Day 109: Common Folklore Themes: Milk Stealing
Witches stealing milk is a common theme in many Ozark folk tales, as well as a lot of other European derived folklore. This kind of stealing is always done in a magical way, through the use of several techniques.
One such technique is the use of the milk-hare, described below by Vance Randolph:
“Another well-known tale is concerned with a witch who assumed the form of a swamp rabbit and lived on milk. A farmer saw this big rabbit sucking his cow and fired at it with a load of turkey shot; the animal was only about thirty feet off but seemed quite unharmed. The man rushed home and molded several slugs of silver, obtained by melting half dollars. Charging his shotgun with these, he fired again and killed the rabbit. A few hours later came the news that an old woman in the next holler had been shot to death; the doctor couldn’t find the bullet, but everybody knew that it must have been a silver slug that killed her.”
(15th century wall painting of the milk-hare)
Another technique involves milking a dishrag like you would an udder, thereby stealing milk from the neighbor’s cows. The rag is sometimes thrown over a knife stuck in the wall of the cabin, or over the pot rack as in the story below:
“A schoolmaster from Pea Ridge, Arkansas, used to tell the story of two young women who lived alone in a nearby farm. They owned no cattle and were never seen to do any milking but always had plenty of butter and homemade cheese. Finally a farmhand peeked in at their window and later swore that he saw these girls hang a dishcloth on the pot rack and squeeze several gallons of milk out of it. Turning about, he looked at the cows in a neighbor’s pasture and saw that their udders were gradually decreasing in size.”
(Image of a witch milking a rag over the handle of an axe)
All manner of objects have been known to be used for this kind of magical milking. There’s a folk tale about a farmer who couldn’t get any milk from his prized cow, so suspecting his neighbor as being a witch he crept over to their house one morning and saw the old woman that lived there milking the handle of a spoon. The remedy according to this folk tale was that the farmer was able to get a few drops of milk from the cow that he then put into a frying pan on the stove. As the milk heated up he could hear the woman next door screaming and hollering. Once all the milk had burned up the farmer heard a knock at his door. It was the old woman come to borrow some tallow for a bad burn on her leg. The farmer refused and never had any more problems milking his cow.
I’d like to give a couple European variants of the milk stealing tradition. One comes from Iceland and it’s an object called a “tilberi” described below from the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft:
“If a woman wants to create a tilberi she has to dig up a human rib in a graveyard early on Whitsunday, wrap it in grey wool and preserve it between her breasts. The next three Sundays at communion she has to spit the holy wine on the bundle which will then come alive. Then the woman has to carve a nipple inside her thigh on which the tilberi will hang on and nourish itself.
(A modern interpretation of the tilberi)
"When it is fully grown the woman can send it into the neighbouring pastures to steal milk from cows and sheep. When the woman becomes old the tilberi becomes a burden and the only way she can get rid of it, is to order it to gather all the sheepdropping in three highland pastures. Eager to get back on the nipple the tilberi will overexert itself and explode, leaving only a human rib beside the heap of droppings.
"The milk-stealing tilberi is the only magic in Icelandic folklore that can only be performed by women. A fully grown tilberi could lie across a sheep´s back and suck two tits at the same time and when it would roll back to its farm it would spew the milk into its mother churn.
"The butter made from the milk would fall into little pieces if the magical sign smjörhnútur (butterknot) was drawn on it.”
There’s also a similar tradition in Scandinavian countries of the troll-hare or troll-cat, used to steal milk. They are often made of bundles of wool with wooden knitting needles for legs, or sometimes the troll-hare is made from a sieve filled with wool then given legs. I talk about the troll-hare more in my post, “Rabbit Lore”.
W.F. Ryan in their book “The Bathhouse at Midnight” shares some milk-stealing lore from Eastern Europe and Russia:
“Witches, like kolduny, were reputed to be able to turn themselves and others into animals and even inanimate objects, and, as in other parts of Europe, were commonly accused of milking someone else’s cows. Dal’s, Tolkovyi slovar’, s.v. gadit’ recorded the name gadunitsa for witches in Archangel province who both stole milk and could turn into magpies. In the trans-Baikal they would steal the milk while in the shape of dogs. One way of dealing with milk-stealing witches in Belorussia was to put a strainer in a pot, pour in holy water, bring to the boil, stirring all the time with a blessed willow twig - as the heat increased so would the heat in the breast of the witch and she would come running begging for forgiveness.”
In Ireland W.B. Yeats collected a story about milk stealing that’s featured in his “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry”:
“Not far from Rathmullen lived, last spring, a family called Hanlon; and in a farmhouse, some fields distant, people named Dogherty. Both families had good cows, but the Hanlons were fortunate in possessing a Kerry cow that gave more milk and yellower butter than the others.
"Grace Dogherty, a young girl, who was more admired than loved in the neighbourhood, took much interest in the Kerry cow, and appeared one night at Mrs. Hanlon’s door with the modest request–
”‘Will you let me milk your Moiley cow?’
“'An’ why wad you wish to milk wee Moiley, Grace, dear,’ inquired Mrs. Hanlon.
”'Oh, just becase you’re sae throng at the present time.’
“'Thank you kindly, Grace, but I’m no too throng to do my ain work. I’ll no trouble you to milk.’
"The girl turned away with a discontented air; but the next evening, and the next, found her at the cow-house door with the same request.
"At length Mrs. Hanlon, not knowing well how to persist in her refusal, yielded, and permitted Grace to milk the Kerry cow.
"She soon had reason to regret her want of firmness. Moiley gave no milk to her owner.
"When this melancholy state of things lasted for three days, the Hanlons applied to a certain Mark McCarrion, who lived near Binion.
”'That cow has been milked by someone with an evil eye,’ said he. 'Will she give you a wee drop, do you think? The full of a pint measure wad do.’
“'Oh, ay, Mark, dear; I’ll get that much milk frae her, any way.’
”'Weel, Mrs. Hanlon, lock the door, an’ get nine new pins that was never used in clothes, an’ put them into a saucepan wi’ the pint o’ milk. Set them on the fire, an’ let them come to the boil.’
“The nine pins soon began to simmer in Moiley’s milk.
"Rapid steps were heard approaching the door, agitated knocks followed, and Grace Dogherty’s high-toned voice was raised in eager entreaty.
”'Let me in, Mrs. Hanlon!’ she cried. 'Tak off that cruel pot! Tak out them pins, for they’re pricking holes in my heart, an’ I’ll never offer to touch milk of yours again.’“
It seems that wherever there are people who rely on the milk their cows produce to have money and food that there are legends like this. We tend to forget today just how important animals were to our ancestors, and how important they are to so many people still today. It’s interesting to look at some of the old charm books like the "Long Lost Friend” of Hohman or the “Romanus-Büchlein” and see just how many of the remedies and charms were for livestock. When we talk about magical work that brings prosperity and luck to a family it’s often today in a monetary sense, whereas in ages past it would have been directly aimed at the health and safety of livestock.