The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose
Silly old goose! That’s the phrase most associated with geese today but it wasn’t always the case. Fabulously territorial and aggressive, geese served as watchdogs in Europe: they were considered the guardians of ancient Rome.
Don’t laugh. Geese are big birds. They hiss, honk, flap their wings aggressively, and they can peck hard. Observe small children at a pond tossing bits of bread to ducks versus geese. The smaller ducks usually wait for bread to be tossed; geese, on the other hand, often mob children as if they were trying to mug them of their bread.
Geese were kept as “guard dogs” in the Middle Ages. In Eastern Europe, they served as watchdogs for individual homes and families. Geese were the Celtic symbol of alertness, self-defensive aggression, and protection.
Geese were also considered sacred birds:
According to one of the many Egyptian creation myths, a cosmic egg was laid by the Nile Goose, known as the Great Cackler.
Various female deities including Aphrodite, Juno, and Sequana are associated with geese or swans who, in artistic renderings at least, are not always easily distinguishable.
In Greek terracottas of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Aphrodite is depicted standing, sitting or flying through the air on a goose like Mother Goose, or sometimes just accompanied by a trio of geese.
A first-century BCE bronze statue of an unidentified Breton goddess sports a goose-crested helmet.
Lilith is sometimes depicted with a goose’s foot, as is the Queen of Sheba—sometimes considered among Lilith’s avatars. (See DIVINE WITCH: Lilith.)
Among the swan- or goose-footed goddesses is Herta, thus Mother Goose could be construed as Mother Earth. See DIVINE WITCH: Herta.
In English-speaking countries, “Mother Goose” refers to a vast series of rhymes ostensibly told by Mother Goose to children. Sometimes Mother Goose is portrayed as a cozy old lady surrounded by children, but other depictions of Mother Goose feature her dressed in witch’s garb, flying through the air on a goose or even on a broomstick with a goose occupying the spot at the back usually reserved for an animal familiar.
Who was Mother Goose?
The first references to Mother Goose seem to derive from France, where she is not associated with nursery rhymes but with fairy tales. In France, Mother Goose is the teller of tales, not rhymes.
The first known literary reference to Mother Goose as a teller of tales occurred in 1650 in Loret’s La Muse Historique, which contains the line “Comme un conte de la Mère Oye,” meaning “like a Mother Goose tale.” In 1697, Charles Perrault (January 12, 1628-May 16, 1703) published a collection of fairy tales called Les Contes de la Mère l’Oye or Tales of Mother Goose. This collection of eight stories included versions of Blue Beard, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots. The frontispiece of the first edition had an illustration of an old woman at a spinning wheel, surrounded by a girl, a man, a small boy, and a cat.
His collection included what are essentially French folktales. Perrault’s primary source seems to have been his son’s nursemaid. He rewrote these stories for a jaded audience of members of Louis XIV’s court and so began the fashion for fairy tales.
Perrault described his “Mother Goose tales” as “old wives’ tales,” told by governesses and grandmothers. In France, however, Mother Goose was traditionally associated with old Queen Bertha. In French, tall tales are described as told “when good Queen Bertha spun…” In France and Italy, the phrase “when Queen Bertha was spinning” is synonymous with “once upon a time.” Another name for “Queen Bertha” is “Goose Foot Bertha,” traditionally depicted spinning and telling endless tales to hordes of attentive, listening children.
There are two possible historical Queen Bertha’s, both of whom have associations with geese.
Queen Bertha (d.783), wife of Pepin, King of the Franks (and Charlemagne’s mother), allegedly had “goose feet,” perhaps meaning that her toes were webbed. She was known as “Goose-foot Bertha” and is believed to be the mysterious La Reine Pédauque or “Goose-foot Queen.”
Bertha (c.962), wife of Robert II of France (Robert the Pious), is another possibility. King Robert fell in love with the widowed Bertha. Unfortunately she was his cousin and he was already her son’s godfather; the Church felt that this relationship precluded marriage. When Robert married Bertha anyway, he was excommunicated and given seven years’ penance. Rumors circulated that their forbidden marriage resulted in the birth of a goose-headed baby.
The first English translation of Perrault’s Mother Goose Tales appeared in 1729. In English, however, Mother Goose is intrinsically connected to rhymes and verse. Many of these rhymes were ages-old; some had political or satirical roots, others were grounded in weather rituals, love spells and, some suspect, perhaps even old Druidic traditions.
Mother Goose’s Melody, published in London by John Newberry in 1760, contained both rhymes and adult commentary. No known complete copy of this book exists today, however it did travel to Britain’s North American colonies, where printer Isaiah Thomas recalled his childhood adoration of the book. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he took advantage of the situation, smuggling several copies of the book into the colonies and printing his own pirated versions.
There is also an American claim to Mother Goose: some believe that “Mother Goose” is really Elizabeth Foster Goose (also possibly Vergoose or Vertigoose, meaning “green goose”).
Elizabeth Foster (April 5, 1665-c.1756) of Charleston married Isaac Goose of Boston and bore him six children. One daughter, also named Elizabeth Goose, married an English printer, Thomas Fleet, in 1715. Reverend Cotton Mather, a famed witch-hunter, officiated at their wedding. Elizabeth and Thomas had seven little Fleets whom Grandma Goose entertained with apparently endless stories. Thomas Fleet eventually published these stories, supposedly, as rumor had it, to embarrass his mother-in-law.
Allegedly the book, published in 1719, was entitled Songs for the Nursery or Mother Goose’s Melodies. “Mother Goose” died around 1756 and was allegedly buried in the Old Granary Burial Ground, however no headstone exists. “Allegedly” is used so frequently because no such book or broadside has ever been discovered. Collectors continue to search for it like the Holy Grail. No record apparently exists; many now believe the book doesn’t exist either!
An English tradition suggests that some Mother Goose counting rhymes may be relics of Druidic formulas for selecting sacrificial victims.
Among the less well-known Mother Goose rhymes are charms against witchcraft. Here are three of them:
St Francis and St Benedict Bless this house from wicked wight From nightmares and the goblin That is old Goodfellow Robin Keep it all from evil spirits, Fairies, weasels, rats and ferrets From curfew time to the next prime
Rowan tree and red thread Bind the witches all in dread
Vervain and dill Hinder witches of their will
Mother Goose rhymes also serve as spells. This one, which attempts to incubate prophetic dreams, is best performed at the New Moon.
1. Place a prayer book on your bed on the spot where you normally place your pillow.
2. Place the following atop the prayer book: a key, a ring, a flower blossom, a willow sprig, a heart-shaped cookie, a bread crust, and four playing cards: the Ace of Spades, the Ace of Diamonds, the Nine of Hearts and the Ten of Clubs.
3. Before going to sleep chant the following rhyme:
Luna, every woman’s friend To me your goodness please do send Let this night in visions see Emblems of my destiny
See ANIMALS: Ferrets (Polecats) and Weasels; BOTANICALS: Rowan, Vervain; DIVINE WITCH: Tante Arie.