Tuesday 31 March 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #6: GILLA OF THE ENCHANTMENTS



Told in the 1880s by Patrick McGrale of Dugort, Achil, County Mayo, to William Larminie (“West Irish Folk-Tales”, Camden Library, 1893). Larminie says of this tale that it combines domestic incident with romantic extravagance. It is a variant of Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 451: the brothers who are turned into birds. Towards the end of the story I have made some slight changes where Patrick McGrale's oral rendition, faithfully reproduced by Larminie, becomes a little unclear as to who does what to whom.

Although the parallels with better-known tales are clear (such as the Grimms' 'The Six Swans', KHM 49, and 'The Seven Ravens, KHM  25), this story has its own individual character. It’s both confusing and fascinating, with a great deal to puzzle over. On the death of his wife the queen, Gilla’s father sends his three sons away to a ‘greenawn’ – a sort of sunny pavilion on an island. He appears to do this in order to keep them safe from his new wife, from whom he has kept all knowledge of them. But his daughter Gilla has inherited powerful magic in the shape of a cloak left to her by her dead mother (just as the power of Aschenputtel’s dead mother is channeled to her through the tree planted on her grave). She cannot be harmed while she is wearing it. Only Gilla may ever visit the brothers; she brings them food, and she cuts off, washes and replaces their heads each day. It is as if they are dependent on their sister for continuance in life: perhaps the greenawn itself is an otherworld, a liminal land which requires them to undergo a daily resurrection only Gilla can perform. Gilla is both a magic-worker, and a person who can bring back the dead. At the same time, she belongs to the fairy tale sisterhood of those who persist and endure trials in order to rescue the brothers they love. The motif of the death of a child, and smearing its mother with blood in an attempt to frame her for its murder, is reminiscent of the story of Rhiannon and her son Pryderi, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. 

There was a king in Ireland and his wife, and they had but one daughter, whose name was Gilla of the Enchantments, and she had a magic coat that her mother had left her when she died. And there was a man courting her whose name was George nă Riell, and the two were courting.

                When her mother died the king made a fair and beautiful greenawn [a summer-house or sunny palace] for his three sons on an island in the midst of the sea, and there he put them to live, and he sent his daughter to them with food every evening.

                It was not long after that till he married another wife, and by this wife he had three daughters. She was one day walking in the garden and she got the corner of her apron under her foot and she fell.

                “May neither God nor Mary be with you,” said the hen-wife.

                “Why do you say that?” said the queen.

                “Because the wife that was here before you was better than you.”

                “Was there a wife before me?”

                “There was; and that one is her daughter, and there are three sons also in an island in the sea, and the daughter goes every night to them with food.”

                “What shall I do to the three of them, to put them to death?”

                “I’ll tell you,” said the hen-wife, “if you will do what I advise you.”

                “I will do it,” said she.

                “Promise a dowry to your eldest daughter if she will follow the other daughter out when she is going with food to her brothers.”

                So the queen sent her daughter out after Gilla who was going with food, but Gilla looked behind and saw the other one coming, and she made a bog and a lake between them, so that the queen’s daughter went astray and was wandering all night. She told her mother, and her mother went to the henwife, and the henwife said, “Promise a dowry to your second daughter.”

                And she did this, and the second daughter fared in the same way as the first, and she came and told her mother. And the mother went to the hen-wife, and the hen-wife said, “Promise the dowry to your third daughter.”

                Now the third daughter followed Gilla of the Enchantments as she was going with the food, and this time Gilla did not look behind her. She parted the sea and she came to her brothers’ house, and she put the pot of water down and cut off the heads of her three brothers and washed them, and put them on their shoulders again. And the half-sister was at the window looking on at everything she did, and she went home through the sea, before the sea returned together, and while they were eating their supper, Gilla came home.

                The mother went next morning to the hen-wife and told her the third daughter had succeeded, and had learned everything. And she asked her what she should do.

                “Say now, your daughter is going to be married, and ask Gilla for the loan of her coat. She will not know that the power of the coat will be gone if she gives it away. So long as she keeps the coat herself she can do everything; there are spells on the coat so that the sea must open before it, without closing after it; but she does not know that the spell of the coat will be lost.”

                The third daughter got the loan of the coat from Gilla, but instead of going to be married, this is what she did. When night came she put the coat on and went to the house of her half-brothers, knocked at the door and asked them to open it. And one of the brothers said, “That is not my sister.” But another looked out of the window and saw the coat and recognised it, and he opened the door and let her in. She cut the three heads off, and took them three-quarters of a mile and put them into a hole in the ground, and went back to her mother and told her she had killed the three.

                She gave the coat back to Gilla of the Enchantments, and Gilla went in the evening to her brothers with food, and whatever sort of fastening the other one put on the door she could not open is, but had to go in by a window, and she found her three brothers dead.

                She wept and she screamed and pulled the hair from her head in her lamentations, till the whiteness of the day came upon the morrow. She had not one head of the heads to get, but she followed the trace of the blood, and three-quarters of a mile from the house were they, in the place where they were buried. She dug them up and took them to her, and washed and cleaned them as was her wont, and put them on the bodies, but down they fell. She had to take them up at last, and cry to God to do something to them, that she might see them alive. And they turned into three otters, and she made another otter of herself. They were swimming that way for a time and then they made themselves into three doves, and she made of herself another dove. They were flying and she was flying, and the four came and settled on the gable of the house, and in the morning the man [the king] said to his wife,

                “There is a barrel of water. Let it be wine in the evening.” (He thought to test her, he thought it was not the right woman he had got.)

                Then said one of the brothers to the sister, “Go in, and do good in return for evil, and make wine of the water.”

                She went down, and when she got in, and she in the shape of a dove, the old blind wise man who was lying in his bed under the window got his sight, and he saw her dipping her finger in the water and making of wine, cold and wholesome.

                And in the morning the man said to his wife, “Here is a barrel of water. Let it be wine with you in the evening.”

                And the second brother said to his sister, “Go in, and do good in return for evil, and make wine of the water.”

                She went down, and when she went in at the window, and she in the shape of a dove, the wise old blind man who was lying on the  bed under the window got his sight, and he saw her dipping her finger in the water and making it wine, cold and wholesome.

                And in the morning on the third day the wise old man spoke to the king, and said to him that he had seen a beautiful woman come in by the window on two days, and that he got his sight when she came in and lost it when she went out and (said he) “Stretch yourself here today, and when she comes in and makes wine of the water, catch her as she is going out.”

                And he did so, and the third brother said to his sister, “Go in, and do good in return for evil, and make the wine.” And she did this; and as she was going out the man caught her. And when her brothers heard that she was caught they went away. And she asked the king to to give her leave to take just one look at her brothers. “Here’s the corner of my apron.”

                So he took hold of the corner of her apron, and she slipped out of it and left it with him and went away after her brothers.  When they saw her coming they waited for her, and she asked them if there was anything at all in the world that would make them come alive again; and they said there was one thing only, and that hard it was to do it.

                “What is it?” said she, “and I will try it.”

                “To make three shirts of the ivy-leaves in a day and a year, without uttering a word of speech or shedding a single tear, for if you weep we shall lose a part of ourselves.”

                And she said to them to make a little hut for her in the wood, and they made her the hut and went away and left her there. She was not long before she began to get material for the shirts, and she began to make them.

Now the queen’s daughter had her dowry. And she thought the king’s sons and the king’s daughter were dead, and she married George nă Riell, and her mother died and her father, and now she was queen.  But Gilla of the Enchantments was not long in the house in the wood, till George nă Riell found her, and she did not speak a word to him, but he was with her till she had a child to him.

                A young man was in the wood one day and a dog with him, and the dog took him to the place where the woman was, and the man saw the woman and the child there, and he went home and told the queen there was a beautiful woman in the wood. And the queen went and found the woman and the babe, and she killed the babe and caught up some of the blood and mixed the blood and ashes together and made a cake and she sought to put a piece of the cake in the woman’s mouth. And Gilla dropped one tear from her eye; but the queen who was her half-sister went back to her husband and said to him that great was the shame of him to have children by that woman, and that Gilla had killed her own child and eaten it.

                “It is not possible,” said he, “that she has killed my child.”

                “She killed and she ate.”

                He went to her and found the child dead; but Gilla did not speak a word to him. He said then that he would burn her at twelve o’ clock of the next day. He commanded that every one should come in the morning with sods of turf and sheets of paper, and everything to make a fire. And she was brought and put there, and she was still sewing. When it was twelve o’ clock, the sign was given to light the fire, but an old man in the crowd asked them to give her another hour by the clock, and when that hour was passed he asked them to give her a half-hour; the woman in it (he said) was under geasa. “You see that it is not her life that is troubling her, but that she is always sewing.”

                It was not long before they saw a black cloud coming through the air, and they saw three things in the cloud coming. “Well,” said the old man, “there are three angels from heaven, or three devils from hell, coming for her soul.”

                There were three black ravens coming, and their mouths open, and as it were fire coming out of their mouths, till the three black ravens came and lay in their sister’s bosom, and she on top of the pyre, and she put the three shirts on them and said, –

                “Finn, Inn and Brown Glegil, show that I am your sister, for in pain I am today.”

                They took hold of her and lifted her down from the pyre, and the brothers told George nă Riell everything that the half-sister had done, first that she had killed the three of them, and afterwards that it was she that killed their sister’s child.

                So the half-sister was thrown into the fire. And they went home, and George nă Riell married Gilla of the Enchantments, and they spent the rest of their lives as is right.

 NB: since Gilla sheds one tear, it's possible that one of her brothers lacks an eye, but the narrator does not say so.

More on fairy tales and folklore in my book "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available from Amazon here and here.

Picture credit: 
The Ravens of Wotan, Arthur Rackham


  1. Ah, those pesky hen-wives! What a gruesome tale.

  2. I know! But don't you love that very Irish bonfire made of peat and sheets of paper? :)