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The Game Of The Child-Stealing Witch. — In "Folk-Lore," vol. x. 1900, M. Gaster has discussed the history of a Roumanian charm against the child-stealing witch. With great learning and acuteness, he traces the career of this particular piece of superstition for two thousand years. The charm, directed against the cataract, is cast into the form of an incident. The sufferer is said to meet certain evil spirits, known as the "Windmaids and the Beautiful," who blacken his countenance and blind him. The Holy Virgin meets certain sisters whom she bids clear away the mist from the eyes of the afflicted person. In another variant the pernicious spirit goes to Bethlehem in order to steal the child of the Virgin Mary, but is repulsed by the archangel Michael. She confesses her various names, which constitute a protective charm. Mr. Gaster shows that the basis is identical with that of a love-charm contained in a MS. of the sixteenth century, connected with the name of Sisoe. This saint has a sister, Meletia, whose four children the Devil has swallowed. The sister hides herself with her fifth child; but when Sisoe begs that the door shall be opened to him, the Devil enters the house in the shape of a millet-grain, and carries off the last child. The saint pursues, and by the advice of friendly trees discovers the route taken by the Devil, who is drawn out of the sea with a hook, and forced to vomit up the children. In Greek texts published by Leo Allatius is found the story as that of Sysynnius and Gylo, who changes into a fish; and this Gylo is the Gello of classic antiquity, a child-stealing demon. In Hebrew folk-lore the counterpart of Gello is Lilith, who is represented as living in the waters, and as a stealer of little children; against her exist early charms which are in origin identical with the one still extant. That the names of the demon, in the modern charm, are used as prophylactic against her, is only a corruption of the more ancient form, in which the names of guardian angels served this purpose. Mr. Gaster justly observes that he has followed this charm from the heights of the Carpathian mountains through Roumania, the plains of the Balkans to old Byzantium, through Palestine, and as far as the valley of the Nile. Probably additional knowledge might further extend its antiquity, possibly carry it back to the most ancient Babylonian period. We have thus an example of a superstition, very likely of literary origin, which has emigrated from the Orient, and acclimatized itself among modern European peasants.
The explanation which Mr. Gaster demonstrates for one charm will, I am convinced, be found to apply to a vast body of folk-lore, including many popular European tales which have passed from land to land.
In his discussion, Mr. Gaster has not mentioned the existence of a very widely diffused game of children, dependent upon the same circle of ideas, and in all likelihood of equal antiquity. Under the title of "Old Witch," I have offered a number of American and English versions (Games and Songs, 1883, pp. 215-221, 141; Journal of American Folk-Lore, ii.; see also Mrs. A. B. Gomme," Traditional Games," 1898, ii. 391-396). Here the scene is precisely that of the tale connected with the name of Sisoe; the child-stealing demon lurks at the door of the mother, obtains entrance under false representations, and steals the children; a pursuit and recovery takes place, and the children are reanimated. One curious feature connects the game with classic antiquity; the demon is represented as limping. Now in the glossary of Hesychius, Gello is said to be an eidolon of Empusa (one-foot). The game in Europe exists in a vast variety of versions, the children being represented as leaves, pots, colored pieces of cloth, or colors. The mythologic basis is indicated by the name of Saint Catharine of Sienna, given in an Italian version to the mother, just as in the charm it is the child of the Virgin that the witch endeavors to steal. I have estimated that one tenth part of the traditional games of children, played with words in Europe, are nothing more than altered versions of this same game, of which the English forms preserve the original idea. As Mr. Gaster observes, the attempt to explain such relations on the doctrine of independent origins is altogether inconsistent with the facts. I do not doubt that if we could revert two thousand years, we should find children in Greece performing the same dramatic action with reference to Lamia (the Swallower, lamos, throat), and one of the goddesses; that in Palestine and Assyria we should similarly find children performing the capture by the sea-demon Lilith of infants of divine race. We have, in the charm and the game, only different developments of the same theme; and while the general idea of a child-robbing spirit may be universally human, in this particular case we are confronted, not with such independent developments, but with very ancient Oriental customs, which have wandered into Europe, and have replaced, it may be, similar local usages. Such is the history of folk-lore in general; while the underlying ideas are common to humanity, the expression of those ideas is constantly taking new forms, which are determined by continued diffusion from centres of culture. In this manner the ideas and literary productions of ancient civilizations are continually blending themselves with folk-lore. ~ W.W. Newell 1900