Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Legends of Innis-Sark
A Woman's Curse

THERE was a woman of the Island of Innis-Sark who was determined to take revenge on a man because he called her by an evil name. So she went to the Saints' Well, and, kneeling down, she took some of the water and poured it on the ground in the name of the devil, saying, "So may my enemy be poured out like water, and lie helpless on the earth!" Then she went round the well backwards on her knees, and at each station she cast a stone in the name of the devil, and said, "So may the curse fall on him, and the power of the devil crush him!" After this she returned home.
Now the next morning there was a stiff breeze, and some of the men were afraid to go out fishing; but others said they would try their luck, and amongst them was the man on whom the curse rested. But they had not gone far from land when the boat was capsized by a heavy squall. The fishermen, however, saved themselves by swimming to shore; all except the man on whom the curse rested, and he sank like lead to the bottom, and the waves covered him, and he was drowned.
When the woman heard of the fate that had befallen her enemy, she ran to the beach and clapped her hands with joy and exulted. And as she stood there laughing with strange and horrid mirth, the corpse of the man she had cursed slowly rose up from the sea, and came drifting towards her till it lay almost at her very feet. On this she stooped down to feast her eyes on the sight of the dead man, when suddenly a storm of wind screamed past her, and hurled her from the point of rock where she stood. And when the people ran in all haste to help, no trace of her body could be seen. The woman and the corpse of the man she had cursed disappeared together under the waves, and were never seen again from that the forth.
Another woman in Shark Island was considered to have an evil influence over any one she disliked. One day a man called her a devil's hag in his anger. The woman answered nothing but that night she went to a Holy Well near the place, and kneeling down, invoked a curse in the name of the devil. Then she went round the well three times backward on her knees, and each the threw a stone in the name of the devil, saying," So may the curse fall on his head!" Then she returned home, and told the people to wait for three days, and they would see her words had power. During this time the man was afraid to go out in his boat because of the curse. But on the third day as he was walking by the cliff he fell and broke his leg. And then every one knew that the woman had the witch-secret of evil, and she was held in much fear.
The most effective way of neutralizing the evil influence is to spit on the object and say," God bless it!" But another must do it at your request, and sometimes people refuse, fearing to anger the fairies by interfering with their work, whether for good or evil. But the islanders have such faith in the anointing with spittle that they will often solicit a passing stranger to spit on the afflicted person. Indeed, a stranger is considered to have more power than a neighbour.
A woman who kept a small day-school had reason to think that her son, a fine lad of twelve years old, was bewitched, for when he had eaten up the whole dish of stirabout at supper, he asked for more. And she said--
"My son, you had enough for three men. Go to your bed and sleep."
But next morning he was worse and more ravenous, for he ate up all the bread that his mother had made for the scholars just as she took it from the oven, and not a single cake was left. Then she knew that witchcraft was on the boy, and she stood by the door to watch for a stranger. At last one came by, and she cried to him--
"Come in, come in, for the love of God, and spit on the face of my son!"
"Why should I spit on your son, O woman?" he answered; and he fled away, for he thought she was mad.
Then she sent for the priest, and his reverence poured holy water over him, and laid his hands upon his head while he prayed. So, after a time, the power of the witchcraft was broken, and the boy was restored to his right mind.
The islanders believe also that angels are constantly present amongst them, and all blessed things--the rain, and the dew, and the green crops--come from their power; but the fairies often bring sickness, and will do malicious tricks, and lame a horse, or steal the milk and butter, if they have been offended or deprived of their rights.
There are certain days on which it is not right to speak of the fairies. These days are Wednesdays and Fridays, for then they are present though invisible, and can hear everything, and lay their plans as to what they will carry off. On Friday especially their power for evil is very strong, and misfortunes are dreaded in the household. Therefore, on that day the children and cattle are strictly watched; a lighted wisp of straw is turned round the baby's head, and a quenched coal is set under the cradle and under the churn. And if the horses are restive in the stable, then the people know the fairies are riding on their backs. So they spit three times at the animal, when the fairies scamper off. This cure by the saliva is the most ancient of all superstitions, and the islanders still have the greatest faith in its mysterious power and efficacy.
At Innisboffin the fairies hold a splendid court, with revelry and dancing, when the moon is full; and it is very dangerous for young girls to be out at that the, for they will assuredly be carried off. And if they once hear the fairy music or drink of the fairy wine, they will never be the same again--a fate is on them, and before the year is out they will either disappear or die.
And the fairies are always on the watch for the handsome girls or children; for they look on mortals as of much higher race than themselves. And they are also glad to have the fine young men, the sons of mortal women, to assist them in their wars with each other; for there are two parties amongst the fairy spirits, one a gentle race that loves music and dancing, the other that has obtained power from the devil, and is always trying to work evil.
A young man lay down to sleep one Friday evening in summer under a hay-rick, and the fairies must have carried him off as he slept; for when he woke he found himself in a great hall, where a number of little men were at work--some spinning, some making shoes, some making spears and arrow-heads out of fish-bones and elf-stones; but all busy laughing and singing with much glee and merriment, while the little pipers played the merriest tunes.
Then an old man who sat in the corner came over, and looking very angry, told him he must not sit there idle; there were friends coming to dinner, and he must go down and help in the kitchen. So he drove the poor young fellow before him down into a great vaulted place, where a huge fire was burning, and a large pot was set over it.
"Now," said the old man, "prepare the dinner. There is the old hag we are going to eat."
And true enough, to his horror, on looking round, there was an old woman hung up by the arms, and an old man skinning her.
"Now make haste and let the water boil," said the old man: "don't you see the pot on the fire, and I am nearly ready for you to begin. The company will soon be here, and there is no time to lose, for this old hag will take a good while to boil. Cut her up into little bits, and throw her into the pot."
However, the young fellow was so frightened that he fell down on the floor speechless, and could neither move hand nor foot.
"Get up, you fool," said another old man, who seemed to be the head over all; and he laughed at him. "Do your work and never mind; this does not hurt her a bit. When she was there above in the world she was a wicked miser, hard to the world, and cruel and bitter in her words and works; so now we have her here, and her soul will never rest in peace, because we shall cut up the body in little bits, and the soul will not be able to find it, but wander about in the dark to all eternity without a body."
Then the young man knew no more till he found himself in a beautiful hall, where a banquet was laid out; but, in place of the old hag, the table was covered with fruit, and chickens, and young turkeys, and butter, and cakes fresh from the oven, and crystal cups of bright red wine.
"Now sit down and eat," said the prince, who sat at the top on a throne, with a red sash round his waist, and a gold band on his head. "Sit down with this pleasant company and eat with us; you are welcome."
And there were many beautiful ladies seated round, and grand noblemen, with red caps and sashes; and they all smiled at him and bade him eat.
"No," said the young man; "I cannot eat with you, for I see no priest here to bless the food. Let me go in peace."
"Not at least till you taste our wine," said the prince with a friendly smile.
And one of the beautiful ladies rose up and filled a crystal cup with the bright red wine, and gave it him. And when he saw it, the sight of it tempted him, and he could not help himself, but drank it all off without stopping; for it seemed to him the most delicious draught he ever had in his whole life.
But no sooner had he laid down the glass, than a noise like thunder shook the building, and all the lights went out; and he found himself alone in the dark night lying under the very same hay-rick where he had cast himself down to sleep, tired after his work. So he made his way home at last; but the taste of the fairy wine burned in his veins, and a fever was on him night and day for another draught; and he did no good, but pined away, seeking the fairy mansion, though he never found it any more. And so he died in his youth, a warning to all who eat of the fairy food, or drink of the fairy wine; for never more will they know peace or content, or be fit for their work, as in the days before the fairy spell was on them, which brings doom and death to all who fall under the fatal enchantment of its unholy power.

Next: Legends of the Dead in the Western Islands