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Witches' Knots: Their Origin, Connection to Wild Hunt Folklore, and Spread to America

Posted May 27th, 2013 at 09:59 PM by ghostexorcist
Updated July 18th, 2013 at 01:54 PM by ghostexorcist

Note: This is a work in progress. I just want to get my thoughts out in the open so others may take note of my research. I will post a proper article complete with citations at a later date. Interested persons can contact me about the sources I've consulted.

Witches' Knots: Their Origin, Connection to Wild Hunt Folklore, and Spread to America

By Jim R. McClanahan

I posted an article a couple of months ago in which I debunked the myth that Bigfoot braids horse manes. Apart from showing the so-called “braids” were actually matting formed from natural processes; I explained that various supernatural creatures have been used as explanations for the phenomenon throughout the centuries. The fact that this legend was present in Europe greatly intrigued me. After some cursory research, I believe I have discovered the origins of the folklore, as well as traced its evolution and spread to the US (in broad terms at least).

As I explain in the linked article, the knots are sometimes known as “elf locks” or “witches’ knots.” This has ties to Europe-wide folklore known as the “Wild Hunt.” The belief was that the spirits of famous historical kings, the recently deceased, and/or elves would commandeer horses from the stables of humans and ride them in the skies at night to hunt for trolls or beautiful maidens. I believe the Wild Hunt legend first developed around the 10th-century. The leader of the hunt varies from source to source. Some variations have it being led by the Germanic god Woden (Odin), while others have it led by the goddess Diana, who is said to lead an all-female version. A 13th-century Bishop from Paris wrote that her followers would plait the manes of horses with wax. I recently stumbled upon a 10th-century source known as the Canon Episcopi which presents Diana and her company as “evil women” in league with the devil. Therefore, Diana was quickly associated with witches by church leaders. This explains why the knots became known as witches’ knots.

The Canon Episcopi possibly has one of the earliest allusions to the so-called “Witches’ Sabbath,” basically a gathering of witches on various holy days (Jews were considered evil by the church). Church leaders originally viewed stories of women flying though the sky at night to be hallucinations; but, starting after 1400, the church changed its position. People started to be condemned for allegedly taking part in such night flights. Borrowing heavily from the Wild Hunt, popular legend stated that these women flew on horses, but these were later changed to other animals like goats and wolves. Take Hans Baldung’s early 16th-century engraving “Witches’ Sabbath,” for example:

Later folklore stated that witches would transform people into these animals and ride them. This eventually gave way to even later folklore that forewent the transformation and stated that the witches would just ride people at night as they slept. This phenomenon has been dubbed “hag riding" or "witch riding.” Waking up with knots in your hair (a.k.a. bed head) and a sore body were said to be sure signs of this. Witch riding is mentioned in Salem witch trial documents from the 17th-century, so it most likely came to the US around this time via European settlers. It’s important to note that witch riding is common in Cajun and African American folkore. Therefore, the legend may have spread to the US in several waves to the north and south. Additionally, the folklore may have spread from different countries. For instance, the puritans of New England had ties to Britain, while the Cajuns had French roots. The braiding folklore was so popular that Shakespeare even mentioned it in "Romeo and Juliet" (1597):
—This is that very Mab,
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And brakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.
Stories of horse hair braiding Duendes elves from South America indicate that it was most likely spread there by Spanish settlers.
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