Jewish Fairy Tales - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Jewish Fairy Tales
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

As elsewhere, Jewish magical and “supernatural” tales are considered the province of women. In Yiddish, these stories are called Bubbe meises, literally “Granny tales.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that “bubbe” derives from the same roots as the Russian “baba” (see DICTIONARY: Baba). As elsewhere, some, though not all, fairy tales contain elements of ancient and now subversive spiritual traditions.

The heroines and heroes of Jewish fairy tales are midwives and miracle-working rabbis or ba’al-shems, respectively. The tradition of heroic midwives dates back to the biblical midwives of the Book of Exodus who outwitted Pharaoh. They are among the very few women named in the Bible. However the midwife as fairy-tale heroine is unusual because in European Christian folklore, midwives are stock villains, often in league with or equated with wicked witches. In Jewish folklore, midwives play a shamanic role, battling spirits (or specifically Lilith, see page 487) to rescue vulnerable women and newborns.

In Celtic tradition, fairies frequently steal midwives. The same theme occurs in Jewish folklore but with Djinn, “demons” or vague “spirits,” rather than fairies; however Jewish tales are told from the perspective of the midwife upon her successful return. These stories usually end happily for all including the demons, who are treated matter-of-factly as part of life. Lying beneath the surface of these fairy tales are instructions for safe, positive interaction with spirits.

Although the term “rabbi” is now almost exclusively identified with “clergy,” technically it is a term of respect indicating “teacher.” The rabbis of fairy tales play the roles of shamans, mediating with demons, exorcising vengeful ghosts and, especially, counteracting the effects of vicious witches and salacious wizards. These rabbis cast spells and create powerful amulets and counter-charms.

In the cosmology of Jewish folklore, there is no concept of Satan as the Creator’s evil adversary. “Demons” are not Satan’s servant but instead are volatile, dangerous spirits, best to avoid although, once in a while, they prove helpful. “Demon” may be understood as synonymous with “Djinn.”

Many of these stories are ambivalent: they celebrate what may technically (or officially) be forbidden and so are ambiguous. Narrators are ambivalent about the roles played by these rabbis: the spell-casting rabbi who performs the miracle is often humbled at the end of the story, frequently by his adversary the witch. (Never by male wizards, however, who are always vanquished.)

Although there are also plenty of Jewish stories featuring wicked, evil, grotesque witches, witches not infrequently get the last laugh or final triumph, perhaps indicating something about the sympathies of the narrator.

In one story, travelers have been mysteriously disappearing. A miracle-rabbi is hired to play detective. All missing parties were last seen at a certain roadhouse. The rabbi, investigating, realizes that the inn’s owner is a witch who transforms her guests into donkeys who labor for her. The rabbi rescues the bewitched travelers, transforming them back. He then transforms the witch into a donkey and rides her back home. Unbeknownst to him, however, this witch has a sister-witch living in his very own home-town. Looking out her window, she sees the rabbi riding home and immediately recognizes that his donkey is her sister, whom she instantly transforms back into her true shape so that the formerly highly respectable rabbi suddenly finds himself publicly seated on a woman’s back, highly compromising behavior in a sexually conservative community.

Lilith, Queen of Witches, dominates Jewish fairy tales. She is omnipresent, playing various roles from forest witch to Queen of Demons.

As Queen of Demons, she is sometimes married to the fallen angel Samael. They travel together in the guise of huge black dogs. Sometimes Lilith is married to the demon Asmodeus instead. Sometimes she has no male partner but preys on mortal men as the prototype of the succubus or vampire-witch.

Sometimes she leads a host of demons; sometimes she is the mother of a race of demons (the Lilin) who are conceived via men’s nocturnal emissions. Her daughters are beautiful, seductive, vampiric succubi who prey on men, tempt and possess women, and hide inside mirrors waiting to cause mischief. Not all Lilith’s daughters are spirits: she also serves as prototype for Jewish witches, sometimes called “Lilith’s daughters.”

Lilith is not always named: she is such an immediately recognizable figure that clues to her identity are frequently sufficient for identification. The foremost clue is her long, beautiful, wild, and disheveled hair: in the story The Hair in the Milk, Lilith leaves one single black hair as her calling-card, sufficient evidence for a heroic midwife to recognize her formidable opponent’s true identity.

In fairy tales, Lilith is sometimes hag-like and grotesque but sometimes seductively beautiful. (And sometimes both, in the same story.) Although she preys on men and enjoys exposing them as lustful fools, her primary victims are women and newborn children.

These stories are ambivalent however: although she is feared, women in these stories also constantly interact with Lilith. It is dangerous to ignore her; stories reveal details on proper methods of appeasement and negotiation, indicating that she is more than just some baby-stealing bogie-woman.

In fairy tales, Lilith often gets the better of men; her nefarious plots against babies and brides, however, are usually foiled by clever, intrepid midwives. Once in a while, the story ends happily for all.

In one variation of a popular tale, The Demon in the Tree, a young boy, a rabbi’s son, playing hiding-and-seek with a friend, sees a finger emanating from a tree in front of his house. Assuming the finger belongs to his friend, he plays a joke, sticking his ring on it and reciting the Jewish wedding vows three times—all that is required by Jewish law to be legally wed. Suddenly a strange woman with long disheveled hair appears from the tree and looks in his eyes. The boy faints. When he awakes he is alone but his ring is missing…He convinces himself not to believe what happened and tells no one.

Years later, a marriage is arranged for him. He is the rabbi’s son, handsome, educated, and so considered a great catch. He is betrothed to an extremely wealthy, beautiful girl. Just as he is about to lead his new bride into his home, a tree branch from that tree slams into the bride’s head, killing her. A new marriage is arranged, and then another. None of the marriages is ever consummated. None of the brides even gets into the house. Instead, each time, she is felled by the tree.

No one else ever actually witnesses the deaths; the boy’s explanations about the branch sound suspicious, and people begin to wonder about him. After several brides have died, offers of marriage are no longer so forthcoming. Finally the only potential bride is an incredibly poor girl with no dowry; normally the rabbi’s son would be out of her league. The girl decides to take her chances, although even she is told that she doesn’t have to marry him.

Having heard the story of what happened to her predecessors, the girl ducks as she approaches her new home and avoids the tree branch. Inside, rather than consummating the marriage, she insists that her groom tell her everything he can about the tree. He finally, reluctantly, reveals his childhood prank.

This girl has heard a bubbe meise or two: she immediately goes straight to the tree with a plate of jam, favorite food of Jewish demons. Speaking respectfully and honestly, she explains that she now knows the story but didn’t when she married the groom. She says she knows that the “demon” is Lilith who believes herself to be the true bride. Here they both are, married to the same man. The bride proposes a compromise: if Lilith agrees not to kill her or any of her future children, she will leave a plate of jam by the tree daily and send the groom to the tree once a week to fulfill his “marital obligations.”

Suddenly the wild woman in the tree emerges; she says nothing but briefly looks the woman in the eye before disappearing. The next morning the plate of jam is empty except for a gold coin. The deal is on.

Every night the woman leaves the demon some jam. Every morning Lilith leaves her a gold coin. Once a week, the husband performs his marital obligations, whether he likes it or not. The “demon,” posted in her tree, emerges as a somewhat reluctant family guardian.

This continues for seven years until one morning instead of the gold coin, the woman discovers her husband’s old ring on the plate. He has been released from his vow. Although the deal has been honorably concluded, the story advises that Lilith continues to guard the woman and her children.

Further Reading: Lilith is so ever-present that it is virtually impossible to find a book of Jewish folklore without at least one Lilith story. Howard Schwartz’s Lilith’s Cave (Oxford University Press, 1988) is replete with tales of Lilith, as well as appearances by ba’al shems and shamanic midwives.

See ANIMALS: Cats, Dogs, Donkeys, Owls, Snakes; BOTANICALS: Trees; DICTIONARY: Ba’al, Djinn; DIVINE WITCH: Lilith; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Midwives.