The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion
Page: 406In Christian Europe the old heathen custom of expelling the powers of evil at certain times of the year has survived to modern times. Thus in some villages of Calabria the month of March is inaugurated with the expulsion of the witches. It takes place at night to the sound of the church bells, the people running about the streets and crying, “March is come.” They say that the witches roam about in March, and the ceremony is repeated every Friday evening during the month. Often, as might have been anticipated, the ancient pagan rite has attached itself to church festivals. In Albania on Easter Eve the young people light torches of resinous wood and march in procession, swinging them, through the village. At last they throw the torches into the river, crying, “Ha, Kore! we throw you into the river, like these torches, that you may never return.” Silesian peasants believe that on Good Friday the witches go their rounds and have great power for mischief. Hence about Oels, near Strehlitz, the people on that day arm themselves with old brooms and drive the witches from house and home, from farmyard and cattle-stall, making a great uproar and clatter as they do so.
In Central Europe the favourite time for expelling the witches is, or was, Walpurgis Night, the Eve of May Day, when the baleful powers of these mischievous beings were supposed to be at their height. In the Tyrol, for example, as in other places, the expulsion of the powers of evil at this season goes by the name of “Burning out the Witches.” It takes place on May Day, but people have been busy with their preparations for days before. On a Thursday at midnight bundles are made up of resinous splinters, black and red spotted hemlock, caperspurge, rosemary, and twigs of the sloe. These are kept and burned on May Day by men who must first have received plenary absolution from the Church. On the last three days of April all the houses are cleansed and fumigated with juniper berries and rue. On May Day, when the evening bell has rung and the twilight is falling, the ceremony of “Burning out the Witches” begins. Men and boys make a racket with whips, bells, pots, and pans; the women carry censers; the dogs are unchained and run barking and yelping about. As soon as the church bells begin to ring, the bundles of twigs, fastened on poles, are set on fire and the incense is ignited. Then all the house-bells and dinner-bells are rung, pots and pans are clashed, dogs bark, every one must make a noise. And amid this hubbub all scream at the pitch of their voices:
“Witch flee, flee from here, or it will go ill with thee.”
Then they run seven times round the houses, the yards, and the village. So the witches are smoked out of their lurking-places and driven away. The custom of expelling the witches on Walpurgis Night is still, or was down to recent years, observed in many parts of Bavaria and among the Germans of Bohemia. Thus in the Böhmer-wald Mountains all the young fellows of the village assemble after sunset on some height, especially at a cross-road, and crack whips for a while in unison with all their strength. This drives away the witches; for so far as the sound of the whips is heard, these maleficent beings can do no harm. In some places, while the young men are cracking their whips, the herdsmen wind their horns, and the long-drawn notes, heard far off in the silence of night, are very effectual for banning the witches.