Feature Image:
The Silent Voice (1898), by Gerald Moira

There once was a village so small that the tall conifers that surrounded it kept it hidden from the eyes of the occasional passersby searching for respite. And they were the better for it, most citizens agreed, for the village was cursed.

Most of the year the villagers relished life in their private little corner of the world. Spring brought a green fire that ignited their souls with a burst of new energy. This was the time the air was sweet and alive with the chittering of songbirds. Summer was sun-drenched and dreamy and the time when blackberries reigned, sending everyone to the hedge that separated the town from the rest of the world. Autumn offered mellow light that seduced the townsfolk into releasing summer’s hold and immersing themselves in the delights of the harvest.

But winter was different. Everyone knew as soon as they saw the crows gather on twisted trees that seemed to claw at the moon as it made its ascent above the town that the dark spirits who haunted the forest would also rise. And in their ascension, they would take with them anyone too weak to block out the moaning and howling, and the ragged whispers to join the Wild Hunt. Loved ones would cry and desperately try to hold onto those they held dear, but it was always too late, and so they watched helplessly as their family members vacantly strode out the door—doomed to take their place forever alongside the dark spirits who rode the winter winds.

The spirits, it was said, rose with the smoke from chimneys and from the fog that settled along the river. They charged from the hillsides where only scrub would grow and seeped from tree bark, stone, and soil. They were nowhere and everywhere, and the townsfolk didn’t know what to do. But the three sisters who had been sent away many generations before to live deep in the forest, far from the eyes of any villager, did know how to keep the ghosts of the Wild Hunt at bay. It was the simplest of tricks, but their bitterness for the sins of their father kept them from sharing their knowledge. Instead, they cackled and whispered in delight as they listened to the cries of the mothers and fathers whose children were taken aloft. Or to the sobs of the elderly and the young whose only family members were whisked away.

You see, the three sisters had been sent into the forest long ago after their mother had been taken one dark winter’s night by the Wild Hunt. Their father blamed them, as she was so busy comforting her girls, she forgot to take precautions herself. As punishment, their father sent the girls into the night, satisfied that they too would be swept away. But they weren’t—they took shelter in a small cave and lived from the scraps the animals left them and prayed for rescuers that never came. When spring had finally arrived, they learned to survive on what they could forage. They built a shelter and grew steadily in their knowledge of the plants around them. They experimented until they became proficient in what the forest had to offer, and by the time they were adults they knew which plants could heal, which could provide nutrition, and which could repel all that was evil in their world.

It was the mullein stalks—which they harvested and dipped in beeswax and made torches from to light their way on the darkest nights of the year—that kept the winter’s evil spirits at bay. When the Wild Hunt was aloft and midwinter approached, the sisters surrounded their cottage with the torches and remained content in their safety, amused at the suffering of  others whom they knew were no better than their father. But on one fateful winter’s eve, when the forest grew anxious with the howls of angry spirits, the three sisters saw what they assumed was a small spirit pass through their enchanted circle of light.

“Oh, dear,” said one to the others. “It seems our torches have lost their magic.” The sisters clucked their tongues and whispered incantations to chase the small spirit away, but to their surprise the figure knocked on their door.

“Please help me,” it said, with a voice so faint they wondered if they heard anything at all. Upon opening the door, the sisters found not a spirit but a small girl, not much younger than they were when they were sent into the wilderness. The child collapsed in a fit of tears.

“They took my father,” the girl stammered and sobbed. “My sisters are hiding under the bed, and I knew I was the only one who could save them.”

“Who sent you here, dear?” the oldest sister asked.
“Did the townsfolk talk you into it?” asked the middle sister. “Only because they want our help does anyone care,” said the youngest sister.

The small girl wiped her face with her sleeve and said, “I don’t think anyone even knows you’re here. I ran as far into the woods as I have ever gone, then I saw the circle of light around your home.”

The old women were perplexed. Had no one ever known about them? Had not one person seen their cottage and questioned their existence? The old women were filled with empathy for the child, an emotion they had not felt for many, many years. They knew now that they had carried their bitterness for far too long. They did not want their fate to befall another.

“Let us tell you our secret, child,” the oldest sister said. And they took the child by the hand and led her to their torches.

“Mullein keeps evil at bay,” the middle sister whispered and handed the girl a lit torch.

“Tell everyone of the tapers made by the hags that live in the woods,” the youngest sister said.

The girl made a promise that she would share their story, then took the torch back to her village and stood vigilant throughout the night. In the morning she was found asleep at the edge of town with only the smoldering stem of plant remaining. As she promised, she told the  townsfolk of the three old hags that lived deep in the forest. And as a reward for their kindness toward the girl and the secret that would save the town from the menacing spirits, the villagers invited the sisters to live in comfort among them. But the old women had become accustomed to their solitary existence and could never leave the cottage they had built so many years ago.

The villagers never saw the sisters again. But every midwinter when the crows perched and the wind began to stir, the townsfolk would find a neatly stacked pile of  Hags’ Tapers  near the town’s entrance ready to be lit—a circle of light and protection so no one would ever fear the Wild Hunt again.

Midwinter’s Ominous Past

During the dark days leading up to midwinter, northern people were uneasy because it was then that the sun stood still and one had to be weary of chaotic spirits that tromped through the woodlands and crept near the homes where families held tight around the central hearth. Tales in which spirits, imps, and witches abound were whispered around crackling fires and offerings left to wandering elves and sprites to appease their mischievous natures. One of the most frightening concerns was that of the Wild Hunt.

It was said that when the wind picked up, tossing the tops of trees and lashing around chimney tops, the Wild Hunt was aloft. Odin (or Wodin), the shapeshifting god of wisdom and magic,  with his long white beard whipping the back of his cloak and wide-brimmed hat covering his dark empty eye-socket, led a nocturnal horde of fallen spirits through the sky on his eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. One had to be ready if they heard the howl of dogs or if lightning flashed in the sky to not answer the huntsman’s call—or they too would be taken up to forever ride the winds.

To help keep mischievous spirits at bay during the darkest days of  the year, fires were lit, or bells rung. Branches of  holly  and conifers were hung as wards to protect the household from various imps, goblins, and ghostly apparitions. And because these plants kept their foliage all year long, they acted as a reminder that the darkness would soon pass, and the sun would reign once again.

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Monica Crosson
Monica Crosson is a contributing writer for Llewellyn Worldwide, having written many articles for The Magickal Almanac, The Witches Companion, The Herbal Almanac, Spell-a-Day Almanac, and both The Witches Datebook and The Witches Calendar. Her first book, The Magickal Family: Pagan Living in Harmony with Nature, was released by Llewellyn Worldwide in October of 2017.