Witches transforming into animals

Witches transforming into animals or turning their victims into animals; we encounter this theme in legends and stories all over the world. Stories in this context date back to classical antiquity. In the “Metamorphoses”/”The Golden Ass” of Apuleis, the Thesallic witch Pamphile transforms herself with an ointment into an owl. When Lucius spies on her while performing the transformation ritual, she turns him into a donkey. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance we find accounts of witches who were accused of turning themselves into animals or convicted for (supposedly) doing so. Some stories seem to have their origin in very densified doubles – etheric bodies in the shape of animal bodies – by means of which some people could leave their physical body and travel at night. 


Golden Ass

Lucius changed into a donkey.


However bizarre it may seem to us that a witch turns into an animal, for example an owl; in various parts of the world people still believe in it. In Nigeria, women are still being murdered who are suspected of transforming themselves into an owl by magic. In Mexico people believe in a being that is half man half owl and is called Lechuza.


La Lechuza

A Lechuza is a shape-shifting witches, according to stories told by Mexican and Texano people. The creature appears to be a large bird with a woman’s face and hair. The story of La Lechuza started centuries ago and legend has it Lechuza was a witch who was exposed for practicing the devil’s magic. The townsfolk weren’t happy with that so they murdered her. Seems reasonable. To enact her revenge, she came back as a creepy bird lady. In fact, she’s a shapeshifter who can appear as an ordinary witch during the day and then as a huge bird with a woman’s face.


Newpaper artikel in the Corpus Christi Times of Jan. 22, 1976


Robstown Texas 1975

In October 1975 several stories about a creature half owl half woman reached the Robstown police and local newspaper. But the articles don’t mention La Lechuza, just a monster bird. A few accounts of the Robstown beast described it as two feet tall, some six feet. When a human face was mentioned, some callers said it was a man’s face, others a woman’s face. A few said the creature had human feet, others animal feet — and none of the callers reported the same kind of animal. But all agreed on one point: it had the body of a bird and was flying around Robstown. The sightings concentrated around a wooded area west of town near Bosquez Street and Rabb Road.

But then a television station ran a segment on the rumors, and the sightings stopped. Must be shy, the Robstown police told the media. A few more sightings popped up in Banquete, then Alice. By January 1976, residents in the Valley were reporting sightings of a large bird.
Two San Benito policeman spotted a bird with a 10- to 12-foot wingspan flying over a lagoon. A radio station offered a $1,000 reward for the live capture of the “big bird.” Alverico Guajardo in Brownsville told of hearing a noise outside his trailer home. When he went out to check, he was confronted by an about 4-foot tall bird, with a long beak and eyes as big as silver dollars, its face more like a bat than a bird. “That animal is not from this world,” he told the reporter, “I was scared.”


Woman in Lagos, Nigeria killed by a mob who accused her of being a witch and turning herself into an owl.

Dummy bird

In an article from the Jan. 22, 1976 Corpus Christi Times, Robstown police detective Capt. Melvin Arnold describes the dummy picked up from some kids who fooled people into thinking a big bird was flying around Robstown in 1975.
Dr. Don Farst with Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville had a more mundane explanation. It sounded like an Andean condor, a South American bird that can have a 10-foot wingspan, though how it got to South Texas is anyone’s guess. Others claimed it was a heron or even a whooping crane, and it supposedly attacked some men.

But Robstown police got the last laugh. After the Valley sightings, Det. Melvin Arnold with the Robstown police invited a photographer to come see the big bird roosting inside the police department since the fall. Back around the time of the original newscast, Arnold received a call from some kids that the bird was sighted. “A bunch of kids fixed them up a dummy of this big bird and hung it in a tree and then called police. We went out there and got it and brought it to the police station.” They didn’t have any sightings after that.


Lechuza folklore

In folklore, a Lechuza begins as a normal human woman who sells her soul to the devil in order to be given mystical powers and becomes a bruja. Afterwards, they continue to look like normal women during the day, but at night they become Lechuza — with owl-like bodies and human heads. At night Lechuza fly through the air or perch somewhere hidden and look for prey. They make the noise of a human whistle or a crying infant in order to attract attention. If you hear the sound of a Lechuza, you are not only in danger of becoming their meal — it is believe to be an omen that someone in your family will die. Lechuza can carry a full grown man in their talons. If they are especially hungry, a Lechuza will swoop down and try to run a car off the road to get to the people inside. Lechuza have the power to control the weather and can make it storm or make your vehicle’s battery die. Lechuza can not be harmed by guns or most other weapons. The only thing that drives a Lechuza away is salt. You can also try screaming/cussing at it.


Frank Hamel’s collection of shapeshifting witches
Frontpiece of The Golden Ass

Frontpiece of The Golden Ass showing the witch Pamphile turning herself into an owl and Lucius turned into a donkey.

The anthology below is a blog adapted chapter on witches turning into animals, taken from Human Animals from 1915 by Peter Hamel.

– Amongst the powers with which witches have been credited from time immemorial are those of transforming themselves into various kinds of animals, of transforming other people into animals and of sending forth so-called familiars in various animal shapes. Whether witches can change human beings into animals through sorcery is a question which has exercised the minds of hundreds of writers on demonology and witchcraft, amongst them, to mention a few at random, Bodin, Boguet, James I, Glanvill, Dr. Webster, Reginald Scott, his more famous namesake Sir Walter, and Charles Lamb. The last-named, in his essay on the subject, tells us that he was extremely inquisitive from his childhood about witches and witch-stories, and that it should cause no wonder if the wicked, having been symbolised by a goat, should come sometimes in that body and “assert his metaphor.”
In the Middle Ages witches who were condemned to the stake, confessed to having taken the shapes of cats, hares, dogs, horses, and many other animals, being prompted to such changes by the devil, with whom they were in league.


Witches who had turned themselves into greyhounds

A witch trial took place at Lancaster on the 10th of February, 1633, in which a batch of witches was accused of such dealings. Evidence was given by Edmund Robinson, son of Edmund Robinson, of Pendle forest, eleven years of age, at Padham, before Richard Shuttleworth and John Starkey, Justices of the Peace, “who upon oath informeth, being examined concerning the great meeting of the witches of Pendle, saith that upon All Saints-day last past, he, this informer being with one Henry Parker a near door-neighbour to him in Wheatley Cave, desired the said Parker to give him leave to gather some bulloes, which he did.

In gathering whereof he saw two greyhounds, namely a black and a brown; one came running over the next field towards him, he verily thinking the one of them to be Mr. Nutter’s and the other to be Mr. Robinson’s, the said gentlemen then having suchlike. And saith the said greyhounds came to him, and fawned on him, they having about their necks either of them a collar, unto which was tied a string: which collars (as this informant affirmeth) did shine like gold. And he was thinking that some either of Mr. Nutter’s or Mr. Robinson’s family should have followed them, yet seeing nobody to follow them, he took the same greyhounds thinking to course with them.

owls by gustav dore

Witches turning themselves into owls was a widespread belief.

And presently a hare did rise very near before him. At the sight whereof he cried ‘Loo, Loo, Loo,’ but the dogs would not run. Whereupon he being very angry took them and with the strings that were about their collars, tied them to a little bush at the next hedge, and, with a switch that he had in his hand, he beat them. And instead of the black greyhound Dickenson’s wife stood up, a neighbour whom this informer knoweth. And instead of the brown one a little boy whom this informant knoweth not. At which sight this informer being afraid, endeavoured to run away; and being stayed by the woman, namely Dickenson’s wife, she put her hand into her pocket, and pulled forth a piece of silver much like to a fair shilling, and offered to give it him to hold his tongue and not tell: which he refused saying, ‘Nay, thou art a witch.’ Whereupon she put her hand into her pocket again, and pulled out a thing like unto a bridle that jingled, which she put on the little boy’s head; which said boy stood up in the likeness of a white horse, and in the brown greyhound’s stead.

Then immediately Dickenson’s wife took the informer before her upon the said horse and carried him to a new house called Hearthstones, being about a quarter of a mile off. Here the boy, Edmund Robinson, was witness to the extraordinary incidents of a feast of witches, all of which he recounted before the judges, and then his father, being called, gave evidence that he had sent his son to fetch home two kine, and as he did not return he went to seek him, finding him eventually so affrighted and distracted that he neither knew his father, nor did he know where he was, and so continued very nearly a quarter of an hour before he came to himself, when he told the above curious happenings. The seventeen Pendle forest witches condemned in Lancashire obtained a reprieve and were sent to London, where they were examined by His Majesty himself and the Council.


The witch who transformed herself into a hare
Witch Hare

Like the owl and the cat, superstition often related the hare to witchcraft or the Devil.

A witch called Julian Cox, aged about seventy years, was indicted at Taunton, in Somerset, in 1663, for transforming herself into a hare and for other sorcery. The evidence given to prove that she was a witch was embodied in a narrative deposed to by Mr. Pool, a servant and officer in the court to Judge Archer, then Judge of Assizes at Taunton.

The first witness was a huntsman, who swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox her house, he at last started a hare. The dogs hunted her very close, and the third ring hunted her in view, till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent, and making toward a great bush he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up, and preserve her from the dogs. But as soon as he laid hands on her, it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end, and yet spake to her and asked her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath, that she could not make him any answer. His dogs also came up with full cry to recover the game and smelt at her, and so left off hunting any farther. And the huntsman went home presently, sadly affrighted.


Milking cows in the shape of a hare

In a report dated in the latter half of the nineteenth century on the state of the county prison at Dingwall, a statement was made by a fisherman who was imprisoned for assaulting a woman of sixty, whom he accused of bewitching everything he had. She prevented him from catching fish and caused his boat to upset. The other fishermen then refused to work with him as a companion. “She is known in all the neighbourhood to be a witch,” he deposed. “She has been seen a hundred times milking the cows in the shape of a hare, though I never saw her do it myself.”

“People believe that if anyone gets blood from a witch she can do them no more harm, and that is the reason I cut her with a knife, so that it might go into her as short a way as possible. All I wanted was to get blood,” was his quaint way of putting it.


The witch, the hare and the cat

The hare has always been closely associated with witches, and for this reason seems to be of evil augury, though in some parts of the country its foot, and sometimes its head, are used as a protection against sorcery, perhaps on the homeopathic principle. The cat runs the hare very close in its association with witches, and is a handy animal for transformation purposes, being so frequently met with in this country.




The witch-cat trial of 1719

One of the most celebrated Scottish witch-cat trials took place at Caithness when Margaret Nin-Gilbert was interrogated on February 8, 1719, by William Innes, minister of Thurso, and confessed that she was travelling one evening when she was met by the devil in the likeness of a man who “engaged her to take on with him,” which she agreed to do. From that time she became familiar with him, and sometimes he appeared to her in the likeness of a huge black horse, sometimes riding a horse, sometimes like a black cloud, and again in the shape of a black hen. She apparently obtained the powers of a witch with the help of this apparition, and the use she made of them appears in the following story told by one William Montgomery, a mason, whose house was invaded by cats in such numbers that his wife and maidservant could not endure to remain in the place.

One night on Montgomery’s return he found five cats by the fireside, and the servant told him they were “speaking among themselves.”

The cat-witch on the preceding November 28 had climbed in at a hole in a chest, and Montgomery watched his opportunity, intending to cut off her head when she should put it out of the hole. “Having fastened my sword on her neck,” he continues, “which cut her, nor could I hold her; having (at length) opened the chest, my servant, William Geddes, having fixed my durk in her hinder quarters by which stroke she was fastened to the chest; yet after all she escaped out of the chest with the durk in her hinder quarter, which continued there till I thought, by many strokes, I had killed her with my sword; and having cast her out dead, she could not be found next morning.” Four or five nights after, the servant cried out that the cats had come again, and Montgomery “wrapped his plaid about the cat and thrust the durk through her body, and having fixed the durk in the ground, I drove at her head with the back of an axe until she was dead, and being cast out could not be found next morning.”

He further declared that no drop of blood came from the cats, also that they did not belong to anyone in the neighbourhood, although one night he saw eight of them and took this to be witchcraft for certain.

On February 12, Margaret Nin-Gilbert, who lived about half a mile from Montgomery’s house, was seen by some of her neighbours to drop one of her legs at her own door, and she being suspected of witchcraft the leg, black and putrefied, was taken before the deputy Sheriff who immediately had the maimed woman arrested and imprisoned. By her own confession she admitted that she was bodily present at Montgomery’s house “in the likeness of a feltered cat” and that Montgomery had broken her leg either with his durk or axe, which leg since had fallen off from the other part of her body. Also that one Margaret Olsone was also there in the likeness of a cat, and several other women, and that they were invisible because “the devil did hide and conceal them by raising a dark mist or fog to screen them from being seen.”


witches turning into animals

Circe the enchantress turning the men of Ullyses into pigs.


Isobel Grierson

Sometimes the apparition of a witch as a cat foretells death. In 1607 a witch of the name of Isobel Grierson was burnt after being accused and convicted of entering the house of Adam Clark, in Prestonpans, in the likeness of his own cat and in the company of a mighty rabble of other cats, which by their noise frightened Adam, his wife, and their maid, the last-named being dragged up and down the stairs by the hair of her head, presumably by the devil in the shape of a black man. Isobel also visited the house of a certain Mr. Brown in the shape of a cat, but once being called upon by name she vanished, but Brown himself died of a disease she had laid upon him.

In 1629 another Isobel, wife of George Smith, was indicted as follows:—

“Item she resett Cristian Grinton, a witch in her house, whom the pannel’s husband saw one night to come out at one hole in the roof, in the likeness of a cat, and thereafter transform herself in her own likeness, whereupon the pannel told her husband that it should not fare well with him, which fell out accordingly, for next day he fell down dead at the plough.”


The cat-witches of Vernon
witch cat

“The Witch” (1924), woodcut by Lional Lindsay (the brother of Norman Lindsay we wrote about in a previous blog)

The witches of Vernon frequented an old castle in the shape of cats. Three or four brave men determined to pass the night in the stronghold, where they were assailed by the cats and one of them was killed, several of the others being hurt, and many of the cats received wounds. Afterwards the women were found to have returned to human shape and suffered from corresponding gashes.

The witches of Vernon had their imitators in three witches of Strasburg who, in the disguise of huge cats, fell upon a workman. He defended himself courageously and chased away the cats, wounding them. They were found instantaneously transformed into women, badly hurt and in their beds.


Cat’s paw – witch leg

Another story describes how several cat-witches tormented a poor labourer, who, wearying of their persistence, drew his broadsword and sent the animals flying. One less nimble than the rest received a cut from the sword which severed one of its hind legs, when, to the labourer’s amazement, he discovered on picking up the limb that it was human in shape, and next morning one of the old hags was discovered to have only one leg left. Similar stories of the ‘repercussion’ variety will be found in Chapter XVIII, but they have never been satisfactorily explained.


A beautiful dog-witch

M. Henri Gelin tells a good story of a witch who transformed herself into a dog. One winter evening dogs were barking all round a lonely house in Niort far more loudly than usual. The farmer rose from his bed and carefully opened the shutters. In the middle of the yard he saw a black and white greyhound, which apparently was enjoying itself molesting the other dogs, knocking them over with its paws without the least difficulty, and then picking them up in its jaws and throwing them to some distance as soon as they ventured within reach.

The farmer drew on his trousers, into the seat of which his wife had sown a horse-chestnut as a talisman against witchcraft, loaded his gun and fired on the animal which fell dead. The next day he rose at an early hour to go and examine the corpse of his prey, and was greatly astonished to see the body of a beautiful woman dressed in gorgeous clothes lying in the very spot on which the dog was shot.

Round her neck there hung a rich chain made of five strings of jewels bearing enamelled medallions beautifully chased, and on her fingers were a profusion of precious gems. In order to cover all traces of his involuntary murder, he quickly dug a hole in a corner of the yard and made a pile of faggots above the newly replaced earth.

He had only just finished his task when a gentleman came into the yard, and asked whether he had seen a lady pass that way. From the particulars given, the farmer soon felt certain that the woman in question was the witch he had killed. Tremblingly he replied that he had not seen the lady. But a little dog that followed the gentleman ran to the heap of faggots and began turning them over, howling piteously. “You have killed my poor wife,” cried the gentleman. “I am certain she came here.” But he did not insist on looking into the pile, and presently withdrew, followed by the still whimpering dog.


man turning into werewolf old picture - witches turning into animals

German woodcut dated 1722 depicting a man changing into a werewolf


Transforming into a sheep

A sheep is sometimes, but not frequently, chosen as a medium for transformation. A man who was returning late from the market at Verrières in Poitou, met a lamb, which followed him bleating loudly, at the turn of a footpath crossing a lonely heath. “Poor thing,” he said, “you might be devoured by a wolf,” and, seizing the lamb by its four legs, he hoisted it on to his shoulders, so as to carry it conveniently.

As he approached his house he found the animal began to weigh very heavily. At last he arrived in a perspiration and put down his burden amongst the sheep which had already been penned in the fold. At dawn the next day, he went to look at his new lamb. But in the spot where he had placed it the evening before he found a huge demon, busy stitching straw soles into his shoes.

The sorcerer had reshjhhj\]ghumed human shape and, looking very foolish, begged that he would say nothing about his little adventure. But the man seized him by the shoulders, kicked him from behind and chucked him out of the pen, crying, “Get out of this, you evil being.” “If only he had made the slightest scratch from which the blood flowed,” added the old lady who was telling the story, “the sorcerer would have been cured, and would no longer have been able to transform himself into an animal.”

Although witches are able to transform themselves into horses if they wish, they usually prefer to use their powers for transforming other people, and getting the benefit by riding their victims to death.


Witches turning victims into horses

Margaret Grant, a Scottish witch of the nineteenth century, believed that she was able to transform herself into various animals, and – avers that she was, at times – actually changed by evil-disposed persons into a pony or a hare and ridden for great distances, or hunted by dogs as the case might be.

Joseph Glanvill in his “Sadducismus Triumphatus,” tells the story of a “great army of witches” who were charged with performing a feat of horse-transformation on a large scale at Blocula in Sweden in 1669.

A man may be transformed by a woman throwing a magic halter over his head while he is in bed. Then she mounts the horse, and rides to the witches’ tryst. If, however, the man-horse can manage to slip the magic bridle off and throw it over her, she becomes a mare, and her victim mounts her and rides till she is exhausted.


bewitched horse

Legend has it that witches could turn men into horses to ride them to exhaustion.


A witch-mare

At Yarrowfoot a witch-mare, according to one story, was shod in the usual manner and afterwards sold to her own husband. To his surprise, when he removed the bridle, his wife stood before him in human form, wearing horseshoes on her hands and feet. There are many variants of this story, another woman having been found in bed with horseshoe attachments, and it is difficult to trace the origin of this fantastic idea.

In the neighbourhood of Ostrel in Denmark a man served on a farm, the mistress of which, unknown to him, was a witch. Although she gave him good and wholesome food he never thrived, but became thinner every day. At this, being much troubled, he went to a wise man, to whom he communicated his case. From this man he learnt that his mistress was a witch and that at night, while he slept, she transformed him into a horse, and rode upon him to Troms Church in Norway; so that it was not to be wondered at that his strength decreased. The wise man at the same time gave him an ointment with which to rub his head at night, and said when he fell asleep he would have a violent itching on his head, and then he would wake up and see that he was standing outside Troms Church.

The man did as he had been told, and on waking up the following night, he found that he was standing by the church, holding in his hand a bridle which he had torn off whilst scratching his head. Behind him he saw many horses bound together by each other’s tails. Presently his mistress came out and cast a friendly look at him, but he nodded for her to come nearer, and when she stood by, he cast the bridle over her head and she became a handsome mare on the spot. He mounted and rode her home. On the way he called at a farrier’s, and made him shoe the mare. When he reached home he told his master that he had been out to buy a fine mare, which would go handsomely in harness with one already in the stables. The master paid him a good round sum for the animal, but when he took off its bridle, there stood his wife with horseshoes on her hands and feet. He turned her straight out of doors, but she never managed to get rid of the horseshoes.

When St. Macarius encountered a poor old woman who had been changed into a horse, he restored her to human shape by sprinkling holy water over her. The same saint acted mercifully in another case of transformation.


‘Turned into a toad’

A young girl refused to do the bidding of the man who asked her to be his wife. He was so infuriated by her refusal that he arranged with a wizard to turn her into a stoat. A wise man, endeavouring to explain this incident, says, “This was not a genuine transformation, but was an illusion of the devil, who so affected the imagination of the girl and the bystanders, that she appeared to them in the form of a stoat, although she was still a woman in reality.”

The victim of the enchantment was then taken before the holy man of the name of Macarius, who, on account of his saintliness, could not suffer deception of the devil’s wiles. He looked upon the maiden and saw that she was a human being and no stoat, and thus, uttering a prayer, freed her from the spell. This cure is of the hypnotic variety, in which several people are under the mental spell of one other.


Reginald Scott’s story of a bewitched egg
witches transforming men into animals

Changing into a donkey.

Reginald Scott tells the story of a woman who sold an egg to a man who, when eating it, speedily turned into an ass. For three years she rode the animal to market. It was in the city of Salamin in Cyprus where a ship arrived laden with merchandise. Many of the sailors went ashore in the hope of procuring fresh provisions. A certain sturdy young Englishman went to a woman’s shop some little way from the town, to see whether she could let him have some new-laid eggs. She promised to do so and went off to fetch them, but she was away so long that the young sailor called out that she must please make haste, as the tide was going out and he might be left behind when his ship set sail.

At last she came out with the eggs and told him to come back to her house if the ship had gone. The sailor made the best of his way back to the vessel, but being hungry, ate an egg on the way. He was then struck dumb and his wits seemed to have left him. When he reached the side of the vessel and tried to go aboard, the mariners beat him back with cudgels crying, “What lacks the ass?” and “Whither the devil does the ass want to come?”

Then the sailor realised that he had been bewitched by the woman’s eggs he had eaten, and had turned into a donkey. Finding it impossible to board the ship and remembering the witch’s words, he went back to her house and there served her for the space of three years, carrying the burdens she laid on his back. Here no doubt the egg is used merely as an instrument for inducing a certain frame of mind in the victim. It may be presumed that the witch’s words of suggestion were equally necessary in bringing about the transformation.



The witch Meroc turnes her lover into a beaver

The sorceress Meroc in “The Metamorphosis or Golden Ass” of Apuleius, had the power to change, by one word only, her lover into a beaver. “She likewise changed into a frog an innkeeper who was her neighbour and of whom she was on that account envious, and now that old man, swimming in a tub of his own wine, and merged in the dregs of it, calls on his ancient guests with a hoarse and courteously croaking voice.”

“She likewise changed one of the advocates of the court into a ram because he had declaimed against her, and now that ram pleads causes.”


Poitevin legends

M. Henri Gelin, whose researches on Poitevin legends and folklore are very valuable, discusses the conditions under which metamorphosis takes place, saying it is entirely involuntary and is the result of an agreement entered into with infernal powers. The soul of the sorcerer is supposed to remain in a state of distinct entity. But the narrators of these stories have done little to make clear the actual process which takes place when the transformation occurs of a man into a wolf, a sheep, or a colt, or a woman (who seems to be credited with gentler characteristics) into a goat, a bitch, or a hind. Perhaps the human body remains temporarily deprived of its soul, which, entering a new shape, substitutes itself for the obscure and undeveloped soul of the animal, or perhaps the wizard’s body enjoys the faculty of anatomically modifying its organs, and varying its aspects something in the manner of the caterpillar which turns into a moth. Who shall say?

A shepherdess in the district of Niort noticed when driving her flock home that it had become augmented by the presence of a black sheep, the origin of which she could not trace. She penned up the extra animal with her own in the shed, and bolted the door, rejoicing at the addition to her flock. But as soon as night had fallen, a woman’s voice was heard singing in the sheep’s shed. The tune was a plaintive one, interspersed now and again with strident and prolonged laughter. Not one of the servants or neighbours dared to open the shed and face the flock to see who could be singing like that. In hushed voices they said “It’s a witch!” The next day at the usual hour of departure, the shepherdess, in great dread of what she might see, partly opened the shed door. The black sheep rushed like a whirlwind into the open and was gone. Now and again, however, the apparition returned to the farm in the shape of a woman, clapping her hands and laughing loudly as though to mock at the people who had allowed her to escape so easily.

The following legend of a white hind comes from the same district, Souché, two miles from Niort. Its peculiar characteristic is that the young girl, who complains to her mother about the hounds chasing her, appears to be quite aware of what is happening to her in her dual personality of woman and hind at the same moment, an important detail when regarded in the light of scientific occultism.

The story is told by Gelin and is very popular in Poitou. The heroine is a girl by day and a white hind by night. The pack of hounds belonging to her brother Renaud chase her in the forest. She complains of this to her mother who begs Renaud to call back the pack. But it is too late. The white hind is captured and killed. Her palpitating flesh is stripped from the carcase and prepared as a dish of venison, and next day when the guests sit down to the feast, they are terrified to hear a woman’s voice which they recognise as that of their absent sister, murmuring, “Alas! my breasts are lying on platters of gold.” Then, raising her tone, she announces that Renaud’s soul is forfeit and that his name is written up on the gates of hell. At the sound of her words Renaud falls down dead and his mother goes off in a swoon.

“La Blanche Biche,” as the story is called in the original, is told in verse which may be rendered roughly as follows:—

Afar in the fields dwell a mother and daughter,
The mother sings on, but the fair maid sighs.
“For what do you sigh, my dear Angèlique?”
“I sigh in great need, for my heart is sad.
In the day I’m a maid, but at night a white hind,
The hounds are upon me and hunters as well,
And the worst pack of all is my brother’s pack.
Go forth, mother dear, to his castle and say,
He must call back the hounds and the hunters too.”
Then the mother puts her distaff aside
And runs to the castle of Renaud, her son,
To tell him to stay his hounds and his men.
“But my hounds, mother, are after the white hind now.”
“Call them back, Renaud, for sweet Angèlique
Dwells in the shape of that same white hind.”
Then Renaud seizes his hunter’s horn,
But before he can blow two blasts loud and clear,
The white hind is taken and brought by the hounds
To the castle kitchen, where, seized by the cook,
Its joints are severed, its flesh is sliced;
And a shout comes from the castle hall,
“Set a fine feast for us all to-night,
For a number of guests will honour our house,
All but our sister, the fair Angèlique.”
Then the smoking dishes appear on the board,
And the guests turn longing eyes on the feast,
When a plaintive sigh is heard through the hall,
And a woman’s sad voice rings out in a shriek,
That curdles the blood of the waiting guests.
“My breasts are lying on platters of gold,
My heart’s on the spit, and it groans and it moans,
My bright eyes, embedded in pastry, grow dim;
But my soul dwells with angels in paradise,
And that of my brother is destined for hell!”
At these terrible words, from invisible source,
Renaud starts up! Then falls back—stone dead.
While his mother slips under the board in a swoon.

This is a far more harrowing story than the Yorkshire legend of a woman who turns into a white doe, which is found in Wordsworth’s “The White Doe of Rylstone.”

When Lady Aăliza mourned
Her son, and felt in her despair,
The pang of unavailing prayer;
Her son in Wharf’s abysses drowned,
The noble boy of Egremound,
From which affliction, when God’s grace
At length had in her heart found place,
A pious structure fair to see,
Rose up this stately priory!
The lady’s work,—but now laid low;
To the grief of her soul that doth come and go,
In the beautiful form of this innocent doe:
Which though seemingly doomed in its breast to sustain
A softened remembrance of sorrow and pain,
Is spotless, and holy, and gentle and bright—
And glides o’er the earth like an angel of light.




The White Doe of Rylstone

Burke has a very different version of the famous and spotless White Doe of Rylstone, the animal being gifted with human faculties rather than appearing in human form, and the story having some affinity with those of the fairy-godmother class. This beautiful white doe belonged to Emily, the only daughter of Richard Norton of Rylstone, who had nine warrior sons. The youngest of them, Edward by name, had made a present of the doe to his sister and the animal was called Blanche on account of her spotless white skin. She followed her young mistress everywhere and was like a human companion. So great was her intelligence that she was thought to be a benevolent witch or fairy, perhaps rather a sprite bewitched in animal form.

One day she leads her mistress a long way from home, to a spot beside a brooklet which is held by the people of the neighbourhood to be haunted. Having reached the desired destination, the doe lies down to rest and Emily does likewise. Presently she falls into a kind of dream, in which it seems to her that the brook boils and bubbles up and a wraith of mist rises on the surface which gradually takes the shape and outlines of a beautiful woman.

This spirit warns Emily in a vision of coming disaster to her beloved father and eight of her brothers. She sees them done to death by the axe. Meanwhile the doe lies immovable in a kind of trance and it may well be thought that her real womanly self is seen by Emily in its natural shape.

Soon afterwards Emily is informed by Edward that her father and eight of her brothers are on the point of breaking out into open rebellion against the Sovereign of England and that it is necessary for him to join them, although doing so goes against his convictions, as he is loyal to Queen Elizabeth. Nothing that Emily can do or say dissuades him from his decision, and she parts from him in great grief.

At first the rebels succeed in their projects, but presently their attacks fail and they are forced to retreat. A rumour reaches Emily that all the Nortons have been captured and condemned to death and that the rebellion is over.

In the hope of saving her father and brothers, Emily sets out, accompanied by Blanche, to sue Queen Elizabeth for pardon on behalf of her relatives. On the long[Pg 119] and perilous journey to Court, Blanche again acts as her adviser, and gives her almost human help in moments of difficulty, and so charmed is the Queen by the beauty of the suppliant and her intelligent animal comrade, that she sends Lord Leicester post-haste to York with a reprieve for the Nortons.

Unfortunately the messenger arrives too late to save any member of the family except the youngest son, Edward, Emily’s favourite, and thus the beautiful human doe is instrumental in saving him, at least, from the scaffold.



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