Weekly Article #12: The Witch-lore of Catalonia

El Aquelarre.goya

(Aquelarre or El gran cabrón, Francis Goya, 1821 – 1823)

In keeping with the ongoing research project ‘Archaic Traces: A History of Pyrenean Witchcraft’, we will turn our attention to the presence of the witch in Catalan folklore, and in particular, those beliefs that are peculiar to this region.

In Catalan folklore, it is said that one can identify a witch due to their being a permanent imprint of the Devil’s teeth in her buttocks, which cannot be washed away even with holy water! Another indication of someone being in league with the horned one is that of unnatural pupils. This is common in witch-lore across the world, one combination is peculiar to Catalonia. One pupil will be a double pupil, and the other will be in the shape of a deer’s antlers (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

One aspect that is immediately apparent is the use of the comb in witch-lore. One of the oldest tools in the archaeological record, the comb can be found in many forms, but often has links to those with high status, presumably due to its role in caring for long hair, often historically a luxury of the upper echelons of society due to the time and care involved. Of course, the comb is not an unusual object in ‘magical’ folktales more generally, however it seems particularly prevalent in Catalan folklore. The comb is typically linked to storms, especially out at sea, with hair that falls to the floor or becomes entangled in the comb either causing or indicating the approach of a mighty tempest. It also plays a role in the binding with or destruction of amorous feelings, often accompanied by the action of combing or seeing an enchantress combing her hair. Tales exist of witches combing their hair by the side of a pool of water with golden or silver combs, and those that look upon them fall under their spell forever.

One tale that illustrates this power of the comb is ‘L’Amor de les Tres Taronges’ (‘The Love of the Three Oranges’), in which an old woman (the witch) offers to comb the hair of a beautiful young girl. She accepts, and the witch pricks her neck with the comb, causing her to fall into a deep death-like sleep. In other versions, she turned into a bird. In either case, the girl can only be returned to her previous state by being pricked again by the same comb (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

Another comb-centric tale is that of ‘The Castle of Iras’. The daughter of a powerful witch escapes from her mother’s castle with her lover, on a horse that runs as fast as the wind. However, the witch is far from pleased by this and sets off after her on a horse that can run as fast as thoughts. The witch almost catches the desperate couple, however, the daughter has some tricks of her own, inherited from her mother. She tears her comb from her hair and throws it over her shoulder into the path of the witch. The comb falls to the ground and becomes either a thick impenetrable forest or a river of flames, depending on which version of the tale one reads. In either case, the witch cannot cross the obstacle, and the couple ride to safety and happiness (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

Yet another tale the emphasizes the link between the comb, hair and power, is that of ‘The Three Hairs of the Devil’. Hair is also a long-established component of both spells and fetishes that can bring control over a person, and in this case, this ability is extended to the locks of the Devil himself! A king offers to pardon the crimes of a man if he is able to bring back from Hell three of the Devil’s hairs. The man wanders for months and determines that should he find the Devil he will ask him three questions: Why a pear tree that produces golden pears has failed to yield fruit; why a well that is filled with wine has run dry; and how was the boatman that ferried dead souls persuaded to return to the land of the living? The reason for his desire to know the answers to these rather unusual questions is not given, however, he eventually finds himself at the gates of Hell. Rather surprisingly, the Devil’s grandmother bustles out and offers to help him in his task! When the Devil returns to his home, it is dark and he is tired. He lays his head in his grandmother’s lap, who begins to sing softly to him, combing his unruly hair. The man, who has been lurking out of sight, seizes his chance and once the Devil has fallen asleep, he plucks out three hairs and asks the Devil those three questions, which the fiend answers softly in his sleep. Not wishing to outstay his welcome the man flees with the three hairs and his answers, returning to the king’s palace to hand the hairs over and gain his hard-won pardon (Anglada i Ferran, 1989).

  Turning to some more general aspects of Catalan witch-lore, it is said that one can become a witch by travelling to the coast at night and rolling around in the sand seven times, followed by walking round in a circle (direction unknown) three times. In keeping with the septenary theme, in order to maintain the powers granted to them, witches would need to make seven circuits of their house on New Year’s eve, sprinkling it with holy water and making gestures with blessed objects such as a palm from Palm Sunday. This would be followed somehow with the witch dancing within her (presumably capacious) oven! An unusual aspect of this piece of lore is the beneficial contact with and use of consecrated and blessed objects, which are usually a feature of repelling witches or destroying them in many other cultures. Another powerful date included All Saints Day (November 1st) during which a witch would break off the crosses on any graves they passed, so as to de-consecrate the burial plot. Conversely, it was also an excellent day for destroying witches. This was done by visiting the house of a witch and making a star on her door, then waiting ten days until the Feast of St Martin and attending a mass dedicated to the saint. Upon return to the house after this mass the whole building will have burned down, destroying the witch in the process (Garcia Carrera, 1987). In a similar manner to the gathering at Engolasters in Andorra, several sites in Catalonia are linked to Sabbatical gatherings. Pedraforca played host to the witches of Alt Bergueda and Cadi, who applied various salves to their bodies and launched themselves from their chimney stacks on brooms to head to the meetings. When all were gathered the witches would dance and perform a call and response routine with the Devil:

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

Saves all creation.

Rue and valerian,

Mint and basil

Cures all and saves everyone.

Mint and basil

Rue and valerian

Saves every person born.

Rue and valerian

Basil and sage

Saves the whole world.)


The Devil would allegedly respond to each verse with the refrain:


Més val l’orella d’ós

que ho cura i salva tot.

The ‘Orella d’os’ is worth more

Which cures and saves all. (Garcia Carrera, 1987)

The ‘Orella d’os’ (literally ‘Bear’s Ear’) is the Pyrenean Violet, and is also known as the ‘borage leaf’, or ‘hairy grass’. In folk medicine is used to combat the common cold (Agelet et al, 2002).

  Pyrenean Violet

(Pyrenean Violet [Lat. Ramonda myconi], taken from http://frantrabalon.blogspot.com)

The plain of Beret saw meetings of the witches from Alt Pallars and the Vall d’Aran, and even the monastic mountain of Montserrat was not safe from these diabolical gatherings, where the Devil kept the witches dancing to the strains of his frantic violin playing. However, the villages surrounding Montserrat had tricks of their own, and would place blessed palm leaves over the chimney to prevent witches entering it. Salt, laurel, rosemary and holy water were also used elsewhere on all windows, keyholes and doorways to prevent any unwanted sorcerous intrusions (Soler i Amigo et al, 2014).

Fire is also an age-old method of keeping witches at bay, and Catalonia is no exception with this practise. The feast of Sant Joan (Midsummer) is celebrated with great bonfires, and these are traditionally said to keep witches at bay, during a night when the herbs they gather are particularly potent. This was particularly important on this night as the witches were said to fly around tipping poisonous concoctions on the heads of their enemies (Garcia Carrera, 1987).



 (Canigou Mountain taken from http://www.tourism-canigo.com)

A final piece of witch-lore for this installment comes from the Canigou mountain (or Canigó in Catalan) of the Pyrenees-Orientales, made famous by the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer i Santaló. According to legend, hailstorms were created by witches using a most unusual method. They would relieve themselves into a hole in the ground, and then beat their produce with local vines, raising a great storm to attack the local villages! Presumably, and hopefully for the sake of the villagers, the hail stones were made from normal water rather than ‘witch’s water’!

Works referenced:

Agelet, A, Muntane, J, Parada, M & Valles, J. 2002. Plantes Medecinals del Pirineu Catala. Sant Vincent de Castellet: Farell.

Soler i Amigo, J & Pubill, R. 2014. Les Bruixes es Pentinen: Mitologia i Realitat de la Bruixeria Catalana. Barcelona: Portic Singular Edicions.

Anglada i Ferran, M. 1989. Histories i Relats Pirinencs. Andorra La Vella: Editorial Andorra.

Garcia Carrera, R. 1987. Cacera de bruixes al Vallès. Terrassa: Editorial Ègara.


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