Year of the Witch: Moti-katika and the Water Witch

This south-east African story comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Cauldron of Witches and starts off by introducing us to a woman with a delightful little boy called Moti-katika and a less delightful husband who is described as being ‘rather teasy-tempered’ and by that I think she means he’s a nightmare. One day he takes himself to bed and makes a lot of noise about being ill, but when his wife brings him water from the well he knocks the pitcher right out of her hand and insists that it is contaminated by frogs. So his wife goes to a nearby lake and brings a new pitcher back to her husband’s sickbed. He smashes this one too. “How can I drink such water?” he demands. “Don’t you know there are toads in the lake?”

His wife takes a third pitcher and presumably a very deep breath and goes off to a different lake in the hope her husband might drink from this one, but no, apparently it reeks of reeds. The woman is now running out of options. She leaves the house for the fourth time, with a fourth pitcher in hand, and walks for a long time, until she comes to a third lake. This time she takes in the state of the water with enormous care. No frogs, no reeds – could this water actually be acceptable? The woman fills her pitcher and out of the water emerges an enormous water witch. She wants to know who has the NERVE to go stealing HER water.

The woman spills her story, explaining that her husband is in need of the purest water and no water seemed more pure than what is in this lake…When this cuts no ice with the water witch, the woman pleads that her husband and son could not manage without her, which is undeniably true. The water witch is intrigued by the mention of a son. “Is he sweet, is he toothsome, is he beautiful?” she inquires. You’d think that the word ‘toothsome’ would alert the woman to what this question is really about, but she gushes unthinking praise for her boy’s beauty. The woman herself is very thin, not an appealing meal; the witch decides to let her go and come tomorrow to collect Moti-katika in her stead. She instructs the woman to cut his hair and place a necklace of white beads on him so that the witch will recognise him, because she knows that if she goes about eating random children then the village will exact retribution. “And I do not choose,” she tells the woman loftily, “to have my peace disturbed and my lake sullied by a mob of village hooligans!”

By the time the woman gets home, her husband is bored of staying in bed and downs the water without argument, announcing himself cured. When Moti-katika returns home from school his mother tells him urgently that he must hide the next day or else a water witch will eat him up. He is not concerned in the least, because Moti-katika has a secret. A while ago, he was picking wild berries and gave everything he had found to an old woman struggling past through the woods. She was really a fairy, as passing old ladies so often are, and in gratitude for his gift she gave him five bones. If he lays them out on the ground and speaks to them politely, they will show him what to do.

So, with a witch on her way, Moti-katika lays out the bones. He considers the row. “This bone is my mother,” he decides, touching the first bone. The second he calls his father, the third the witch and the fourth himself. The fifth is the bone that will tell him what to do about all of it. The bone bounces off the grass and whispers its answer straight into his ear. Moti-katika packs up the bones, goes inside and asks his mother to cut his hair.

She cries the whole time and is crying the next morning as she puts on the white bead collar specified by the witch, but her son is perfectly calm. “There is no need to cry,” he informs his mother. “Water Witches are very stupid people. But I am not stupid.” And indeed he’s not. He gathers up every boy in the village, gives them white collars, cuts their hair and gives them directions in Operation Defeat Water Witch.

Very soon the wind picks up and the ground shakes and the witch is stomping towards them. “Which one of you is Moti-katika?” she demands and every boy sings out that it’s him, can’t she see it’s him? She does not dare eat up all the children of the village so she has to leave, but she hasn’t given up. She corners Moti-katika’s mother and menaces her. The poor woman, who must be used to impossible people after dealing with her husband for so long, placates the witch by inviting her into the house for a pot of maize. The witch proceeds to eat the literal pot. While she’s busy with that, Moti-katika’s mother frantically hisses at her son to run and hide.

He does, but only to quietly consult with his bones. The fifth bone leaps up, bumps against against the boy’s shoulder and transforms into a bee. It buzzes right off and stings the witch’s nose. Moti-katika’s mother hastily assures the angry witch that her son will be here in the night, he will be in this bed right here, so if the witch returns she will get her meal. The witch believes that this downtrodden woman will give up her child that easily and comes back after dark. What she doesn’t know is that mother and son have put a big stone in the little bed, wrapped in a quilt, so when the witch comes barging into the house and snatches up what she thinks is a boy, she is actually swallowing down something that even she struggles to digest. It’s the beginning of a dreadful stomach-ache. “Boys, boys,” she wails. “If this is what comes of eating boys, though I should live for a thousand years I will never eat another!” And, we are asssured, indeed she did not.

This story would be charming just for the ‘I am Spartacus’ moment with the village boys but I also love Moti-katika’s mother, who is underestimated by the witch from the moment they meet but never for one minute plans to give up on her son. As for her husband, he’s a footnote. He’s a backstory. He is irrelevant and the story knows it, because he does not feature at all in the happy ending.

Year of the Witch: The Witch and the Swan Maiden

When I started this project, I decided that I would only write about stories that I had not covered before during Fairy Tale Tuesdays, which ruled out some of the big names in witch folklore such as ‘Snow White’ and ‘Rapunzel’ but has certainly stretched into some fascinatingly obscure corners. I have read a lot of stories that are new to me this year, including this Hungarian fairy tale from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1968 collection The Glass Man and the Golden Bird.

It begins when a king sees a swan, a kind of bird he has never seen before, and straight away goes to shoot it. The swan negotiates for its life by coming to him and agreeing to live in his palace. Unfortunately there is already a witch in residence, who has been putting a lot of effort into seducing the king and is not best pleased when he goes all heart-eyes for a bird. She briskly informs the king that swans are much too savage to be kept as pets and he ought to have it cooked instead. Such is her force of personality that he sadly gives way. The witch takes the swan to the kitchens to cut its throat herself, with unnecessary zeal.

The swan has other ideas. It turns three somersaults, turns into a beautiful girl and bolts out of the kitchen, running to appeal to the king’s mercy. “I lived in the land of the fairies with my mother and two sisters,” she tells him. “But I was curious to see the world, and I left them and flew away. Do not, oh do not have me killed!” The king thinks this is a good time to propose marriage. “For,” he tells her, “I do not think there exists on earth another maiden as beautiful as you are!” There is a whole Swan Princess movie about how this is the EXACT WRONG THING TO SAY, with a DANCE NUMBER and everything. But the swan maiden has already negotiated once and does so again, and doesn’t seem too unhappy about the arrangement.

Anyway, so the witch’s plan has backfired as spectacularly as it is possible to backfire. She watches with bitter fury as the king enjoys wedded bliss and the swan maiden bride gives birth to his son and heir, but she disguises her resentment so successfully that when the king sets off on a journey he puts the safety of his wife and child in the witch’s hands. “I will care for them as if they were my own children,” the witch assures him soothingly, and plays the fond friend by coaxing the queen out for a walk in the gardens. This is obviously so that the sad queen, who is missing her husband, can enjoy the birds and the flowers and admire her reflection in the waters of that not-remotely-suspicious deep well…

Drown, drown, drown!” snarls the witch, tipping her in.

When the king returns she tells him that the swan maiden grew homesick and returned to her family, but that in her absence the witch cared for the king’s son with absolute devotion. “I pray you not to grieve,” she coaxes, “but to rejoice in your son.”

Not grieve!” the king echoes, stunned, and is back on his horse in a heartbeat. He searches the lake where he first met the swan maiden, calling for her desperately, but of course there is no one there to answer him. Months pass and turn into years. The witch plays loving nursemaid to the king’s son, which is a subtler seduction than her first attempt, and when at last the king accepts that his wife is not coming back, he decides that the witch will make a good mother to his child. So a wedding is arranged and it looks like the witch is finally going to get what she wants.

Only, something odd is happening at the well. A willow tree is growing from it, spreading three branches. One day as a peasant boy is driving his flock of sheep by the garden wall, he sees the tree and cuts off the middle branch to make a flute. When he goes to play it, it sings a plaintive song. Oh boy, do not blow too hard! My heart is aching for my little son, my little son whom I left in the cradle, to be nursed on the lap of a wicked witch. The terrified boy runs home to tell his father, who tries out the flute himself. He hears the song, freaks out and locks the flute away.

The day of the king’s wedding arrives and a group of musicians pass by the peasant’s house, talking cheerfully about the reward they expect for their playing. The peasant sees an opportunity to turn a cursed instrument into a money-making curiosity. He takes out the flute and comes along to the palace. His son, who wants to come too, returns to the willow tree and cuts off the right branch, whittling it into a new instrument. It will not play a single note.

The royal wedding is not lacking in entertainment; many musicians have come to play for the king. The peasant is having second thoughts, now that he’s actually here. The king sees him lurking in a corner, looking a lot like a free-loading wedding crasher, and calls on him to play, disregarding the peasant’s warning that the flute is bewitched. So the peasant plays. O man, do not blow too hard! wails the flute and the king listens, spellbound, to its song. So does the witch, with rising unease.

The king throws down a gold coin and takes the flute, puts it to his lips. O my dear husband, croons the flute and the wedding guests whisper among themselves in awe. The witch pulls herself together and orders her husband to throw the flute away, but for once he will not listen to her and insists that she play the flute herself. She puts it to her lips, trying to cover all the stops so that it will not make a sound, but it plays regardless. O, my enemy, it sings, do not blow too hard! My heart is aching for my little son, for my little son whom I left in the cradle, to be nursed on your lap, you cruel one, who cast me into the well, thinking to drown me, but…

The witch hurls the flute to the ground with a scream. “That is the end of you!” But a woman rises from the broken shards, the queen now living. The king embraces her in bewildered joy, then turns on the witch with a drawn sword. He does not get the chance to strike. Darkness falls across the wedding and when it lifts, the witch is gone. She never returns.

This story is in a tradition of fairy tales where a murder victim speaks an accusation from beyond the grave (e.g. ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘The Juniper Tree’). I highly recommend Loreena McKennitt’s song ‘The Bonny Swans’ as another example, in which a drowned girl’s bones are made into a harp strung with her golden hair and the instrument reveals the identity of her killer. This is the stuff of myth and horror, which are never too far apart. The swan maiden is lucky; the narrative brings her back to life, albeit after missing the first few years of her son’s life. The witch is also lucky; usually it would be straight into a barrel stuck with nails or a sack sewn shut for her, but in this story she’s quick and clever enough to do a runner before her bad deeds can catch up to her. This is a story of unexpected survival all around.

Year of the Witch: Prince Ring

This Icelandic story comes from the Andrew Lang collection Fairy Tales from Around the World. It’s a new one on me but it’s long so get comfortable and we’ll go witching.

We begin with a pair of royal siblings, Princess Ingiborg and Prince Ring. We are told of the brother ‘he was less fond of adventures than men of rank usually were in those days, and was not famous for strength or feats of arms’, then the very next sentence begins ‘when he was twelve years old…”. OKAY. Myself and this story have very different expectations of pre-teens. Anyway, the twelve-year-old prince goes riding with his men and they pursue a deer with a gold ring on its horns. This, I can already tell you, is a bad idea. Hunting vaguely magical creatures hardly ever ends well. The prince’s horse falls beneath him and a terrible darkness descends upon his company. Each turns in a different direction, thinking he is striking for home, and the prince is soon all alone.

He comes to a clearing amidst the trees, near the sea, and sees a woman beside a large barrel. The prince comes over, greeting the woman politely, and when he looks into the barrel he sees a golden ring at the bottom. The woman asks if he can fish it out, adding that he can keep the trinket if he can manage the task. RUN, PRINCE RING.

He does not run; he gets tipped into a magically elongated barrel instead and tossed out to sea. For some time he floats helplessly. Eventually the barrel bumps against rocks and Ring kicks out the bottom so that he can make a break for land. He finds himself surrounded by intimidatingly tall cliffs and, for lack of a better option, climbs them. So there, weirdly judgy narrative voice, I call that a feat of strength. From his new viewpoint Ring can see that he is on an island, surrounded by a forest that features a conveniently high number of apple trees.

So far, so good, but after a few days of island living Ring hears a dreadful noise and sees a giant approaching with a load of firewood in a sledge. Ring panics and lies down on the ground. The giant stops to look at him and decides to take him home. Contrary to fairy tale stereotypes, the giant is a delightful person and his wife is equally kind. They basically adopt the prince as their own child. He has a good life with them, but there is one nagging curiosity in his life: a room he is not permitted to enter. While the giant is away, the prince sneaks to the door and wrestles it open halfway. He scurries away when he sees something moving around inside and trying to talk to him, but soon creeps back for another look. It takes a couple of tries before he gets up the courage to find out what is actually in there. And what is it? A dog. Which talks. “Choose me, Prince Ring,” it asks him. Ring doesn’t. He slopes off, curiosity satisfied.

He lives with the giants for some time. When his foster father has grown old and is nearing his deathbed, he offers the prince a gift of his choice and the prince remembers the dog’s words. Turns out the dog really belonged to the giant’s wife and the prince is terrified of its exuberance, but a sort of magical directive is a sort of magical directive. The giant takes Ring down to the seashore, where a small stone boat awaits. They sail away toward the mainland. As they make their farewells, the giant tells Ring that he will inherit everything on the island after the giants are dead. He is concerningly specific about the time frame, stating that Ring will come into his inheritance in two weeks time. Instead of asking questions about that, Ring thanks him for everything and sets off for who knows where.

An uncomfortable silence reigns between Ring and the dog he doesn’t really want to have. The dog is the one to break it. “You don’t seem to have much curiosity,” it remarks pointedly, “seeing as you never ask my name.” The prince is now obliged to ask. “You had best call me Snati-Snati,” the dog announces. It tells him that they will soon reach the household of a king and that Ring had better ask that king for lodging through the winter. The king agrees to this. His men tease and laugh at the dog, ignoring Ring’s warnings for them to stop.

Unsurprisingly given the quality of his company, the king takes to Ring straight away. One councillor in particular is shockingly jealous and I find it hilarious that his name is Red, because there is an Iago-type character going by that name in two other fairy tales I have read and at this point it feels like there’s a man named Sir Red flouncing through the courts as he becomes too passive-aggressively insufferable for one monarch after another.

Red suggests to the king that Ring ought to prove himself, starting with a wood-cutting contest against none other than Red. On Snati-Snati’s advice, Ring asks the king for two axes and when the contest begins, the dog somehow gets a good enough hold on the second axe to hack away with him. The resulting woodpile puts Red to shame and the king is delighted. Red sulks for a bit then goes to the king again, hissing that if Ring is so wonderful he ought to go and kill the wild oxen in the woods – and bring back the horns and hides to the king that same day. The king thinks that’s a bit of an ask, given how dangerous the oxen are, but Red nags him into asking and Ring is blithely ignorant of the risks, agreeing without hesitation.

When he sees the oxen, he has a LOT OF REGRETS. “How do you like them?” asks his sardonic dog. “Not well at all,” the prince admits. Snati-Snati lunges for the bigger of the two, takes it down in no time at all and runs to Ring’s rescue, because the boy is a sweetheart but no warrior. Next they skin the oxen – well, Snati-Snati does most of that, and afterwards Ring is too exhausted to carry the trophies back to the king so Snati-Snati patiently lugs it all for him.

The king is naturally very impressed. Ring is now his Very Favourite Person and Red goes about seething in fury until he strikes on the perfect plan. A year ago, the king lost three great treasures: a golden cloak, a golden chess-board and a gold piece. The king does not like to talk about this. Red weasels over to him, remarking that Ring is so brave and manly and heroic that surely he could retrieve the king’s lost property. Especially with the sweetener of betrothal to the king’s daughter. The king thinks that the request is totally unreasonable but Red bothers him and bothers him and eventually he gives in. A month before Christmas, the king rather guiltily explains his problem to Ring, including the little detail that he has no clue where any of his treasures might be.

Ring does not know what to do but he knows he wants to do it, and Snati-Snati is capable enough to fill in the blanks. First they ransack the local area for salt, as much as they can carry. Next they head to a steep cliff and Snati-Snati hauls a very dizzy and reluctant Ring all the way to the top. Where Ring promptly faints, bless him. Once he’s back on his feet, they start walking across a wide plain and by Christmas Eve they have reached a cave. Inside are four trolls, all asleep, and a porridge-pot hung over the fireplace. On Snati-Snati’s advice, Ring tips all the salt into the pot and they hide on the roof of the cave-house.

Soon the trolls start to wake up. The old troll woman tastes the porridge and is taken aback. “I got milk by witchcraft yesterday out of four kingdoms,” she complains, “and now it is salt!” The toehr trolls love salty porridge but it gives the old troll woman a dreadful thirst and she asks her daughter to fetch water from the river. The daughter is ruthless. “I won’t go,” she says, “unless you lend me your bright gold piece.” “Though I should die you shan’t have that,” the old troll snaps, whereupon the daughter airily retorts, “Die, then.” HARSH. She gets her gold and goes to the river. Ring and his dog shove her into the water and take the gold.

Meanwhile the old troll is still thirsty. She bribes her son with the gold cloak and he is likewise ambushed. Assuming her mercenary children have just gone merrily on with their lives and left her in misery, the old troll asks her husband to fetch water and has to bribe him with the gold chess-board. He is promptly drowned by the prince and the dog, but emerges from the river as a ghost and storms after his murderers. It’s a hard battle to get rid of him for good. By the time that is done, the old troll is about to emerge from the cave. “She is the worst witch that ever lived, and no iron can cut her,” Snati-Snati tells Ring. Their only chance is for one of them to pour boiling porridge from the pot and the other to go at her with a red-hot iron. Ugh.

The troll addresses Ring by name, immediately realising what must have happened to her family. Before she can attack, Snati-Snati and Ring leap on her, a brutal messy brawl that ends with her death. They burn her body then raid the cave, loading up with treasure before heading home. They arrive late on Christmas Day, like a macabre Santa Claus arrangement. The king is of course overjoyed and the celebratory feasting marks Ring’s betrothal to the king’s daughter.

When Ring retires to his room to sleep, Snati-Snati makes an unusual request – that they swap beds for a while. Ring is fine with that, and Snati-Snati does not even sleep the full night, returning to the prince so they can swap back. Ring discovers that the reason Snati-Snati insisted on this arrangement was because Red came in the night to kill him and the dog bit off his hand. When Red plays the victim, Ring shows the king the hand in his bed, still curled around the hilt of a sword. That’s that. The king sentences Red to death.

On Ring’s wedding night, Snati-Snati asks to sleep at the foot of the bed. Ring is woken by a strange howling and when he strikes a light, he finds a beautiful man passed out on the bed beside a dog’s empty skin. Here follows a bizarre conversation: the dog-prince’s name is also Ring, and he was cursed by a wicked witch stepmother who swore he would never be released from her spell until he met a prince with the same name as himself and slept on his feet the first night of his marriage. That is SO SPECIFIC. It is also the perfect set-up for a polyamorous fairy tale, just saying. The witch, incidentally, has been sneaking around through the entire story, first as the hind and then with the barrel and last of all in the cave, shown as her true self with her family of trolls.

The two Rings return to the cave to bring back everything valuable, then take the giants’ inheritance as well. The first prince ‘gives’ the dog-prince his own father’s kingdom to rule and his sister Ingiborg, presumably as his wife, while he remains in his father-in-law’s realm, where he reigns after the old king’s death. And while all that makes a lot of sense politically, I like my poly royalty version better.

There are so many things I love about this story. The giants, to begin with, who are just kind with no ulterior motives and accidentally adopt two boys in desperate need of functional parenting. The king who takes Ring in after he leaves the giants is another unexpected delight – usually his role would be easily-led and capriciously violet, but instead he’s thoroughly decent throughout. Too decent for his own good, really, given how he tolerates Red’s behaviour until it turns actively murderous. I do not approve of the troll witch’s death – chalk up another grotesque way to go – but she seems to have been a cheerfully sadistic person who enjoyed her villainy and ill-gotten gains, so I don’t feel too sorry for her either. She went out wicked and I respect that.

Year of the Witch: The Thief and His Master

It’s that time again when I feel obliged to talk about a Grimm brothers story, so apologies in advance for whatever 19th century nonsense we’re going to stub our toes en route. It begins with a man named Jan who goes to church to get careers advice for his son, overhears the sexton talking about thieving and connects the dots with devout conviction. After announcing to his son that he’ll be going into trade as a thief, the next step is obviously to find a master to apprentice the boy to, so off the pair of them go into the woods. Logic is already out the window but given the number of brigands who hang out in the deep dark forest in fairy tales, this is probably a good location to start looking for a really dedicated thief.

They find a cottage that is home to an old woman and her son, who claims to be such a spectacular thief that if Jan recognises his own child after a year of training, he’ll get his money back – because he’ll be paying a hefty sum for all that education if the thief is as good as he says. Jan agrees and leaves his son to hone his criminal tendencies. Also witchcraft, which is why I chose this story in the first place. No wonder the master thief excels in the art of larceny, if he’s employing magic on the job.

A year later Jan heads off to meet with his son but starts to worry, much too late, about whether he really will be able to recognise him or not. As he walks along, a dwarf comes up beside him and enquires into the source of his distress. Jan explains his predicament. Not only is he second-guessing the wisdom of his agreement with the master thief, he has no money to pay up if he actually can’t identify his son.

The dwarf has a solution. If Jan stands beneath the thief’s chimney, he will see a basket upon a crossbeam, and if tempted with a crust of bread, a bird will look down. This bird will be Jan’s son. Accepting this total stranger’s word as fact, which seems to be his strategy for every major decision in his life, Jan goes to the thief’s cottage with a piece of bread and calls down the bird, who turns back into a boy. “The devil must have given you the clue!” the thief snarls. I mean, who even knows, this is a Grimm story.

Jan’s son is eager to get out of there. As they are walking along the road, a carriage rolls towards them and the boy proves that he at least learned how to pull a con by turning himself into a handsome greyhound and instructing his father to sell him for a high price. Jan goes along with this idea. Soon he’s walking away from the carriage with full pockets and before long his son is back beside him, in his own shape.

The next day Jan’s son has a new scheme. He turns himself into a horse and tells his father to sell him again, only to be sure he takes off the bridle before handing him over so that the boy can turn back into himself. Well, Jan manages the first bit. He completely screws up the ‘make sure my son can transform back into a human’ part and guess who buys the horse? Yes, it is the master thief, who leads the boy/horse to his house and leaves him in the stable.

Luckily for the boy, a maid comes into the stable and hears him calling for help. After a brief moment of surprise at the fact he can talk, the maid obligingly takes off the bridle and the boy turns into a sparrow. In a moment the master thief is after him. They battle it out in midair and the thief falls, turning himself into a fish as he hits the water below. The boy follows him, taking fish form to fight again. The master thief turns himself into a rooster and quick as a flash the boy is a fox, chomping down on his master’s neck. The story ends with this somewhat unnerving statement: “So the master died, and he has remained dead up to this very day.” OKAY. But what about tomorrow? There doesn’t seem a real consensus on how long this whole ‘being dead’ thing is going to last.

I have been choosing stories for this project that explicitly state that at least one character is a witch and I was in two minds about whether this one counted as no one was defined as a witch. On the other hand, surely the prerequisite for becoming a witch is learning witchcraft? So I’m going to go ahead and assume that the boy is a witch. Whether he learned it all from the master thief or from the old lady too is unclear – she lives in a cottage in the woods, you know, the evidence is stacked in her favour – but either way he was obviously a natural. This is the first fairy tale in the Year of the Witch that has featured a male witch and it is intriguingly amoral. I think I would be much more interested in finding out what happened from the boy’s perspective, as opposed to his father’s repeated failures to get a clue. I would also be very interested in knowing where that boy went next with his career.