Halloween Hearth Folklore
If your friends and families had disgustingly filthy homes, would you enjoy your visit as much as if their abodes were clean? Of course not, and this isn’t just a modern thought. The ancient Celts felt much the same, as did their Otherworldly neighbors. Halloween is a liminal time, where the veil between the worlds is thin and the dead and the Otherworld inhabitants like to visit, and woe betide any who don’t keep a clean hearth and home! So before your ancestors and other beings come and visit this year, perhaps you should read on to find out more.
The Widow of Gallows Hill
On the top of Cnoc-no-Cro’ (that is, Gallows Hill), under the stern shadow of Black Stairs on nearby White Mountain which was the abode of witches, lived a widow and her teenage granddaughter. It was Halloween night and the two were about to go to sleep when screaming voices shrieked from just outside the door.
“Where are you, feet-water? Where are you, band of the spinning wheel? Besom (which is a broom), where are you? Turf-coal, where are you?”
The usually inanimate objects shouted back, “Here in the tub,” “Here, fast around the rim,” “With my handle in the ash-pit,” and “Here, blazing over ashes.”
The voices without screamed louder “Then let us in!” and all the objects flew to door and opened it, allowing a coven of frightful old hags and shameless young women into the house, followed closely by the old boy himself, the devil. They tore around the house, dancing and swearing, fighting amongst themselves, and cursing up such a storm that any good women would near swoon.
Had the widow and granddaughter not thought clear enough to make the sign of the cross and call upon the Holy Trinity, they surely would have been devoured. As it was, they were simply teased and tortured to such a degree that the old widow passed out. Try as she might to reach the Holy Water they had stored, the foul women kept the granddaughter away.
Fortunate the young girl was intelligent and thought of a way to rid the house of its unwelcome guests. “Granny, granny” she shouted, looking out of the window, “Come look, Black Stairs is on fire!”
The wicked witches ran outside to see what was happening to their home. The young woman quickly bolted the door with the besom, tossed the foul feet water outside under the door, loosed the band on the spinning wheel, and raked the burning coal under the ashes.
When the evil ones tried to get back in, pulling on the door and yelling at the objects, the objects responded that they’d been defeated and could no longer help. With cursing and wailing, the crones and harlots left, and after that the widow and her grandchild made sure to throw out the water, unband the wheel, sweep the house, and cover the big coal every Halloween.
Although this and the next story take place on Halloween/Samhain, the cleansing of the house was something that would be done every night. It comes from good housekeeping advice handed down throughout the centuries. A fire should be dampened at the end of the day so the house would not catch on fire, although it would never become put completely out so it could be more easily brought back up in the morning. The waste water, or slop water, also called the feet water, was to be thrown out every day to avoid sickness in the household, which is also why helpful Fae would want clean water in the buckets every night, rather than dirty water.
The Adventures of Nera
On Samhain night, the king and queen offered a reward to anyone who could tie a willow branch around the corpse of a criminal that was still hanging at the gallows. I have already given the full story here, but regarding the hearth folklore that is told in the story, as Nera and the corpse try to find a drink of water for the dead man, the tale tells thusly:
They walked a short while and came upon a cottage that was surrounded by a lake of flames. “They must have dampened the fire as they were supposed to.” The corpse groaned. “We cannot enter.”
The second household they happened upon was surrounded by a lake of water. “They must have thrown out the feet water.” The corpse rasped. “We must pass it by.”
The third dwelling, however, had no such barriers and the duo were able to enter, discovering a sleeping family as they ducked down through the portal. For the drink, they found three buckets of water. The corpse drank from the first two, getting its fill. From the third, it took a large swig and spit the water into the faces of the sleeping family. As Nera watched, a sickness spread quickly over the recumbent bodies, first giving them purple veins across their skin, which turned into a full covering of miasmatic green, finished by a putrid black and death.
Satisfied with its drink, the corpse was taken back to the gallows by Nera, where it clambered up and off Nera’s back, reattaching the noose, where it hung still and lifeless once again.
As mentioned above, the foul water left at the end of the day should be thrown out to prevent disease, although in this case the deed is a bit more gruesome as the water is spit into the sleeping inhabitants’ faces by a decaying corpse.
Rowli Pugh of Glamorganshire
Rowli Pugh, a farmer from Glamorganshire, was known wide and far for his bad luck. Nothing that he touched turned out well. His crops shriveled in the field, his walls were damp and moldy, his roof was caving in, and his wife had become so feeble that she could not work. After years of such poor luck and on the brink of starvation, Rowli considered selling what he could and moving to another country, perhaps to the continent, and starting over. As he sat on his porch, smoking his pipe, a small man appeared and asked Rowli what the matter was. Rowli was shocked and could only stammer in surprise. The ellyll took pity on him and, grinning, let him off the hook. (If you don’t know, and I didn’t until I read this particular tale, an ellyll is a smaller version of the Welsh fairies, the Tylwyth Teg, and ellyllon the plural.)
“There, there, hold your tongue, man.” The little being said. “You’re in trouble and you’re going away it seems, but you may stay now that I’ve spoken to you. Bid your wife to leave the candle burning when she goes to bed and all will be taken care of, speaking no more of it.”
The strange being jumped up and kicked his heels, disappearing suddenly. Rowli went inside and told his wife, and from that day they prospered. Every night his wife, Catti Jones (Welsh woman maintained their maiden names until fairly recently) would set the candle out before bed, also making sure to sweep the hearth, for everyone knows that when you leave a candle out for the Tylwyth Teg, you must also keep a clean house or they will not deign to come inside.
As the candle was lit and the hearth was cleaned, the fairies would come every night and do the baking and brewing, the mending and washing, and any manner of jobs necessary. Rowli and Catti had clean linens, nice clothing, and wonderful food. Their crops and cattle flourished and they had the fattest pigs in the parish.
After a few years of such help, Catti decided she had to see for herself how it was done. On All Hallows Eve while Rowli snored in his sleep, she crept towards the kitchen and saw a jolly company of ellyllon dancing and singing and laughing, while taking care of the household chores. When Catti saw this, she, too, laughed, causing the ellyllon to scatter like leaves in an autumn wind. The fairies never came back and Rowli and Catti had to do all the work, but the bad luck had at least left, never to return.
So not only should you keep a clean hearth and a welcome home, you shouldn’t try peeking in at the Shining Ones as they do all your work for you!
This is not the only such Welsh tale, as there are also stories fairies aiding humans by leaving money and other treasures. The motif is so well known, that the following list of rules is generally thought of as necessary to keep the Tylwyth Teg happy, and these rules match up with Irish folktales:
- Sweep the hearth,
- Clean the hob (the metal plate used in a fireplace),
- Empty the dirty water and refill with clean,
- Do not look at them (sounds rather a fair bit like Santa Claus, doesn’t it).
Additional Folklore and Folktales of Halloween
As I have written in several places, including here, Halloween is a time for the dead to come back and visit the living and from the longer stories above to short advice as below, it has been noted repeatedly that they do not want to come back to a dirty house.
“Besides the separate movements of each dead person we have a great social apparition on Halloween night, when the dead come to the houses of their friends and sit by the fire, unseen of all save those who are to die within the coming year. In view of this visit a good fire is made, the room is swept carefully, and prayers are repeated.” -- Jeremiah Curtin
You can also read about Seamus Rua (Red James) and how witches fly up through chimneys after draining the whiskey jug of Seamus Rua, although the hearth just has a practical use and has nothing to do with cleaning:
“It is time to go, my sisters!” She placed a red cap upon her head, grabbed a bundle of yarrow, and changed “By yarrow and rue, and my red cap, too, away and hie over to England!” Before the last word was out of her mouth, she flew and disappeared up the chimney. The other women copied this action and, as they all started away, Seamus leapt out and grabbed his housekeeper. He took the yarrow and red cap away from her. “If you don’t mind, I will take this for myself. By yarrow and rue, and my red cap, too, away and hie over to England!”
All Souls’ Night (1907)
"O mother, mother, I swept the hearth, I set his chair and the white board spread,
I prayed for his coming to our kindly Lady when Death's doors would let out the dead;
A strange wind rattled the window-pane, and down the lane a dog howled on,
I called his name and the candle flame burnt dim, pressed a hand the door-latch upon.
Deelish! Deelish! my woe forever that I could not sever coward flesh from fear.
I called his name and the pale ghost came; but I was afraid to meet my dear.
O mother, mother, in tears I checked the sad hours past of the year that's o'er,
Till by God's grace I might see his face and hear the sound of his voice once more;
The chair I set from the cold and wet, he took when he came from unknown skies
Of the land of the dead, on my bent brown head I felt the reproach of his saddened eyes;
I closed my lids on my heart's desire, crouched by the fire, my voice was dumb.
At my clean-swept hearth he had no mirth, and at my table he broke no crumb.
Deelish! Deelish! my woe forever that I could not sever coward flesh from fear.
His chair put aside when the young cock cried, and I was afraid to meet my dear."
Happy Halloween! Say hello from me to your ancestors and any ghosties and boggles that may happen by, and for the love of everything good, go clean your hearth!
Further reading (references):
Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World collected from oral tradition in southwest Munster (Jeremiah Curtin)
Fairies and Folk of Ireland (William Henry Frost)
British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends, and Traditions (Wirt Sykes)
Black Stairs on Fire (Patrick Kennedy)
Questions & Answers
© 2017 James Slaven