy family whose head-quarters are at Yetholme. I have been among them and knew the queen of the gypsies and her son Robert, who were of this clan or name.

“It is supposed the Faws acquired this appellation from Johnnie Faw, lord and earl of Little Egypt; with whom James the Fourth and Queen Mary, sovereigns of Scotland, saw not only the propriety, but also the necessity of entering into special treaty” (“Denham Tract”)

“Francis Heron, king of the Faws, bur. (Yarrow) xiii. Jan., 1756 (SHARP’S “Chron. Mir”).

p. 202

Source: In the “Materials for the Study of the Gypsies,” by M. I. KOUNAVINE, which I have not yet seen, there are, according to A. B. Elysseeff (Gypsy-Lore Journal, July, 1890), three or four score of gypsy proverbial sayings and maxims. These refer to Slavonian or far Eastern Russian Romanis. I may here state in this connection that all who are interested in this subject, or aught relating to it, will find much to interest them in this journal of the Gypsy-Lore Society, printed by T. & A. Constable, Edinburgh. The price of subscription, including membership of the society, is £1 a year—Address: David Mac Ritchie, 4, Archibald Place, Edinburgh.

Illustration source: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, by Charles Godfrey Leland. Release Date: December 13, 2018 [EBook #58465]

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