The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/A Witch's Ladder (Frazer)


CAN the "Witches' Ladder," or "Rope and Feathers," so fortunately discovered by Dr. Colles, be one of those ropes which witches are known to have used in many places for the purpose of drawing away the milk from the neighbours' cows? This suggestion I owe to a friend, who has kindly communicated an example of the practice. In Ayrshire, about the beginning of the century, a tenant came to his landlord to tell him, as a Justice of the Peace, that the neighbours were convinced that a Mrs. Young was a witch, and he wished him to proceed against the woman as such. Mrs. Young was said to have been seen riding on the rigging (the ridge) of the house, and to have a rope by pulling at which she drew the milk from her neighbour's cows into her own milk-pail. Napier (Folk-lore in the West of Scotland, p. 75) reports a case of a Highland boy in Glasgow who proposed to bring milk from the neighbours' cows by milking the tether. "The tether is the rope-halter, and by going through the form of milking this, repeating certain incantations, the magic transference was supposed capable of being effected." Sometimes in Scotland the rope had to be made of hairs taken from the tails of the cows whose milk was to be stolen; a knot was tied in the rope for each cow, and by pulling at the knots as if she were milking, and at the same time uttering a spell, the witch brought the milk into her pail (R. Chambers, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, p. 329). The magic virtue of the rope seems in some cases to have been acquired or at least strengthened by the fact of its having been used to sweep the May-dew from the pasture-fields (Henderson, Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England, p. 199). In Bohemia the rope must have been cut from the bell-rope; with such a rope you can milk all the cows within sound of the bell (Grohmann, Aberglauben und Gebräuche aus Böhmen und Mähren, no. 965). In Germany the belief that witches can milk the neighbours' cows through a rope is universal (Wuttke, Der deutsche Volksaberglaube, § 216). Among the Wends also the same superstition exists (Veckenstedt, Wendische Sagen Mährchen und abergläubische Gebräuche, p. 283, seq.; Schulenburg, Wendische Volkssagen und Gebräuche aus dem Spreewald, p. 167). A broomstick will serve as well as a rope; you stick one end of the broomstick in the wall and work it like a pump-handle, and the milk flows from the other end into your pail (Kuhn und Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen Mährchen und Gebräuche, p. 24 seq.)

In India a witch is supposed to suck the blood of her enemy through a string. To do this she gets on the top of her victim's hut at midnight, and, making a hole in the roof, lets down a string through it till it touches his body. Putting the other end of the string in her mouth she sucks the blood out of the sleeper's body (Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, New Series, vol. vi. p. 278, seq.) This resembles the Australian mode of sucking a disease out of a man through a string; the patient holds one end of the string and the doctor sucks away at the other, spitting out the disease in the form of blood, which the patient believes has been drawn from his body, but which scoffers are apt to think comes from the gums of the medical practitioner (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xiv. p. 361; xvi. p. 39; G. F. Angas, Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, ii. p. 227; Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery in Central Australia, ii. p. 361).

But what of the feathers in the "Witches' Ladder"? Here again Australia may illustrate Somersetshire. In Australia it is the doctor's business to kill as well as to cure, and one of his modes of procedure is this. He takes something belonging to the person who is to be operated on, fastens it to the end of a throwing-stick, together with some eaglehawk feathers and some human or kangaroo fat. The throwing-stick is then stuck slanting in the ground before the fire, in such a position that it must by-and-by fall down. The doctor then sings his charm, mentioning his victim's name, and when the stick falls down the victim dies (Journ. Anthrop. Inst. xvi. p. 27 seq.; Cp. J. Dawson, Australian Aborigines, p. 54, whence it appears that the throwing-stick is thought to turn round and fall in the direction of the victim's tribe). Here the object of the throwing-stick and feathers seems to be to throw and waft through the air the magic influence, so as to reach the victim. May not this have been the object of the feathers in the "Witches' Ladder"? May they not have been meant to wing the charm through the air to the cows, and to wing the milk from the cows to the pail? Of course such a magic rope could be used for other analogous purposes. The informer, Edmund Robinson, averred in his deposition of 1633 that "presently after, seeing divers of the company going to a barn adjoining, he followed after, and there he saw six of them kneeling and pulling at six several ropes, which were fastened or tied to the top of the house, at or with which pulling came then in this informer's sight flesh smoking, butter in lumps, and milk as it were syling [skimming or straining] from the said ropes, all which fell into basins which were placed under the said ropes" (Harland and Wilkinson, Lancashire Folk-Lore, p. 196). The rope discovered by Dr. Colles "has at one end a loop, as if for the purpose of suspending it," so that it could be used in the way described by the informer. If this explanation should turn out to be correct, the name "Witches' Ladder" would be a misnomer; and it is to be observed that both the old women who were questioned on the subject spoke, not of a ladder, but of "the rope and feathers." At all events, in the present obscurity of the subject, the above suggestion is perhaps worth considering.

An article was published in the Daily News drawing attention to this subject, and in the issue of that paper for 26 January, 1887, appeared the following letter:—

"I read your interesting paragraph about 'Folk-Lore,' and I have with some difficulty unearthed one or two secrets connected therewith, which I transmit to you if it will be of use to you or your readers. I learn that the 'witches' ladder' may be made of wheat-straw, called 'elm,' 'ellum,' or probably 'haulm-straws.' Take four straws, tie two together, top and bottom, for one side of the ladder. Tie the other two in same manner, and then insert short straws between for steps. Now take small feathers and place them up each side of the ladder, and you have a real Somersetshire witches' ladder. It is used in this way. Anything that goes cross-grained, if the ladder is waved to and fro a few times, and the request muttered at same time with the swinging, the thing that was wrong will be righted. For instance, the fire will not burn, or the flats will not heat for ironing, or the lover will not come, or the husband stays out too late; swing the ladder, saying, 'Burn fire,' 'Irons heat,' &c., and all will be well. Another barbarous and cruel custom among the superstitious (I learned) is practised. A young girl has a recreant sweetheart, so she takes a pigeon, and at midnight tears out its heart, sticks it full of pins, and roasts it, and the lover returns to his ladylove, and is faithful ever after, as he should be. I was told that if a witch suspects a person of crime, or of witchcraft, or any offence whatsoever, she hangs her ladder outside her house; if the person comes to the door but cannot be induced to enter, the thing is proved against him. I daresay it is also used for other purposes, which I will try to discover if you care to be informed.—I am, Sir, yours truly,

Royal Hotel, Portishead, Somerset.

P.S.—I omitted to say that the feathers must be taken out of a living bird.