Cow-witching with Dame Elsan

Cow-witching with Dame Elsan

Cow-witching with Dame Elsan A Swedish Easter card showing a witch with a cow.

It is Walpurgisnacht, when the witches fly to the peak of the Brocken in the Harz Mountains where they feast, gambol, and plot. While my files contain many stories of witches accused, tried, and executed, I thought it would be pleasant to read a witch-tale with a happy ending. This story was long and told in a leisurely fashion, so, skipping a long introduction about Dame Elsan Ketler’s domestic felicity, we jump straight to a crisis:

Yet, as all human felicity is found to have some drawback, there was one to Dame Elsan’s abundant share of it—for she could never rear a calf.

The offspring of her cows, numerous as they were every summer, died after a few days’, or at best a few weeks’ trial of kine-life. Old and censorious people— there were such even in Karlscopen—ventured to whisper by their own firesides that the dame skimmed the milk her calves had, too closely. Her own account of the matter was, that she had tried every method a sensible woman could think of, but it was all of no use, not a calf would live…

Dame Elsan was spinning in her farmhouse porch one warm afternoon in the middle of July…Her husband and son were in the field with the reapers, cutting down the barley; her daughters and maids were making hay in the meadow; and she sat there alone, turning her wheel with a slow, steady hum, and musing on that one black spot in the general whiteness of her days. The population of Dame Elsan’s cow-house had been increased that same week by two calves, but one of them had died on the preceding day, and the other seemed about to follow its example. It was very hard that all the Ketlers’ cows were henceforth to be strangers, not reared on their own farm; very unlucky, the dame thought; all Karlscopen were remarking the fact; who knew what they might say about it? It was certainly no credit to the family. She would have given any thing to have that blot on their escutcheon washed away…

Suddenly, the deep stillness of the village street, which lay bare under the breezeless air and downward-sloping sun, was broken by a coming step, and looking up, the dame saw what was not common in Karlscopen, the face of a stranger. He was a tall young man, somewhat lank and thin, as if his fare had not been of the best; his black cloth gown and cap were worn threadbare, dusty and travel-soiled, but in the fashion of the time: they proclaimed him to be a young deacon or candidate for the Lutheran ministry, who, having finished his course at the university, was employed on what might be called the outlying business of the church, catechising the young, visiting the sick, and looking after the state of morals in remote and out-of-the-way villages. The deacons in those days were the poor scholars of Sweden, known to be college-bred, and therefore in high esteem among the northern peasantry, who, though rustic enough themselves, have always respected learning; known also to be poor, and therefore ready to accept, or rather to expect, hospitable entertainment. Thus Dame Elsan was not surprised when the stranger stopped at her porch with “Good-day, mother. Have you a drop of skim-milk, or small-beer, or even a cup of springwater to spare a thirsty traveler?”

“Come in, sir,” said the dame.

Prudent though she was, the Ketlers’ house was not to be disgraced by stingy behavior to a deacon. The traveler was courteously invited into the family-room, established in the best seat and served with the best of her new cheese, barley-bread, and home-brewed ale…The deacon inquired kindly after the whole village; Dame Elsan, being the head-woman, was able to give him a good account of them, including her own household…The deacon appeared deeply interested in the whole family, as the new cheese disappeared before his knife.

“You are a very fortunate woman, mother,” said the deacon. “In all my travels, I have not met with any to whom Providence has been more kind; and I am glad to see you acknowledge it with a thankful heart.”

“I do, sir, to the best of my recollection, in church on Sundays, and every night at my prayers; so does Hams, poor man, when I remind him of it. But, sir, there is one thing that troubles us both, principally me, because it is a housewife’s concern,” and Dame Elsan made a full disclosure of her trials and regrets in the matter of the dying calves. It was not merely in hopes of sympathy that the good woman spoke; the belief in spells and charms to secure human wishes and ward off misfortunes was strong among the Swedish peasantry at the time. Learned men of any profession were supposed to know, if they did not practice them. The deacon, though intended for the ministry, had studied at Upsala; a vague tradition of the pagan temple it had supplanted still hung round that university; and nothing could persuade the populace that occult learning was not cultivated there. Might not the deacon, then, in return for her hospitable entertainment and friendly confidence, be able to assist Dame Elsan out of her difficulty, and give her some charm to keep death from the cow-house? It was not indeed consistent with his holy office and expected call to the pulpit; but then he was a learned man, had been at Upsala: she would pay any thing he pleased to ask, and keep the secret all her life. The spinning-wheel was stopped, and her requests and promises made in a low hurried tone, as the deacon rose to go, for the cheese was finished, and the sun wearing down. He stood leaning his arms on the back of the chair for a few minutes, as if in earnest consideration, while the dame pressed her suit, and plied him with every argument she could think of, the last being ten rix-dollars in hard silver. At length he looked up with a sort of smile; it was a good omen; Dame Elsan’s courage rose. “Do,sir, for pity’s sake, take them, and give me the charm. I know you can do it; you learned men can do any thing of that kind. It will take the disgrace off our house. No mortal shall ever hear a syllable about it from me; and I am sure the ten dollars will be of use to you.”

“We never take money for such things, mother,” said the deacon; “but if you make me a present of five dollars, as my gown is rather thin, and my shoes nearly worn out, I won’t refuse it. Leave me alone here, and I’ll write something which will be of service to you and the calves;” and taking out his pocket-book, ink-horn, and pen, he began to write something on a blank leaf, while Dame Elsan hurried out to the porch, turned her face to the east, and piously repeated her prayers, to keep off the evil spirits who might be at hand on such an occasion. While thus engaged, however, she chanced to lift her eyes, and saw her maid Roskin coming in from the field as she had been ordered, to assist in preparing the substantial supper which closes the harvest-day in Sweden. Now, Roskin’s tongue was a weapon which even her managing mistress could not keep in order, and she had an eye keen enough to match: news-telling and gossip-carrying were her delights. If the deacon were seen writing or giving that paper, the secret must be known to all Karlscopen. In flew Dame Elsan with: “O sir! for goodness’s sake, stop; there’s Roskin coming.” But the maid had observed her mistress, guessed there was something in the wind, and increased her speed. She was already on the threshold when the deacon folded up the paper he had been writing, sealed it with black wax, and the impress of a ring he wore, put up his ink-horn and pocketbook, and whispered: “Come out with me, and I will tell you what to do.” Out went the stranger, and out went Dame Elsan, to the great amazement of her maid, who got a frowning order to make up the fire, and get on the soup-pot instantly, Roskin saw them walk away to the corner of the cow-house, where they stood for a minute or two, while the stranger whispered something to her mistress, gave something into her right hand, took something from her left, appeared to bid her a civil good-day, and marched rapidly down the village street. The dame stood looking after him, then looked at her own right hand, passed what it contained under her kirtle, came back to the house, and fell to getting the supper ready.

From then on Dame Elsan’s calves flourished. This prodigy was whispered  abroad so that distant farmers came to visit, bringing handsome presents to the lady. Her family and nearest neighbors, who did not know of the charm, were mystified by these visitors and presents.  But then Dame Elsan’s husband Hams died; her daughters married and moved away; and her son brought home a wife of whom Dame Elsan disapproved.

Her daughter-in-law was aware of that, and being a woman of the same spirit, open war was declared between them before the wedding festivities were fairly over. The dame set up her camp in one end of the farmhouse, which she claimed as her jointure, by the ancient laws of the province: her share of the cow-house and granary had to be portioned off the rest, her part of the farm-fields fenced in; but the rival queens contrived to have encounters nevertheless, concerning which the whole village asked with considerable astonishment, How Hams could live through the perpetual broil!

Making war on one’s daughter-in-law, and receiving visitors on errands not to be explained, however well watched they may be, are not apt to improve one’s temper or repute. The once thrifty, highhanded, and outspoken dame had become a cross, anxious, uneasy old woman; her prudence had narrowed into perfect parsimony, though she was known to be the richest dowager in Karlscopen. Besides her part of farmhouse, stock, and land, nobody in the village could boast so much fine linen, or so many silver spoons, rings, and buckles, mostly paid in tribute by those far-coming visitors. But Dame Elsan’s reign was over; the poorest cottage in Karlscopen disdained to receive her laws; the farm-servants took part with her daughter-in-law; the boys called her “Mother Miser;” and Hams’s wife, after vainly endeavoring to make out what the visitors wanted, and claiming share of their presents, averred that there must be something particularly bad transacted in her mother-in-law’s end of the farmhouse.

So the twenty years ran to their close, and as that came on, there came over all Dalarne, whence or how no man could tell —for who can trace out the spring of a popular ferment ?—a mighty dread of witchcraft, and a general discovery of witches in every quarter. The strange sufferings and troubles of the people in consequence would fill a volume of very grotesque reading; they saw everything, from talking dogs to pigs drawing barrels full of fire; they heard all manner of sounds in the air, in the village churchyards, and in the dark corners of their own houses. Scores of people were accused, and confessed their guilt, with wondrous and most circumstantial tales of their nightly flights on broomsticks and dead pine-branches, carrying children with them to Blakulla, a rocky and desolate isle in the Baltic, many a mile from the nearest laud, where they were received by the enemy of mankind in person, under whose surperintendence they baked, brewed, feasted, and initiated the children into his special service. Ridiculous as these tales may seem to nineteenth-century readers, they fill the law-records and parish-registers of the period…

In a battle of more than common fierceness, Dame Elsan’s daughter-in-law, seeing that no share of the presents was to be had, launched forth in a denunciation of her husband’s mother; declaring her conviction that the dame was a witch; that she had seen her, at unaccountable times and places, gathering hemlock, and otherwise singularly employed; and triumphantly referred to the unexplained visits as proofs of her accusation. The dame was cross, unpopular, and given to hidden ways; at any rate, the visitors and the presents were undeniable. Sundry girls and boys immediately began to assert that she had been endeavoring to seduce them to Blakulla; some had discovered her in the shape of a black cat; some had seen her preparing to mount a broomstick; and some had escaped her spells only by boiling a horse-shoe, and carrying sprigs of the mountain-ash about them. These informations were given to the authorities, and Dame Elsan was arrested at her spinning-wheel. To the surprise of every body, she attempted no denial, no defense, but allowed herself to be conducted to prison in Skara, the nearest town, which, being the see of a bishop and the seat of a provincial court, was the scene of many a witch’s trial, the Lutheran bishops having a special cognizance of such cases. The episcopal crosier was at that time wielded by a scion of the Svedburg family, newly promoted to the see, but known to be a conscientious and zealous bishop.The Bishop had come into his diocese with a publicly expressed determination to war against, and, if possible, root out that peculiar service of Satan, and Dame Elsan Ketler was the first name on the list of those to be tried before him. Her position in Karlscopen, her respectable life and connections, and the mystery which had puzzled her neighborhood for so many years, drew a great concourse to the court on her trial day.

The court-house was full of men, women, and children, all breathless and eager with ears and eyes. The Bishop in his robes, with clerks and assessors, took the seat of judgment, and the dame was brought to the bar.

“My lord,” she said, in reply to his first question, “I am guilty; put yourself to no more trouble with me. I acknowledge that I have practiced witchcraft for twenty years bygone, and deserve to die. But O my lord! is there any chance of mercy for my poor soul?”

“Confess your crimes, woman,” said the good Bishop. “I will give you time to repent and pray, and no truly repentant sinner shall be lost.”

“I confess, my lord,” said Dame Elsan, falling on her knees, though I have never gone to Blakulla, nor carried away any child, yet I have practiced witchcraft by means of a charm which was given me by a traveling deacon twenty years ago, when my mind was troubled concerning the calves that died from me; and it is sewed under the lining of my right-foot shoe.”

“Take it out immediately, and show it to me,” said the Bishop, looking as if a sudden recollection had struck him. The dame took off her shoe, ripped the lining, and produced out of it a minute leather bag, out of which she took a small, closely-folded note sealed with black wax. The Bishop took it, broke the seal, read it, and looked up like one found guilty himself.

“What did the deacon bid you do with your calves when he gave you this charm?” he demanded.

“He bade me give them four pints of milk that never saw water or skimmer, in a beechwood pail, after sunrise, at high noon, and before sunset, in the name of Mantecoras,” said Dame Elsan—”to keep the charm in the lining of my right-foot shoe, and strike every calf three times with it before nightfall.”

“And have you done so?” inquired the Bishop.

“I have, my lord, sinner that I am,” replied the dame; “and also made much wicked profit by lending the charm to people far and near when their calves were in danger.”

“Well, my good woman, rise from your knees, for it is my turn to confess now, and listen all you that can hear,” said the Bishop. “This paper is no charm, but a foolish rhyme which I wrote—to my shame be it spoken—when a traveling deacon in the village of Karlscopen. I chanced to call at this good woman’s house; she hospitably entertained me, told me her troubles concerning the death of her calves, and finding that she was ignorant enough to take me for one skilled in magic, because I had studied at Upsala, I took a present of five dollars from her, because my purse happened to be empty at the time, advised her to give the calves good milk in a mysterious manner, and wrote on this paper:

‘The calf may be white, the calf may be red, And if it’s not living, it must be dead.’

This nonsense the poor woman has carried in her right-foot shoe, believed herself to be doing wonders with it for twenty years, and might have been executed on her own confession for the crime of witchcraft, through my foolish and inconsiderate frolic.”

It was said there was nobody in all the court house more difficult to convince of her innocence than the unlucky dame; but being at length persuaded by the arguments and exhortations of the Bishop, she went home satisfied that she was no witch, and, together with the daughter-in-law who had brought her to trial, led a more peaceable life afterwards. As for the Bishop, he discovered through that incident that the black and dreadful sin of witchcraft was not so real a thing as in his clerical zeal he had imagined, and his exertions were henceforth combined with those of a noble lady, far in advance of her time, the Countess de la Gardee, to put down the persecution. It has been already said that the tale is authentic; and English readers may be interested in knowing that the Bishop who played such an important part in it was the father of Swedenborg, the seer of so many visions, and the founder of a widely-spread sect.

Chamber’s Journal February 1863

Nice to have a happy ending for a witch trial. The story reminds me of this anecdote:

Another tale from Northumberland must be given in the very words in which I received it from the Rev. J. F. Bigge, only premising that a poor woman had a cow, and that the cow was taken ill. The woman described its recovery as follows: “I was advised, ye ken, to gan to the minister, ye ken, and I thought he might do something for her, ye ken; so a gaes to the minister, ye ken, and a sees him about her. ‘Well, Sir,’ says I, ‘the coo’s bad; cuddn’t ye come and make a prayer o’er her like?’

‘Well, Janet,’ says he, ‘ I’ll come.’ And come he did, ye ken, and laid his hand on her shoulder, ye ken, and said, ‘If ye live ye live, and if ye dee ye dee.’  Weel, ye ken, she mended fra that hour.

Next year who but the minister should be ta’en ill, and I thought I wud just gan and see the auld minister—it was but friendly, ye ken. I fund him in bed, and I gans up till him, and lays my hand on his shoulder, and I says, ‘If ye live ye live, and if ye dee ye dee.’ So he burst out a-laughing, ye ken, and his throat got better fra that moment, ye ken.” It would appear that the poor man was suffering from quinsy, which broke from the effects of laughing.

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, William Henderson, 1879

Other cow-witching charms? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com  And wrap up well for tonight’s flight!

See the “Witchcraft” category for many other stories of witchery including Bagging a Witch in Ohio, The Witch Wreath at the Museum, and Occult Science and Oats.

Mrs Daffodil tells a story of an encounter over a witch’s grave in “The Witch’s Ring.”

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.