The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Millers or references to millers appear in an amazing number of fairy tales. The most famous are Rumpelstiltskin and Puss in Boots.
In Rumpelstiltskin, a miller boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king takes him at his word and orders the girl to come to the palace, where she is placed in a room filled with straw, given a spinning wheel and told to get started. If she can complete her task, she’ll marry the king; if not, she’ll be killed. Eventually, through the intercession of the dwarf, goblin, spirit or whatever he is named Rumpelstiltskin, the girl is able to accomplish her tasks and become queen.
In Puss in Boots, a miller dies, leaving three sons behind. The eldest son inherits the mill and the second inherits his donkey. There is nothing left for the youngest son to inherit but the miller’s cat. The boy prepares to eat the cat when the cat suddenly speaks, saying that if the boy will only get the cat a pair of boots, the cat will provide for him forever. In the face of a miracle—a talking cat!—the boy does as requested and spends his last pennies having a pair of boots crafted for the cat’s paws. The cat promptly begins scheming: by the end of the tale the poor miller’s son has been transformed into the fictitious Marquis of Carabas. The cat has killed a giant, given the boy the giant’s castle, and arranged for the boy to be married to a princess.
These stories remain among the most beloved fairy tales but are generally considered silly, nonsense stories. Of course, there’s no reason to consider them otherwise, unless one appreciates the magical reputation millers once possessed.
Milling may seem like commonplace work: what does a miller do after all but grind grain into flour? But that’s a superficial, modern, rationalist view. What does the miller really do? The miller transforms: he takes the harvested grain and through the process of milling, traditionally involving a millstone and millpond, transforms it from botanical material into food.
Milling may be understood as the further continuation, post-harvest, of the mysteries of the Corn Mother. The miller may be understood as the Corn Mother’s priest; a role he undoubtedly played at one time very long ago. (See ERGOT for further details.)
Stonemasons were associated with elite spiritual mysteries. Metalworkers might be sorcerers but theirs was a private craft and always slightly distant from the community. The miller, on the other hand, might be considered the magician next door. Extensive mythology and folklore detail the miller’s magical connections. Let’s take another look at those two fairy tales:
Both father and king in Rumpelstiltskin are usually portrayed as fools. Dad is a braggart: if he hadn’t boasted of his daughter’s ability to spin straw into gold, she would never have gotten into the predicament. The king is gullible: how can he possibly believe that a mere girl could perform such feats? But of course, the average reader no longer understands the central point of the story. There’s a reason why the father’s occupation is named; it isn’t just extraneous detail. The girl isn’t just a mere girl; she’s explicitly identified as a miller’s daughter. Once upon a time, that had a magical resonance, now forgotten. Odds are, the king wouldn’t believe that any old girl could perform magical transmutations—essentially the equivalent of alchemy. But a miller’s daughter? That’s a different matter.
The father (the miller) may be perceived as doing one of two things: he is bragging, but what he’s bragging about is his own magical prowess, so powerful that it has rubbed off on his child or is transmitted genetically. He may also be understood as setting up his child’s future. Like the cat in Puss in Boots, he is manipulating a royal future for his charge. He has faith that she will rise to the challenge, and indeed she does.
It is no accident that Rumpelstiltskin shows up. The girl was never expected to literally turn straw into gold by herself: the king realizes that a human can’t do that. However, millers are traditionally identified with spirit working and spirits can perform miracles, which indeed is exactly what happens in the story.
The girl is expected to tap into her shamanic skills and contact a spirit who will help her. Ultimately she successfully does this. The part of Rumpelstiltskin that is most vague is why the little dwarf shows up—specifically what prompts him. Spirit-summoning techniques are millers’ secrets and the story does not expose (or know) them.
Rumpelstiltskin performs transmutations for the girl: his ultimate price, her first-born child if she can’t identify his name, marks the contest between them. Which of the two will command the other? If she gives up her child, she is making him an offering and pledging obeisance to the spirit; on the other hand, according to tenets of spirit-working going back to tales of Isis and Lilith, one can only have complete power over a spirit, the ability to command, if one knows the spirit’s real name. (See DIVINE WITCH: Isis, Lilith.) By the end of the story, the miller’s daughter is queen and a full-fledged spirit-commanding shaman.
In Puss in Boots, the superficial interpretation (shared by the brothers in the tale who apparently haven’t been privy to their father’s secrets) is that the youngest son has received the least valuable inheritance. From an economic standpoint, that’s true. The eldest son inherited real estate; the second son inherited livestock. The youngest son has inherited only a small pet animal and a disreputable, apparently useless animal at that. This tale was first told during the witch-hunt era when cats were still closely identified with demons and witchcraft. The cat was presumably the guardian of the granary, protecting it from vermin; it’s a useless animal unless one possesses a barn.
But that’s the point: the story demonstrates that the miller’s most precious inheritance is not wealth but his magical traditions. Notably the cat requests footwear: the item of clothing most identified with shamanism. He needs those boots to activate his power.
The stories may also be understood as muffled protests. In both stories, the protagonists, millers’ children, are poor, ignorant, out of touch with their innate magic power, and in trouble. Milling was once a sacred task. Grinding up the Corn Mother’s botanical children into food for her human children was magical work, fraught with spiritual injunctions. Post-Christianity it evolved into menial labor but by the conclusion of those fairy tales, the millers’ children have regained their psychic power (the daughter can summon and command powerful spirits; the son can communicate with the magical cat) and earned positions as rulers.
Millers once rivaled Masons for secret power: in Scotland, an organization or brotherhood called The Miller’s Word was formed in the eighteenth century, inspired by an earlier Freemason group, The Mason’s Word. The Miller’s Word was based upon a system of local groups with initiations and professional secrets. They held nocturnal meetings. Rumors spread that its members acquired magical power via mill equipment.
Millers assert a strong presence in Central, Eastern, and Northern European folklore although the association of millers with magic power was once common throughout Europe. Millers were perceived as ordinary professionals during the daytime; at night, however, they were skilled sorcerers and shamans, commanding spirits that were sometimes believed to erect mills and grind grain for the miller.
The animals closely associated with millers were cats, which protected grain from vermin, and donkeys, traditionally hitched to millstones. Both species developed disreputable reputations in Europe, as did millers. (See ANIMALS: Cats, Donkeys.) In devoutly Christian areas, millers became identified with Satan. Successful millers were frequently rumored to have sold their souls.
The role millers often play in fairy tales (when they’re not standing in for the devil, as they sometimes do) is that of a shamanic guardian or initiator. Millers save heroes or give them little tips that enable the hero to complete his impossible task.
Millers’ associations with shamanism make sense when one realizes that the miller was the last defense against ergot poisoning (see ERGOT). Although, theoretically, ergot-infested grain should not be included in the harvest, millers were the final inspectors, particularly in communities where the secrets of ergot had been suppressed or forgotten. A miller could not be ignorant of the effects of ergot; presumably these were among the secrets passed from one miller to another. One of the more recent cases of ergot poisoning in Europe occurred when a local miller accepted and ground contaminated grain that had earlier been earmarked for destruction.
In Slavic and Teutonic traditions, mills are believed to be the favored haunts of malevolent spirits (or at least spirits described by Christian sources as “evil.”)
In Karelia, all millers were once reputed to be wizards
In Russia, millers were traditionally believed able to shape-shift into animals
In Russia, millers were perceived as sorcerers because of their (alleged) relationship with the Vodianoi.
The Vodianoi is a much-feared Russian water spirit who usually manifests as a very white, naked, old man. He’s bloated, wrinkled, and his skin has the blue tinge of someone who’s spent way too much time in the water. He has green hair and is covered in slime and swamp moss. Sometimes the Vodianoi has scales like a fish, horns, and eyes that glow in the dark. Sometimes he manifests as a fish; sometimes like a scary merman. The Vodianoi lives underwater in a magnificent, luminescent, crystal palace. He never comes completely out of the water. The furthest he ventures out are riverbanks, although his favorite haunts are millponds.
The Vodianoi is feared because he drowns people (either as sacrifice or as pay-back for rude, disrespectful behavior). Not only does he kill people, he often refuses to return their bodies to loved ones until he has been propitiated with offerings.
There is only one kind of person on Earth the Vodianoi likes and that’s a miller. It was once popularly believed that it wasn’t possible to be a successful miller without a spiritual alliance (compact) with the Vodianoi. When new mills were constructed, black roosters were traditionally offered at the threshold. (Offering black roosters to a spirit in Christian Russia was heresy.) Other rumors were less savory: allegedly, at the construction of new mills—or even just periodically on a regular basis—millers drowned drunks as offerings to the Vodianoi. Because these men were intoxicated, they appeared to have merely fallen into the water; no one suspected that they were really pushed in.
In Hungary, the miller’s magical skills include the ability to order rats about. Various Hungarian legends regarding millers feature the following details:
Millers enlist the aid of spirits they keep enclosed in small boxes
Millers fly through the air on broomsticks
Millers can magically make the mill stop and start working
Millers can recall, by magic power, details regarding any object that has ever been stolen from them.
Everyday offerings were allegedly less dramatic: millers reputedly offered the Vodianoi offerings of bread, salt, and vodka. Legends tell of millers invited to dine with the Vodianoi in his underwater palace; notably, the millers return to tell the tale. These tales may be understood as fairytale legends, fantasy stories or tall tales, or they may be understood as descriptions of shamanic soul-journeying.
According to a famous Norwegian legend, a mill burned to the ground twice, each time on Whitsun Eve. Witchcraft was suspected. The third year, a watch was set: a traveling tailor, new to the area, offers to sit watch all night. He engages in a little Christian witchcraft: casting a circle with chalk, he writes the Lord’s Prayer around it and sits within.
At midnight, a gang of cats creep in carrying a cauldron filled with pitch. They hang it up in the hearth and light a fire beneath it. Soon the pitch boils and the cats start swinging the cauldron back and forth to overturn it. The tailor, within his protective circle, orders the cats to stop. The leader of the cats tries to drag him from the circle but the tailor cuts off its paw. All the cats run off howling. In the morning, the mill is still standing but the miller’s wife is in bed nursing her amputated hand.
Mills appear in mythology: alongside the now more famous World Tree, Norse mythology also has a World Mill. Nine giantesses vigorously turn the mill wheel. (See HAG: Giants.) These millstones grind so loudly, they drown out the sound of even the most violent storms. This mill was used to create Earth out of the body of the giant Ymir.
The Kalevala is Finland’s national epic. It, too, features a magical mill created to suit a witch’s specifications. Elias Lönnrot (April 9, 1802—March 19,1884), folklorist and country physician, traveled the length and breadth of Finland—as far south as Estonia, as far north as Lapland and as far east as Russian Karelia—to search for surviving ancient sung poetry or “runot”—Finnish magical songs. (See MAGICAL ARTS: Charms, Runes.) Runot (singular runo) had remained alive in the Eastern Orthodox regions of Finland although they had been long banned and suppressed in Lutheran areas.
Like fairy tales, women were major sources for the Kalevala. Lönnrot organized the material he had gathered into a unified body of work. He selected favored variants of stories, writing connecting passages for them and creating a unified, coherent mythic saga. The first phase of the Kalevala was completed on February 28, 1835, which to this day is celebrated as Kalevala Day in Finland.
Central to the saga contained in the Kalevala is the construction of something called the Magic Sampo. The Sampo remains mysterious; its identity has never been completely established but it is generally believed to be a mill.
On one side the Sampo mills corn
On one side it mills salt
On one side it mills coins
The Sampo effectively grinds out comfort, stability, and prosperity. Louhi, Mistress of the North (see DIVINE WITCH: Louhi), orders a hero to construct the Sampo for her according to her specifications. She offers to pay for it with her daughter’s hand in marriage. The Sampo is forged and Louhi is satisfied and content. She locks the Sampo behind nine locks and roots it in Earth via magic. All seems to be going well except that her daughter, the Maid of the North, doesn’t want to be married and Louhi, respecting her wishes, won’t force her. In response, three heroes decide to steal the Sampo from Louhi.
Vainamoinen, divine shaman and wizard, lulls Louhi to sleep with magical music played on his kantele (a harp-like instrument). Ilmarinen, the divine smith who actually crafted the Sampo, smears the nine locks with butter to open them. The third hero, a lover-boy Don Juan figure, Leminkainen, attempts to pull the Sampo out of the Earth; the roots are too strong so he “borrows” Louhi’s oxen, hitches them to a plough and cuts right through the roots to steal the Sampo.
As the three comrades escape with their prize, Leminkainen can’t resist singing his victory song, which finally wakens Louhi who is enraged. A witch-war between Louhi and Vainamoinen is waged: each trying to outdo the other with magic. Eventually, Louhi transforms herself into a fantastical bird and reaches the heroes’ ship, where she settles on the mast. A little late, Vainamoinen tries to negotiate: “Oh, Mistress of the North,” he asks, “won’t you share your Sampo with us?” Louhi refuses and demands the return of her Sampo. Vainamoinen strikes her with an oar, knocking her off the mast.
Louhi falls into the sea but grabs the Sampo, taking it down with her. The Sampo falls to pieces. The corn mill and money mill are smashed up. Only the salt mill continues to grind out salt on the bottom of the sea.