Under the earth there exists a delicious place,
the dwelling of witches, where all things abound,
especially milk and honey, which run in abundant rivers.

---Basque tradition from Ataún

Many folk goddesses retained their myths and sanctuaries and powers, but under the Church's heavy hand, ceased to be openly addressed as divinities. They are called hags with fateful powers, shapeshifters, indwelling spirits of stones and mountains. Frequently they are described as living under the christian god's curse.

The tradition of the goddess dwelling in a mountain was old and widespread before clerics, troubadours and courtly poets entered their interpretations of the theme into medieval literature. This faery mountain was said to exist in the Italian Appenines, or to be the Wartburg in Germany, or Mt Pilatus in Switzerland, or a hundred other peaks in Europe.

In Italy the mistress of this magic mountain was called "wise Sibillia." It was said that the ancient sibyl of mount Cumae had taken refuge in a cave at the crest of the Appenines. Her underworld paradise was entered through a grotto in the mountains of Norcia, a region famed for its witches. Nearby was a magical lake fed by water from a cavern. Whoever stayed longer than a year could no longer leave, but remained deathless and ageless, feasting in abundance, revelry, and voluptuous delights. [Guerin Meschino, Salade, in Bonomo, 77]

Antonio Pucci's Libro de Varie Storie (1362) told of a subterranean paradise with beautiful lammie living in caverns filled with treasures: "And many other marvellous and incredible things were found there..." In the Reductorium Morale (c. 1360) Pietro Bersuire wrote about the cave of Sibilla and the happy life in her subterranean world. He alluded to the place as a historic shrine; a priest told him that a lake in the mountains near Norcia had been consecrated to demons from antiquity. [Bonomo, 82, 78]

The sibylline goddess is progressively demonized in retellings of her myth. In Guerino il Meschino (1391), the devil tempts the hero to visit the great fata Sibilla. Wise and immortal, she speaks sweetly and with great charm; "there was courtesy in her beyond measure..." Guerino lies with her, but mistrusts her. Spying on Sibilla, he finds out that she turns reptilian under her skirts on Saturdays. He recoils and leaves for Rome, where he is given absolution. [Warner, 4-5. She suggests that Macco, a man changed into the serpent-guardian of Sibilla's cave, may refer to the legendary Wandering Jew Malco, pointing up the christian association of pagans and Jews.]

In the middle ages Sibillia was regarded as the goddess of the witches. In Ferrara people said that "wise Sibillia" presided over witch flights as la signora del corso. She has the power of life. At the end of their feasts, she touches all the bottles and baskets with her gold wand, and they quickly refill with wine and bread. The witches gather the animals' bones into their skins; at the wand's touch, the animals recover their flesh and return to life. [Bonomo, 72]

Magic arts are taught in the mountain of Sibillia. Serpents dwell in its underground grottos. These shapeshifting faeries come out of her cave to dance in the meadows. [Baroja; McCollogh, 48] They too turn into snakes every Saturday until the pope says Mass on Monday. [McCollogh, 48]

In the early 1400s, the Provençal writer Antoine de la Salle wrote an account of "Le Paradis de la Reine Sibylle" in his La Salade. He travelled to the ridge of the Sibillini below Mt Vettore and ascended to the legendary cave. At the summit, he noted, the sea was visible in the east and the west. Inside an entrance shaped like a "pointed shield" was a chamber with seats cut into its rock walls. He ventured no further, but was told that the cave ran deep into the mountain, with doors of metal leading to the inner labyrinth, followed by doors of crystal. A great wind rose up there from within the earth. Next came a narrow bridge over a torrent, and two dragons breathing fire. [Warner, 7]

De la Salle said local permission had to be sought to visit the pagan shrine because harvests had been damaged by storms raised by visiting necromancers. His account ends with a sop to the Church: he carefully distances himself from the devilish sibyl, calling her a false prophet. A prudent course: by the end of the century, those who made pilgrimages to Sibillia's mount faced excommunication. [Ibid, 6, 9]

Leandro Alberti had grown up hearing women telling stories about Sibillia's cavern. In the mid-1500s, he wrote that the many inhabitants of Sibillia's subterranean palace all took fearsome serpent form at night. Anyone who wanted to enter must make love to the snakes. Sibillia's mountain abounded in amorous pleasures. The goddess blessed those who visited and then returned to the world, and they passed the rest of their days in joy. [Bonomo, 80-1]

As the fame of the witch mountain spread to Germany and France, many foreign visitors journeyed to Norcia to see Sibillia's cave. Some came to consecrate their books of magic at the lake. In the mid-1400s a Saxon astronomer wrote to Piccolomini asking about an Italian mount of Venus "in which magic arts are taught." He heard it had a cavern out of which water flowed, "frequented by witches, demons, and nocturnal apparitions." [Bonomo, 79-81]

Caracciolo's play Magico o Mago refers to people who recount magical journeys to Norcia where they go "through caverns and grottos well guarded/ By enchanted serpents and by centaurs." In the middle of the treasure-filled mountain was a bed of pure gold where Diana reposed with the sun. Fata Morgana also lived there. All those she embraced and caressed went home after a year in supreme happiness. [Bonomo, 81]

The people of Norcia were widely reputed to have great magical knowledge, so much so that the name norcino became a synonym for sorcerer. [Warner, 10] They called the faery realm la Monte della Sibilla, "The Sibyl's Mountain." De la Salle's account drew heavily on "the old chatter of the common people." They told him stories about a knight who sojourned with Sibilla in her mountain, enjoying all the pleasures of music, love and feasting.

The knight did not want to leave but feared that he would be damned if he stayed there. At last he pulled himself away and set off for Rome to get absolution from the pope. It was denied. The man's squire, unconcerned about damnation and eager to return to Monte della Sibilla, convinced him to go back to Sibilla. Later the pope changed his mind and sent messengers to look for them. But they had disappeared into the mountain. [Bonomo, Helf, 167]

Tannhauser is a courtly reworking of this legend. Its namesake was a 13th century Minnesinger, cast as the story's hero long after his death. Sybille's name is changed to Venus and her mountain is called the Venusberg. After seven years of pleasure there Tannhauser decided to leave to save his soul: "O Venus, lovely wife of mine/ Thou art but a she-devil." [McCullogh, 45]

Unable to talk her lover into staying, Venus asked him to sing her praises wherever he went. Tannhauser sought out the pope to get absolution, but was refused. The pontiff held up a withered branch, saying that it would have to sprout leaves and bloom before he pardoned the knight. In some versions he brandishes the papal rod, itself a sterile branch.

So Tannhauser returned to the Venusberg despairing of his salvation. But Nature herself bears witness for the seeker. The wand miraculously burst into flower, blooming with roses. Relenting, the pope sent out messengers to grant absolution to Tannhauser, but they searched for him in vain. [McCullogh 45-8]

[Graphic: Mountain in the midst of a labyrinth. Fresco by Lorenzo Leombruno, Mantua]

The Swiss version of Tannhauser features Fru Frene instead of Fru Venus. The Germans knew her as Fru Freke, a protective deity who governed tree-planting. In Belgium, she was Vrouw Vreke, and her spirit servitors were the kabauters (cf kobolds). Her Venusberg, in Margareta van Limburg's 1357 poem, is called the Kabauterberg. The true Eckhart "wavers between spiritual love of Our Lady and sensual love of Vreke." This beloved pagan entity was assimilated into christian guise as Sint (saint) Vreke, her association with sex still intact. [Eckenstein, 32]

The Venusberg appears in Nider's Formicarius (1438) and several other 15th century sources. Grimm showed its connection with the goddess Hölle, whose herald Eckhart was said to wait outside the Venusburg. Some said that the true Venusberg was the Horselberg near Eisenach, and that Hölle held court under its ground. [Grimm, 935-6]

These goddesses are interchangeable and folklorically linked. Sibilla's hair is tangled like a horse's mane, like frau Percht, Hölle and the "wood-woman." Medieval German poets call Venus feine ("faery") and elvinne ("female elf"). [Grimm, 1419, 1415] An Italian witch trial of 1504 places Herodias and "the lady Venus" in Sibillia's mountain, along with Tannhauser and Eckhart, the herald of Fraw Holle. [Bonomo, 75-6]

The Wartburgkrieg calls the mountain queen Felicia, daughter of Sibillia. [McCullogh, 49] Her pagan paradise is explicitly counterposed to the christian one: "had you one foot in heaven and one on the Wartburg, you'd rather withdraw the first than the last." [Grimm, 1280]

The churchly notion of the mountain faery's perdition worked its way into German peasant folklore. Modern accounts show her trying to redeem herself under harsh conditions. Shepherds near Luckenwalde saw a woman on the mountain, half white, half black, making signs to them. At last one of them went to her. She said he could have all the gold in the mountain if he came in to set her free. If he did not release her, she would have to wait one hundred years for her next potential deliverer. But the man refused, and the faery sank back into the mountain, lamenting and moaning. [Grimm 965]

In Italy too the legend was overlaid with christian revisions compromising the goddess's power and dignity. Guerino il Meschino says that wise Sibillia had the power of prophecy, but was punished for her pride in believing that she was chosen to bear the Messiah. God elevated Maria instead and locked the humiliated Sibillia into her mountain. In a version told in Agrigrento, the devil forbade the maga Sibilla from predicting the messiah's birth, and punished her defiance by making her foresee only evil news. [Bonomo, 77-8]

These themes of the pagan goddess competing with christianity also turn up in witch trials. In 1522 inquisitor Bartolomeo Spina wrote that "sapiente Sibilla" presides over witch meetings near the river Jordan. She always tries to touch its water, but fails; if she succeeded it would overflow its banks, and she would become mistress of the whole world. This is yet another variation on the declarations by Regino of Prum, Jean de Meun and the Reinardus that the goddess is mistress of a third of the world. [Bonomo, 72ff. De Spina says the witches also call Sibillia Domina cursus.]

As late as 1627 a Sicilian wisewoman tried by the Spanish Inquisition said that she had been with "the Wise Sibyl's people" at Benevento. In her version the Sibyl was king Solomon's sister, and her retinue emerged from a cave in the Tower of Babylon. Both the Sibyl and the virgin Mary taught the people. But when the "bliss-crowned" virgin Mary was chosen to be the mother of god, the sibyl threw all her books into the fire. [Bonomo; Henningsen: Emod] The legend in which the Cumaean sibyl destroyed books when king Tarquin refused her price is faintly discernable here.

Sometimes the priesthood succeeded in turning the goddess who taught witchcraft inside her mountain into the christian devil. But peoples suspicious of the clergy readily reversed its terms. Rumanian gypsies spoke of a magical school located deep in the distant mountains, "where the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all magic spells are taught by the devil in person." [Leland, 129]

In a mountain of North Wij, said Swedes, lives the Urko, a great cow who once ploughed the earth, making lake Sommen and its fjords. A troll captured, yoked and imprisoned her in the Urberg. When she finishes her food supply she will be set free. Before storms she can be heard rattling her chains in the mountain. Some people claim to have seen her in her magnificent halls. [Booss, 288]

Many cultural pockets continued to affirm the divine nature of the mountain faeries. The Slovenian vesnas "direct man's fate and determine the crop of the following year" from their mountaintop palaces. [Pocs, 75] Elsewhere in the Balkans, healers from Kalovac "served the mountain fairies for four years" and learned from them how to use herbs. They returned to visit them regularly and report on "how the poor peasants are getting on." [Pocs, 48]

Sibillia and her mountain appear as far north as England. In the Life of Robin Goodfellow, Sib speaks for the faery folk, explaining that they live "in some great hill, and from thence we do lend money to any poore man or woman that hath need..." But the faeries pinch those who fail to repay them, and withhold prosperity from the stingy. [Briggs, 364]

A "fée Sébile" also appears in French literature. The 15th century lay Perceforest casts her as the lady of the lake, living in an underwater castle. In the Lancelot Sibylle l'enchanteresse appears with Morgue and "the queen of Sorestan." The motif of the threefold goddess holds, even though they are described as human witches: "the three women in the world who knew most about enchantment and sorcery." They conspire to capture Lancelot while he sleeps under an apple tree, imprisoning him in their castle. [Helf, 425, 423, 271. The Chanson des Saisnes casts Sibille as a queen who leads the pagan Saxons in revolt against the Frankish army. She is defeated and forced to marry the conqueror Baudouin. Aebischer, 235]

In the Italian poem Orlando furioso (1516) the knight Adonia saves a snake from being beaten to death. She turns out to be the fata Manto, who reveals that all fatas have to assume serpent form every seven days. She rewards Adonia by helping his unsuccessful suit for a lady he loves. Manto was the legendary founder of the Italian city Mantua. [Helf, 167]

Courtly poetry incorporated the mountain goddesses as the tower of ladies who are Minne, Honor, dame Charity, or as the "white lady" who appears at the castle heights. Sometimes authentic folk characters slip through. Certain rocky crags were named after Veleda or Brunhilde. [Grimm, 895] Rauhe Els, the shaggy woman, carries off Wolfdietrich from his forest campfire. She takes him to her country Troje, where she is queen, living on a high rock. When shaggy Els immerses herself in a certain spring, she sloughs off her hairy skin to reveal a stunning beauty. [Grimm, 433]

Learned and courtly literature tended to transpose classical Roman deities into native legends, but this influence dimmed in Europe's northern reaches. There, folk versions of the mountain goddess hew closer to folk mythology. Franconians spoke of an ancient drudenbaum (witch tree) atop the Harburg mountain. Milk flowed out of its roots, a dragon watched over a treasure beneath, and a great black bird sat on its crest. [Grimm, 1536]

The Norse goddess Freyja, as Menglodh the "necklace-glad," is found among nine divine women, in accordance with the form of many northern European charms invoking healing goddesses. She lives at the top of a Hill of Healing:

Long hath it held, for the sick and sorrowful, joy
Each woman is healed who climbs its height,
even of year-long ills.
[Fjölsvinnsmáll St 36; Bray, 175]

In Scottish myth, a wise faery lived in a tree on a knoll, offering milk with initiatory powers. Women gathered at the knoll "some to be seen and some to seek wisdom." The faery appeared "holding in her hand the copan Moire ("cup of Mary"), a blue-eyed limpet shell containing the milk of wisdom." She gave a drink to each of her votaries. [Scottish Folklore and Folklife, c 200] A MacDonald bard praised "The maiden queen of wisdom" living under a tree. She saw the entire world, but remained hidden from the uninitiated. [MacKenzie, 214]

Scottish folk-poems praised the Serpent who dwelt in the hill during the cold winter. On Oímelc, singers rejoiced in the awakening of the fire-goddess Bríde:

The day of Bríde, the birthday of spring /
The serpent emerges from the knoll.

Other versions of the Candlemas invocation say "On the day of Bríde of the white hills/The noble queen will come from the knoll," or "the daughter of Ivor will come from the knoll/with tuneful whistling." [MacKenzie, 188-9; Carmichael, 583, has many versions.] The observance of weather omens on this pagan holyday evolved into the secularized tradition of Groundhog's day.

The Manx crone goddess, Caillagh ny Groamagh, lived in the mount Cronk yn Irree Lhaa. She too determines the weather on St Bríde's day (February 1). On that day she was seen as a huge bird carrying sticks in her beak. If it is fine weather, she emerges to gather sticks to keep warm through the summer. If it rains she stays home and makes the rest of the year warm. [Briggs, 58]

Numerous Irish and Welsh traditions speak of faery palaces under lakes, or in mountain caverns like Knock Ma or Ben Bulbin. In the Colloquy of the Ancients , Caeilte tells of a faery palace inside a mountain where beautiful women lived with their lovers, enjoying music, food, drink, and a marvellous crystal chair. Except for seven Fenians, no men had entered this mountain chamber. [Wentz, 293]


Snake-Women of the Grotto

In the Jura mountains of Switzerland lived the fate-spinner Tante Arie, the fée of the Elsgau. On the French side, in Franche-Comté, they said she lived hidden away in la Roche de Faira, the faery rock. Auntie Arie was passionately interested in spinning. She used to emerge from her cavern on evenings when women gathered at a nearby house for spinning and music-making.

Legend said that one night, after one of these spinning bees, young people scattered ashes on the paths in hopes of finding out what way Tante Arie returned home. In the morning they saw from her prints that the fée had goose feet, like Frau Berthe. [Daucourt, Archives Suisses, 174, in Sebillot I, 447] This divinatory custom of ash-scattering naturally belonged on an eve of spinners' craft and enchantment, but it had other expressions. For the Poles it was a spirit divination for causes and outcome of disease. The Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, also did ash-scattering divinations invoking the nagual spirits.

Like Hölle and Perchta, Tante Arie rewarded good spinners and tangled the distaffs of forgetful ones. She appeared at harvest feasts, and rewarded the hardworking. As a protector of pregnant and birth-giving mothers, she probably played a part in midwives' invocations and women's customs blessing the newborn. Mothers told their young ones that Arie caused fruit to fall from trees for good children, and that she brought them nuts and cakes at Christmas. [Culte des esprits dans la Séquanie, Monnier, in Grimm, 412fn] Tables of offerings may well have been prepared for her in pagan seasons, as was done in many locales for faeries and spinner goddesses.

On hot summer days, Tante Arie loved to plunge into clear pools in the caverns of Milandre. She changed into a vouivre, a serpent like Mélusine and Sibillia. But first she took off her jeweled crown and put it on the rock rim of the pool. The vouivre fiercely guarded her shamanic crown against intruders who might try to steal it. [Sebillot, I 445, citing A. Daucourt's Archives Suisses, Vol VII, 173-6] Another tradition says the vouivre wears a jewel like an eye in the middle of her forehead, which she lays aside while drinking from fountains. She flies through the air like red-hot iron. [Grimm, 1492] In the Lyonnais, she is said to drink from springs at moonrise. [Benoit, 97]

[Graphic: Vouivre, by the Russian artist Ivan Bilibin (1932)]

The grotto-serpent appears as far back as Herodotus' account of a cave-dwelling Scythian snake-goddess, mistress of the land where the Dniepr empties into the Black Sea. Flying serpent-faeries appear throughout northern Spain as guardians of treasure. [Menendez- Pelayo I, 288] The xanas ("dianas") keep treasures under pools in the "serpent caves" of Asturias. It was told how the xana spread her gold in the sunlight, and a passing human stole a chalice. Closely pursued, the thief cried out, "Help me, Virgen del Carmen, it was for you I wanted it!" So she escaped, but was obliged to give the chalice to a church. [Canellada, 141, 259]

These beautiful snake-women of the fountains are sometimes called moras encantadas ("enchanted Moors"). [Menendez-Pelayo I, 292, thought the name came from the Celtic mahra or mahr, meaning spirit. In fact it resembles mairbh, a Gaelic word for the dead.] The Portuguese mouras encantadas live in caverns or funeral mounds. They are only visible on Midsummer night, when they spin or weave with golden thread, or comb their hair, or lay out figs in the dew. If a human is lucky enough to pick up this fruit, it changes into gold. [Gallop, 78] The mouras reward midwifes who attend their births with similar gifts, tile or coal that turns to gold. In other stories, gifts that seem to be gold turn out to be coal. [Gallop, 79]

Celtic tales picture a snake wearing a precious stone lying under a hazel where mistletoe grows. [Grimm, 1492] Giraldus Cambrensis wrote of a Pembrokeshire well where a viper guarded a golden torque, and bit the hand of any who would steal it. [Jones, 134] In the same province, a winged serpent was said to live in Grinston Well, where it coiled up at night, and another in the Well of the Maidens in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. [Ross, 348]

The Welsh said that serpents came together on Midsummers Eve to mysteriously blow into being the Glain Neidr ("serpents' stone"). Joining their heads together and hissing, they form a bubble around the head of one. They blow it down until it comes off at the tail and hardens like glass. Pliny wrote of this tradition among the ancient Gauls. They said that snakes in great numbers intertwined themselves to create an egg from the foam of their saliva, and tossed it upward with their hisses. It bestowed victory. [Meaney, 206, 118]

Another Welsh tradition held that the snake-congress took place on May Eve. The serpent-stones were round, pastel-colored pebbles believed to confer second-sight and healing, especially of the eyes. The Welsh had many tales about the healing powers of snakes. [Trevelyan, 170-1]

The German unke was a crowned faery with a serpent's tail. Sometimes she was all-snake, still crowned and wearing a bunch of keys like the German apparitions called "white ladies." But the unke's name, according to Grimm, properly referred to the rana portentosa, or frog of omen. Unken are also home-snakes who watch over babes in the cradle, never leaving their side. Other stories say that these snakes come up to children when they are alone, setting down their golden crowns, and sip milk with them. Sometimes they leave their crowns behind on the ground. It is unlucky to kill such snakes; to do so could result in the death of a child or loss of prosperity. [Grimm, 691ff]

The Finns revered the mammelainen, a female serpent-guardian of underground riches. The outlander priesthood described her out of its own dread of any animistic goddess: "femina maligna, matrix serpentis." But the Letts thought of such snakes as guardians of the home, calling them "milk-mothers," and left milk offerings for them as emissaries of the goddess Brekhina. [Grimm, 691, 687]

[Graphic: Winged serpents at Moradello de Sedano, Spain]

These tales of the snake goddess were part of witch folklore. The witches themselves are often described as taking serpent form. One of the Ukrainian names for witches is "snakes." South Russians thought witches had tails, a sign of their once having been snakes. [Hubbs, 250, 253] Ossetians of the Black Sea also tell of women able to turn into serpents. During the Burning Terror, German woodcuts show serpent-goddesses hovering over the bound, dying witch in the sensational pamphlets churned out by printers in the century after Gutenberg.

Modern Sicilian folklore tells of storm-spirits called draunàra ("dragons"). People at Trapanese say they are rough, bad women with long wild hair who gather on Monte Cofano. In one story, the chief draunara gives a ring to the newly-initiated witch to pass over her husband's forehead, causing him to sleep while she was off frolicking with the witches. She was to always wear it on the middle finger of her left hand. [Bonomo, 468]



Caverns and grottos and rock formations, as beloved haunts of the the fées, were often named after them. The French often said that the fées had created these natural formations, as well as having built megalithic monuments and scattered standing stones. The doumayselas ("maidens") hollowed out the marvelous grottoes of Languedoc, the Vivarais and Boullardière over eons of time. The wild formations in these caverns were attributed to the fées, who sometimes transformed their belongings and utensils to stone. [Sebillot I, 431]

The Grotte-des-Fées in the Chablais region was once a place of mystery and power. People did not approach it out of idle curiosity. But the peasants used to point out a stone hen covering her chicks, a stone distaff and spinning wheel: "The women of the area claimed to have once been able to see in the cleft a petrified woman above the spinning wheel." [Sebillot I, 432] The Irish had their own "Rock of the Spinning Wheel (Carraig a Túrna) in a wild part of the Slieve-na-mban hills. Local people used to hear the wheel humming in the faery chamber under the rock. [O'Neill, 189]

The waters of the Sichon river in Bourbonnais descended from la Source des Fées, a spring full of minerals that calcinated in fantastic formations. Paysans pointed out the form of a cloth-wrapped sorcière who had changed herself to stone in flight from a rival magician. [Sebillot I, 430] Other fées who were sorcières dwelt in the Grotto of the Dead Man at Ariège. People called them the enchantées or encantados; they were also variously known in Languedoc as sorcieiros, fados or dounzelos ("maidens").

Some of these grottos extended underground for long distances, like the Grotte des Fées at Accous in the lower Pyrenees or the Grotte a la Dame that opens two miles from the Grand-Auvergne, in the lower Loire. [Sebillot I, 436] Of the wonders of these underground faery worlds, details often appear in legends about people who visited the good women's abodes and returned to tell what they saw. In Picardy and Basque country there were tales of bear mothers. Inhabitants of Menton (where paleolithic great mothers were later found) told of a woman who took refuge in a grotto and lived there with a bear. She conceived a child who was called Jean of the Bear. [Sebillot I, 436]

Innumerable grotto shrines were christianized by building chapels next to them and renaming the animist goddesses as saints. For example, the grotto of las Encantadas in Aragón was reassigned to the Virgin. [Gari Lacruz, 286] But the grotto sanctuaries did not easily relinquish their deeply pagan character. The dragon-and-chimeric-animal sculptures in these churches were named "grotto style": grotesque.

[Graphic: Pagan animal spirits survived as grotesques and gargoyles. Poitiers cathedral, Vienne]

Even the cathedrals commemorated them, in the form of gargoyles with animal attributes. The French also propitiated the dragon spirits by carrying large effigies of them on certain festivals: the Gargouille of Rouen, the Graouilly of Metz, le Grand 'Goule of Poitiers, the Papoires of Amiens, le Dou Dou of Mons, and the Dragon of Louvain. [Bridaham, p. x]

Copyright 2000 Max Dashu

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