Brittany’s Milk Snatching Sorcerers

As with most other rural communities, considerable importance was once attached to milk in Brittany; it played a vital role in the people’s diet and livelihood. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of once popular superstitions and beliefs surrounding it; including special practices to preserve one’s cows from the evil spells thrown at them by jealous neighbours.

For centuries, it was commonly believed that milk production could be influenced, for good and especially for ill, by acts performed outside the cowshed. In Brittany, a silver coin held in the hand or hidden in the stable insured good luck for the dairy. Similarly, certain plants and herbs were thought to have an influence on the production of milk: to ensure one’s cow gave as much milk as those of your neighbours, it was thought beneficial to place in the byre, every day, an amulet of ground herbs picked on the night of Midsummer, reciting a short prayer while the Nones bell was ringing.

To preserve the health of milk cows, their hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in the southern Breton Marches, cows’ udders were rubbed with the early morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. In order for the cow to deliver ample milk without difficulty, it was often made to drink the first milk or colostrum after it had calved. Many farmers also put their faith in religion and regularly made offerings of butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot, invoking the saint’s favour for full churns. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf.

If a cow’s milk dried-up unexpectedly or for no apparent reason, it was not long before the farmer suspected the influence of witchcraft; causing the udders of asses and cows to dry-up was one of the misdeeds often attributed to witches from at least the 17th century onwards. An amulet containing certain dried herbs, placed inside the chimney-breast of the barn was thought to bring-on the drying of cows’ udders. However, it was also believed that the same circumstances could also be produced if the cows chanced to be milked over their litter or if they were put in a blessed house.

Milkmaids
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A sympathetic bond between the cow and its milk was thought to exist even after the milk had left its body. It was believed that certain people possessed the ability to cast the evil eye, causing cows to lose milk simply by looking at them in a certain way; enchantments that could only be lifted by the intervention of a witch or sorcerer.

It was thought that the best milk was vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their barn; before sunrise on May Day it was said that one’s enemy needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come while reciting the charm: “Milk and butter, come all to me and nothing to my neighbours.”

To dispel this enchantment and chastise the one who cast it, the owner of the bewitched cow was required to boil a few pins in the animal’s milk; these were then thought to wound the one who cast the spell who, to alleviate the pain, hastened to lift the curse. In the north west of the region, another way to lift such a curse was to stick several pins into the heart of an ox which was then put into an iron pot hung over the flames of the farmhouse fire; the spell caster was now believed to feel compelled to present themselves to the accursed party.

 Breton farmhouse
A typical Breton farmhouse

Around Quintin in central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked at night, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream. Similar nocturnal naked expeditions were also reputed to have been undertaken by milkmaids in eastern Brittany. It was said that they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of the neighbouring farms, dragging behind them the rags used to clean the oven. This was thought to draw the cream from the milk of all the cows included within this circuit and pass it instead into their stable, so that even with just one cow, they would produce butter in abundance. This good fortune was held to last until another person, more powerful in the dark arts, again diverted the cream.

In western Brittany, it was thought that such an enchantment could be broken if the affected cow was walked around a three sided field. Indeed, one was believed to be able to turn the tables on the spell caster if, while walking the cow, one threw salt over their shoulder, chanting: “Cream for me and milk for my neighbour.” Salt as a preservative against drying-up also featured in the traditional beliefs of neighbouring Normandy, where, to counteract any possible bewitchment that had been cast on a new cow, molten salt was rubbed on the udder and around the base of its tail.

A more elaborate ritual for lifting this type of curse involved cutting some hairs from the cow’s head, the withers and its tail, soaking them in the animal’s water trough before sunrise on each day of Holy Week before wearing them to mass on Easter Day.

Witches and cows
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In southern Brittany, May Day was believed to be the day when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the byre which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely bay, bramble, elderberry and laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building.  Branches of elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a bramble, with a root at each of its ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the barn door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the barn, being led backwards through the doorway by the farmer.

The belief that sorcerers could steal milk by diverting its output is quite ancient and was specifically condemned by the Council of Paris in 829: “Among the very pernicious evils of pagan origin and which divine law orders to fight, it is necessary to announce the action of magicians, diviners, enchanters and interpreters of dreams. It is reported that, by their evil spells, they can disturb the air and send hail, predict the future, take away from some the fruit and milk and give it to others.”

In addition to its beneficial qualities, milk was said to possess other virtues in yesterday’s Brittany as it was thought effective against all deadly fires. It was also said to influence the physical abilities of infants and even adults. It was claimed in eastern parts of the region that children raised on goat’s milk were particularly nimble and jumped in the manner of the beast that fed them. In times past, this belief was quite common; the 16th century French physician Laurent Joubert wrote of a girl who, for this reason, always wanted to climb and jump and that those adults, who drank too much goat’s milk, became so restless that they only danced, jumped and ran.

Breton milkmaid
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A number of ill omens were once connected with milk here; it was considered that misfortune would befall the person who happened to drop a pail of milk. Another sign of impending bad luck was received when milk that had been put on the fire did not come to the boil quickly and it was also a bad omen if the milk boiled over. It was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household. However, milk was reputed to be the only thing that could break the terrible power of La Main de la Gloire or the Hand of Glory.

Some animals were thought to cast a sinister shadow over the health of cows and their milk. It was once believed that a cow bitten by a snake would give bloody milk; a notion that was refined in the south of the region where it was said that milk that was tinged red indicated that the cow had been suckled by a snake. Pouring the cow’s milk into an anthill was thought the only way to effectively destroy the offending ophidian.

Hedgehogs were also claimed to suckle the milk of cows and thus steal their milk and, in doing so, they caused the fatal cattle disease known as blackleg. It was also thought that those cows who ate the grass upon which a female hedgehog on-heat had previously walked fell ill. In eastern Brittany, a pregnant cow that ate the grass on which a hedgehog had walked was said to be cursed to calve painfully.

Cow and milkmaid
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If a farmer with only one cow often succeeded in getting her to give him more butter than some neighbours could get from two or three cows, neighbourhood gossips lost little time in attributing such results to a pact with the Devil. However, in some instances, it might have been more proper to assign the honour to Saint Herbot, a semi-legendary 6th century Breton saint who was popularly invoked in order for cows to produce milk and for butter to take. Protector of horses and horned animals, cows’ tails were regularly hung by the altars of churches dedicated to him into the 20th century. The Saint was usually invoked in the following terms: “Blessed Saint Herbot, from the depth of my heart I beg you to pour out your blessing on the milk that I take, so that the cream rises abundantly to satisfy my masters and next year, if I live, I promise you a calf.”

Wearing a silver ring while churning was reputed to cause the butter to take quickly and to successfully churn when it was cold, it was once recommended to place a silver coin at the bottom of the churn. In some parts of Brittany, it was traditional to turn the crank of a butter churn in only one direction, that of the sun. A more widespread belief held that it brought bad luck to lend a churn to a neighbour as it was thought to reduce your fortune in making butter thereafter.

Like milk, butter was also the target of sorcerers and evil spells; it was believed that people could prevent it from taking by striking the churn three times with a stick and reciting, backwards, a verse from Psalm 31: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies and from them that persecute me”, or by reciting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew known as nolite fieri: “And when you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say, they have received their reward.”

Churning butter
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Mendicants and tinkers who chanced to call at the farm when the butter was being churned were almost always guaranteed to receive some consideration from the household, if only out of fear that, if rejected, they would cast the evil eye over the butter. The sighting of a hare while churning was a cause for alarm as it was believed that butter stealing sorcerers had the ability to turn into hares to escape their potential pursuers. In western Brittany, the milkmaid whose butter was slow to take, averted the possible machinations of the sorcerer by changing her churn immediately.

Several unusual superstitions were once closely attached to dairy products here; for instance, it was considered especially bad luck to bring foxgloves into a room where yogurt was being made. In parts of eastern Brittany it was thought a menstruating woman could not make butter and it was more widely claimed that those with red hair made bad butter. Similarly, it was once believed that the cheese made by an adulterer did not keep and was quickly invaded by worms.

Many once claimed that the best butter was formed if it was churned during the time of the turning of the tides. According to the time when it was made, butter enjoyed several special attributes; in the west of the region, it was believed that the butter made during Rogations (the three days of prayer preceding the Feast of the Ascension) never corrupted and constituted a most effective balm for healing wounds. Similar attributes were applied to butter made in May which was also used to treat the injured hooves of cows and goats.

Girl with eggs
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A number of superstitious beliefs also surrounded eggs here in Brittany where it was once common for those who kept chickens to place a piece of iron, such as a horseshoe, inside the henhouse in order to protect the brood from the disastrous effects of storms and lightning.  It was also believed that foxes would never enter a henhouse that had been sprinkled with the water in which chitterlings (pig intestines) had been boiled. However, the ermine was thought so bold that it was said to enter the coop while the hen was laying and slip under her, ready to swallow her eggs. Another enemy of the chicken was the toad whose presence in the henhouse signalled that no hens would lay there anymore.

One of the biggest concerns of the Breton farmer revolved around choosing the most favourable moment for setting the hen on the eggs. This was thought important to ensure maximum success; factors such as the day of the week were said to influence the number of chicks born or cause the hatching of more males than females. It was said that a hen must never be put to set during a waning moon or when the wind was in the east. Fridays were to be avoided as the day would deliver mostly male chicks and misfortune was said to follow if a hen was set on a Sunday. Nor was a hen put to set on an even number of eggs, it was usually an odd number and most commonly a multiple of three.

It was popularly held here that eggs ought only be gathered in the morning and it was considered unlucky to gather eggs after sunset and at any time on a Sunday. Duck eggs brought into the house after dark were said never to hatch. Similarly, eggs brought into the house having been carried over running water were said not to hatch. In some parts of Brittany, even crossing a dry water course was held to bring on similar bad luck. To protect against such misfortune, it was necessary for the person who owned the eggs to crumble some morsels of bread over the eggs and the basket being used to transport them. Additionally, the basket containing the eggs which had passed over water was not to be placed on a table, chair or any other item of furniture; it could only be placed directly on the floor. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these last two practices has long been lost to the mists of time.

Rooster and Hens
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Breaking a newly laid egg whilst collecting it from the roost was regarded as an omen of some misfortune ahead but breaking egg shells over a child was thought to bring on good luck and to protect them against witchcraft. The eggs laid on Good Friday were said to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to guard the house against fire. Easter was also a period when many people traditionally abstained from eating eggs throughout Holy Week only to eat a dozen on Easter Day; an observance that was held to be most effective in ensuring the fertility of one’s animals.

The small eggs that were sometimes found in chicken roosts were once attributed a most sinister reputation; a widely held belief said that these were eggs that had been laid by roosters. It was said that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. If hatched, this cursed egg would deliver a small serpent that grew into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake. To avoid unleashing a basilisk on the land, the rooster was therefore routinely killed before it had reached the age of seven.

Basilisk
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Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

127 thoughts on “Brittany’s Milk Snatching Sorcerers

  1. What a comprehensive post on Breton belief about milk production and witchcraft! The quote from the Counsel of Paris is particularly intriguing. It reminds me of the 9th c. Irish curse from the Codex Sancti Pauli in which the invoked asked the spirits to help stealing bread and milk.

    Very fascinating!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Oh these beliefs in some places in the world still exist. This was a well written and researched piece, thank you for sharing it. Wonder how they explained when a mother’s breast went dry. 🤨

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I am tired out, not from reading your post, which I enjoyed immensely, but from thinking of all the precautions and prescriptions. Wow, people are so incredibly interesting and probably others will be writing about our day and saying how fanciful we were.
    Thank you so much, I loved every word and learn much. ❤️
    P.S. I think milkmaids just really loved to run around naked at night 😁

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thank you for reading it!! I think these little rituals would soon have become second nature to people and if the local traditions were taught to you when you first learned to milk or churn then you’d not really think anything of them maybe?
      Ha, yes, it would be interesting to see what survives of our beliefs in a few centuries; what will they make of the dominance of emojis in our evolved communication? 😉
      Hehe, that’s an odd one isn’t it? I wonder why those areas felt necessary to demonise the milkmaid? A distracting figure on the farm or an echo of a more ancient practice? Hmm

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was just thinking there might have been some Tom foolery going on with the milkmaid and this was a way to deflect her being naked out of doors🤪
        And yes the emojis are noteworthy for at least right now 😊
        ❤️

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you! I am glad that you liked it! 🙂 It was a new one to me too but I guess it makes sense – you work as best you can but your neighbour is more successful; what else could explain the disparity but witchcraft 😉
      As late as 1880, a 70 year old sorcerer was murdered by his neighbours for having diverted their milk to his cows. In the same corner of France in 1922, a farmer killed his neighbour for having bewitched his cows. Some beliefs take a long time to die away.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s so funny to read all these beliefs… at first I kinda giggle because they were SO superstitious … but then I think 🤔 I have a few things I go around thinking – which is just my own superstition lol

    Very very interesting! 👏😘✌️

    Liked by 4 people

  5. These superstitions are endlessly fascinating! And you present them in such an engaging fashion. Little wonder that St. Herbot was invoked, when lives and livelihoods were on the line. I live in a rural area where chickens are widely raised. FYI, St. Brigid is the patron saint of chicken farmers. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am happy that you enjoyed it and appreciating you saying so! Like you, I find these old beliefs fascinating! Lots of chickens in these parts too but mainly raised for meat now rather than eggs as was traditional. Changing times! 😉 Stay Well!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Seems like there was a pretty intense rivalry among neighbors when it came to milch cows! And we thought that only happened in the suburbs…. Love these stories – you get so many rich details I enjoy them so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. You always write the most interesting posts! We always buy salted butter rather than plain . . . haha, maybe that’s a good thing.:-) I love the images you choose for your posts, too, very artsy and historical.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Many thanks! I am happy that you liked it. When I first heard of these milk thieves, I just had to dig deeper 🙂 I prefer salted too and it is one thing they make a lot of here 🙂

      Like

  8. Great reading!
    I’ve heard all about, as I’m sure everyone has, all the superstitions and practices sailors have. Also baseball players, haha. But I’ve never heard of the elaborate, magical world dairy products used to inhabit!

    St. Herve paints a fascinating figure, being led around by a wolf. I’m gonna look him up.
    That wolf was a much better companion than the dog I saw in a video recently where a little mom and pop store is getting robbed and while his masters are grappling with the guy, the dog stays safely behind the counter, barking.

    I also love the milkmaids running around naked at night. Why were all sorts of girls and women always naked at night and running around, lol ?? Even witches got naked, didn’t they? So weird! But funny.

    Fascinating to hear about some things people used to do that got lost in time, like eggs that had passed over water couldn’t be placed on any of the furniture, only on the floor. I can’t even imagine why. The truth IS lost to the mists of time, isn’t it?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks!!! I am pleased you found it interesting! You are right, there are so many odd superstitions and other parts of France have completely different ones! The naked milkmaids is a funny one and I wonder whether it might have arisen from ancient practices around gathering special plants naked? Or maybe it was a way that anyone found on someone else’s land early morning could say: I’m not stealing your milk, I’m fully clothed! 😉
      Eggs over water? Like you, I am totally lost with that one!
      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts on this!! Stay safe!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fascinating! The omens, rituals, and superstitions seem incredible today but I’m sure they made sense back then. Having spent time on a farm ( with cows) there are still certain routines that are followed without fail that indicate a certain amount of belief in some old wives tales. I so enjoyed this and the artwork is so beautiful, thank you Colin.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am pleased you enjoyed it! Thank you! Yes, it is ironic that we dismiss the old superstitions but so many are still deep in our consciousness. Just look at how many Fri 13 posts were circulated last week 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. As ever, thank you for taking the time to read it!! It’s so appreciated and I am happy that you liked it. I was lucky to find the postcard of a Breton farm as it really shows how close man and beast lived not so long ago!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Utterly fascinating – who knew that cows had their own saint?? I am trying to figure out how a hedgehog could reach up to suckle from a cow but perhaps they have longer legs in Bretagne… As I was writing this I heard the pair of Vultures land on my chimney and went out to say hello. What would a superstitious Breton make of that as a portent? I was brought up by my Irish Nana and she was tortured by my dislike of milk. She tried every possible milk based dish to tempt me and only rice pudding worked. My father is part Native Mexican and also disliked milk – I think we were both a little lactose intolerant but rarely are Northern Europeans.
    Ysgogodd eich datgeliad mawr fy chwilfrydedd a gwn nawr eich bod yn dairieithog. A ddywedais wrthych fod ein bwthyn cyntaf yn y Fflint – roeddwn i’n gweithio yn yr Wyddgrug a Wrecsam?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes!! It’s such a strange belief isn’t it? Hedgehogs and snakes were said to suckle cows when they laid down. I have not discovered why hedgehogs were held in such low esteem here but they were routinely nailed to trees 😦
      A pair of vultures?? Ha, now that is something special to see, so, I hope you had a camera with you 😉
      Ha, a small world indeed!!! 😉 Please stay well and happy!!! 🙂

      Like

  11. What a wonderful post (as always)! You have an extraordinary way with words; something very special – not only you do a meticulous research but you tell a story in the most exquisite manner: you are a born storyteller! After reading every post of yours I just want to pack up and move to Brittany ..right now.. 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your work with the rest of us! Your pieces bring a lot of joy and light (especially during current times).

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Another great one! With all of the superstitions, I would once again be confused about what to do and when. I’m sure over time I would geet it. Poor hens trying to protect her eggs and the toads and other animals trying to eat them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so very much!! I am pleased you liked it! 🙂 I think that it is like most things, if it’s what you hear growing-up, it kinda sinks into your brain without you realising it? However, to us today, some superstitions sound plain odd 😉

      Like

    1. I am pleased that you enjoyed it!! I find these kinds of things interesting and make a note when I hear of them or come across references in old books. Verifying is what takes the time as I am rather suspicious if I can only find one reference to a particular belief or practice 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You must be a avid reader for sure….
        Your work is marvelous….always so well written and in depth….
        So you like investigating and tracing and studying things….and history…..interesting….
        Is that what brought you to Delhi? Were you studying the historical sites/doing some kind of research work there? Forgive me if I’m overstepping…..just curious🤔🤓
        But….lovely work…..great writing🤩

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Again, thank you for such encouraging words! They are so appreciated! No, I spent several years working there but was fortunate enough to visit many historical sites and there are some real gems there 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  13. As a child, I lived in southern Wisconsin, where there were a lot of dairy farms. I never lived on a farm, but many of the kids I went to school with did. I remember being told in all seriousness by a classmate that her mother threw out spoiled milk from one of their cows and called for a minister? Priest? because the milk has been spoiled by a witch. I didn’t believe her. My mother threw out spoiled milk all the time that had nothing to do with witchcraft. Another classmate told me a neighbor of theirs had a cow possessed by the devil. The owner had to build some sort of harness for it. I never saw the cow or the harness.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I hadn’t thought about that in years. I still wonder about the “devil-possessed” cow. I mean, we were kids. The adults might have had a different take on things. But these were the stories kids told each other.

        Thanks for writing all this stuff. It makes for some really interesting reading. We have have things like antibiotics, indoor plumbing, and cellphones now, but people are still people.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Wild stories. I was reading about philosophy today’s day a philosopher, Toulmin wrote about the progress and history. He mentioned that science and superstition existed side by side in Europe. I can believe that because of your documentation about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think that is true! Just as in science, you seek the action/reaction that causes and event, so too, with belief; if one omen does not come true then you will look for another that has cancelled it 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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