Sacred Texts  Neo-Paganism  Roma  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, by Charles Godfrey Leland, [1891], at

p. 142





IN Eastern Europe witches and their kin, or kind, assemble on the eve of Saint John and of Saint George, Christmas and Easter, at cross-roads on the broad pustas, or prairies, and there brew their magic potions. This, as Dr. KRAUSS observes, originated in feasts held at the same time in pre-Christian times. "So it was that a thousand years ago old and young assembled in woods or on plains to bring gifts to their gods, and celebrated with dances, games, and offerings the festival of spring, or of awaking and blooming Nature. These celebrations have taken Christian names, but innumerable old heathen rites and customs are still to be found in them." It may be here observed that mingled with these are many of a purely gypsy-Oriental origin, which came from the same source and which it remains for careful

p. 143

ethnologists and critical Folk-lorists to disentangle and make clear. The priestesses of prehistoric times on these occasions performed ceremonies, as was natural, to protect cattle or land from evil influences. To honour their deities the "wise women" bore certain kinds of boughs and adorned animals with flowers and wreaths. The new religion declared that this was all sorcery and devil-work, but the belief in the efficacy of the rites continued. The priestesses became witches, or Vilas, the terms being often confused, but they were still feared and revered.

In all the South Slavonian. country the peasants on Saint George's. Day adorn the horns of cattle with garlands, in gypsy Indian style, to protect them from evil influences. I have observed that even in Egypt among Mahometans Saint George is regarded with great reverence, and I knew one who on this day always sacrificed a sheep. The cow or ox which is not thus decorated becomes a prey in some way to witches. The garlands are hung up at night over the stable door, where they remain all the ensuing year. If a peasant neglects to crown his cow, he not only does not receive a certain fee from its owner, but is in danger of being beaten. On the same day the shepherdess, or cow-herd, takes in one hand salt, in the other a potsherd containing live coals. In the coals roses are burned. By this means witches lose all power over the animal. Near Karlstadt the mistress of the family merely strikes it with a cross to produce the same effect.

Among the Transylvanian Hungarian gypsies there is a magical ceremony performed on Saint George's Day, traces of which may be found in England. Then the girls bake a peculiar kind of cake, in which certain herbs are mixed, and which Dr. von WLISLOCKI declares has an agreeable taste. This is divided among friends and foes, and it is believed to have the property of reconciling the bitterest enemies and of increasing the love of friends. But it is most efficient as a love-charm, especially when given by women to men. The following gypsy song commemorates a deed of this kind by a husband, who recurred to it with joy:—

p. 144

"Kásáve romñi ná jidel,
Ke kásávo maro the del;
Sar m're gule lele pekel
Káná Sváto Gordye ável.

"Furmuntel bute luludya
Furmuntel yoy bute charma
Andre petrel but kámábe
Ko chal robo avla bake."

No one bakes such bread as my wife, such as she baked me on St. George's Day. Many flowers and dew were kneaded into the cake with love. Whoever eats of it will be her slave."

In England I was told by an old gypsy woman named LIZZIE BUCKLAND, that in the old time gypsy girls made a peculiar kind of cake, a Romany morriclo, which they baked especially for their lovers, and used to throw to them over the hedge by night. To make it more acceptable, and probably to facilitate the action of the charm, they would put money into the cake. It was observed of old among the Romans that fascinatio began with flattery, compliments, and presents!

On the night of Saint John the witch climbs to the top of the hurdle fence which surrounds the cow-yard, and sings the following spell:—

"K meni sir,
K meni maslo,
K meni puter,
K meni mleko
Avam pak kravsku kožu!"

"To me the cheese,
To me the tallow (or meat),
To me the butter,
To me the milk,
To you only the cowhide."

Or, as it may be expressed in rhyme:—

"The cheese, meat, butter, and milk for me,
But only the cowhide left for thee."

p. 145

Then the cow will die, the carcass be buried, and the skin sold. To prevent all this the owner goes early on St. John's Day to the meadow and gathers the morning dew in a cloak. This he carries home, and after binding the cow to a beam washes her with it. She is then milked, and it is believed that if all has gone right she will yield four bucketsful.

In the chapter on "Conjurations and Exorcisms among the Hungarian Gypsies," I have mentioned the importance which they attach to the being born a seventh or twelfth child. This is the same throughout South Slavonia, where the belief that such persons in a series of births are exceptionally gifted is shared by both gypsies, with whom it probably originated, and the peasants. What renders this almost certain is that Dr. KRAUSS mentions that the oldest information as to the subject among the Slavs dates only from 1854, while the faith is ancient among the gypsies. He refers here to the so-called Kerstniki, who on the eve of St. John do battle with the witches. Krstnik is a Greek word, meaning, literally, one who has been baptized. But the Krstnik proper is the youngest of twelve brothers, all sons of the same father. There appears to be some confusion and uncertainty among the Slavs as to whether all the twelve brothers or only the twelfth are "Krstnik"—according to the gypsy faith it would be the latter. These "twelvers" are the great protectors of the world from witchcraft. 1 But they are in great danger on Saint John's Eve, for then the witches, having most power, assail them with sticks and stakes, or stumps of saplings, for which reason it is usual in the autumn to carefully remove everything of the kind from the ground.

A krstnik is described by Miklosič as "Človek kterega vile obijubiju"—"A man who has won the love of a Vila." The Vila ladies, or a certain

p. 146

class of them, are extremely desirous of contracting the closest intimacy—in short, of becoming the mistresses, of superior men. The reader may find numerous anecdotes of such amours in the "Curiosa" of Heinrich KORNMANN, 1666, and in my "Egyptian Sketch Book" (Trübner &. Co., London, 1874). In the heathen days, as at present among all gypsies and Orientals, it was believed to be a wonderfully lucky thing for a man to get the love of one of these beautiful beings. What the difficulties were which kept them from finding lovers is not very clear, unless it were that the latter must be twelfth sons, or, what is far more difficult to find, young men who would not gossip about their supernatural sweethearts to other mortals, who would remain true to them, and who finally would implicitly obey all their commands and follow their advice. There is a vast array of tales—Gypsy, Arab, Provençal, Norman, German, and Scandinavian, which show that on these points the Vila, or forest-maiden, or spirit of earth or air, or fairy, was absolutely exacting and implacable, being herself probably allowed by occult laws to contract an intimacy only with men of a high order, or such as are—

"Few in a heap and very hard to find."

On the other hand, the Vila yearns intensely for men and their near company, because there is about those who have been baptized a certain perfume or odour of sanctity, and as the unfortunate nymph is not immortal herself, she likes to get even an association or sniff of it from those who are. According to the Rosicrucian Mythology, as set forth in the "Undine" of LA MOTTE FOUQUÉ, she may acquire a soul by marrying a man who will be faithful to her—which accounts for the fact that so few Undines live for ever. However this may be, it appears that the Krstniki are specially favoured, and frequently invited by the Vilas to step in—generally to a hollow tree—and make a call. The hollow tree proves to be a door to Fairyland, and the call a residence of seven days, which on returning home the caller finds were seven years, for—

"When we are pleasantly employed, time flies."

p. 147

These spirits have one point in common with their gypsy friends—they steal children—with this difference, that the Vila only takes those which have been baptized, while the gypsy—at present, at least—is probably not particular in this respect. But I have very little doubt that originally one motive, and perhaps the only one which induced these thefts, was the desire of the gypsies, as heathens and sorcerers, to have among them, "for luck," a child which had received the initiation into that mysterious religion from which they were excluded, and which, as many of their charms and spells prove, they really regarded as a higher magic. It is on this ground only, or for this sole reason, that we can comprehend many of the child-stealings effected by gypsies; for it is absolutely true that, very often when they have large families of their own, they will, for no apparent cause whatever, neither for the sake of plunder, profit, or revenge, adopt or steal some poor child and bring it up, kindly enough after their rough fashion; and in doing this they are influenced, as I firmly believe, far more by a superstitious feeling of bâk, or luck, and the desire to have a Mascot in the tent, than any other. That children have been robbed or stolen for revenge does not in the least disprove what I believe—that in most cases the motive for the deed is simply superstition.

On the eve of Saint George old women cut thistle-twigs and bring them to the door of the stall. This is only another form of the nettle which enters so largely into the Hungarian gypsy incantations, and they also make crosses with cowdung on the doors. This is directly of Indian origin, and points to gypsy tradition. Others drive large nails into the doors—also a curious relic of a widely-spread ancient custom, of which a trace may be found in the Vienna Stock im Eisen, or trunk driven full of nails by wandering apprentices, which may be seen near the church of Saint Stephen. But the thistle-twigs are still held to be by far the most efficacious. In Vinica, or near it, these twigs are cut before sunset. They are laid separately in many places, but are especially placed in garlands on the necks of cattle. If a witch, in spite of these precautions, contrives to get into the stable, all will go wrong with the beasts during the coming year.

p. 148

Now there was once a man who would have none of this thistle work—nay, he mocked at those who believed in it. So it came to pass that all through the year witches came every night and milked his cows. And he reflected, "I must find out who does this!" So he hid himself in the bay and kept sharp watch. All at once, about eleven o'clock, there came in a milk-pail, which moved of its own accord, and the cows began to let down their milk into it. The farmer sprang out and kicked it over. Then it changed into a tremendous toad which turned to attack him, so that in terror he took refuge in his house. That proved to be a lucky thing for him. A week after came the day of Saint George. Then he hung thistle-twigs on his stable door, and after that his cows gave milk in plenty.

Witches may be seen on Saint George's Day, and that unseen by them if a man will do as follows: He must rise before the sun, turn all his clothes inside out and then put them on. Then he must cut a green turf and place it on his head. Thus he becomes invisible, for the witches believe he is under the earth, being themselves apparently bewitched by this.

Very early on the day of Saint George, or before sunrise, the witches climb into the church belfry to get the grease from the axle on which the bell swings, and a piece of the bell-rope, for these things are essential to them. Dr. KRAUSS observes that in the MS. from which he took this, schmierfetet or axle-grease, is indicated by the word svierc, "in which one at once recognizes the German word schwartz, a black." It is remarkable that the Chippeway and other Algonkin Indians attach particular value to the black dye made from the grease of the axle of a grindstone.

The extraordinary pains which they took to obtain this had attracted the attention of a man in Minnesota, who told me of it. It required a whole day to obtain a very little of it. The Indians, when asked by curious white people what this was for, said it was for dyeing baskets, but, as my informant observed, the quantity obtained was utterly inadequate to any such purpose, and even better black dyes (e.g., hickory bark and alum) are known to, and can be very easily obtained by, them. The real object was to use the grease in "medicine," i.e., for sorcery. The eagerness of both witches in Europe

p. 149

and Indians in America to obtain such a singular substance is very strange. However, the idea must be a recent one among the Indians, for there were certainly no grindstones among them before the coming of the white men.

"For all that I can tell, said he,
Is that it is a mystery,"

Heathens though they be, many gypsies have a superstitious belief in the efficacy of the sacramental bread and wine, and there are many instances of their stealing them for magical purposes. So in the Middle Ages witches and sorcerers used these objects for the most singular purposes, Paulus Grillandus, in his "Tractatus de Hereticis et Sortilegiis," &c. (Lyons, 1547), assuring his readers that he had known a witch who had two holy wafers, inscribed with magical characters which she used for debauching innocent girls and betraying them to men, and that it was a belief that if a woman had the sacred oil fresh on her lips no man could refrain from kissing her. This is the union of two kinds of magic; a view which never once occurred to theological writers. And here I may appropriately mention that while the proofs of this work were passing through my hands accident threw into my way an extremely rare work, which illustrates to perfection the identity of popular and ecclesiastical sorcery. This is entitled, "De Effectibus Magicis, ac de Nuce Maga Beneventana," "Six Books of Magic Effects and of the Witch Walnut-tree of Benevento. A work necessary, joyous, and useful to Astrologists, Philosophers, Physicians, Exorcists, and Doctors, and Students of Holy Scriptures. By the Chief Physician, PETER PIPERNO." It appears to have been privately printed at Naples in 164-7, and came from a conventual library. It bare, written on a fly-leaf, the word Proibito.

In it every kind of disorder or disease is declared to be caused by devils and witches. The author believes with DELRIO that disease entered into the world as a consequence of sin (referenda sit ad primæ nostræ matris peccatum)—a view held by JOHN MILTON; hence, of course, all disease is caused solely by the devil. In his volume of two hundred

p. 150

large and close pages, our PETER PIPERNO displays a vast erudition on the origin of devils and diseases, is bitter on the rival school of magical practitioners who use cures and incantations unlike his own, and then gives us the name and nature of all diseases, according to the different parts of the body, &c., the medical prescriptions proper for them, and what is, in his opinion, most needful of all, the incantation or exorcism to be pronounced. Sometimes there are several of these, as one for making up a pill, another on taking it, &c. There are also general conjurations—I mean benedictions—for the medicines altogether or in particular, such as the Benedictio Syruporum, "The Blessing of the Syrups," and there is a very affecting and appropriately moving one for making or taking Castor Oil, and oils of all kinds, as follows:—


"This begins with the In nomine Patris, &c., and Adjutorium nostrum, &c., and then:

"I exorcise you all aromatics, herbs, roots, seeds, stones, gums, and whatever is to be compounded with this oil, by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, by the God triune yet one, by the holy and single Trinity, that the impure Spirit depart from you, and with it every incursion of Satan, every fraud of the Enemy, every evil of the Devil, and that mixed with oil you may free the subject from all infirmities, incantations, bindings, witchcrafts, from all diabolical fraud, art, and power, by the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ and the most beloved Virgin Mary, and of all the saints. Amen."

The curses for the devils of colds, fevers, rheumatisms, gouts, stomachaches, &c., are awful, both in number, length, and quality; enough to frighten a cowboy or "exhort an impenitent mule" into docility. There is the Exorcismus terribilis, or "Terrible Exorcism" of Saint Zeno, in which the disorder is addressed literally as "A dirty, false, heretical, drunken, lewd, proud, envious, deceitful, vile, swindling, stupid devil" with some twenty more epithets which, if applied in these our days to the devil himself, would ground an action for libel and bring heavy damages in any court. It is to be remarked that in many prescriptions the author adds to legitimate remedies, ingredients which are simply taken from popular necromancy, or witchcraft, as for instance, rue—fugæ dæmonum—verbena,

p. 151

and artemisia, all of which are still in use in Tuscany against sorcery and the evil eye.

The really magical character of these exorcisms is shown by the vast array of strange words used in them, many of which have a common source with those used by sorcerers of the Cabalistic or Agrippa school, such as Agla, Tetragrammaton, Adonai, Fons, Origo, Serpens, Avis, Leo, Imago, Sol, Floy, Vitis, Mons, Lapis, Angularis, Ischyros, Pantheon, all of which are old heathen terms of incantation. These are called in the exorcism "words by virtue of which"—per virtutem istorum verborum—the devils are invited to depart. The whole is as much a work of sorcery as any ever inscribed in a catalogue of occulta, and it was as a specimen of occulta that I bought it.


145:1 In Northern Sagas it appeared that Berserkers, or desperate warriors, frequently bound themselves together in companies of twelve. Vide the Hervor Saga, Olaf Tryggvason's and the Gautrek Saga. So there were the twelve Norse gods and the twelve apostles.

Next: Chapter X: Of the Haunts, Homes and Habits of Witches in the South Slavic Lands