Wade and the Witch

Wednesday, December 12th 2018

Noteworthy Information Appertaining to Current & Recent Happenings
Supernatural Britain Regular Feature

f one is of an adventurous inclination there is a highway that leads from York onto the moors that will eventually take a particularly intrepid traveller to the east coast and the gothic delights of Whitby. However, assuming that the indomitable soul that has embarked upon this most audacious of journeys has done so from a desire to fully appreciate the beauty and mystery of all that the surrounding country has to offer, that person would be nothing short of a fool if a temporary suspension at the natural formation that is know as the Hole of Horcum was not duly observed.
    A most singular moorland hollow in the shape of a bowl it is aptly referred to locally as the Devil’s Punchbowl and it’s creation is so firmly routed in archaic mythology that any attempt to define it’s genesis unequivocally would be futile. That said, let us be stout of heart and at the very least make an attempt, for it is a journey into antiquity every bit as intriguing as the beckoning pilgrimage of the punchbowl itself.
    We will begin with the tale that actually seems the least distinguished, despite it being responsible for the bowl’s informal appellation. It concerns a pact made between the devil and a witch that, rather recklessly on the part of the old crone in question, concluded with the abdication of her soul. Upon meeting the devil on the moor as arranged, the hasty nature and damning consequence of her actions brought about a not altogether surprising change of heart, and the witch decided that a far superior alternative to this arrangement would be to bugger off. Thus, with an alacrity betraying her supernatural power, she flew off across the moor along The Old Wife’s Way, leaving a rather vexed Satan feeling more than a little cheated. In response, the Devil furiously scooped up handfuls of earth to throw at the fleeing witch but alas, his aim was inadequate and the witch, no doubt cackling, made her escape. It is alleged that the Devil’s finger marks are still visible where he tore the earth from the moor and left the bowl, and that his inaccurately aimed projectiles formed what is now known as Blakey Topping.[1]
    Moving on to what appears to be the most celebrated explanation for this most esteemed of holes is the tale of Wade the giant and his wife Bel. Our large in stature gentleman and his consort lived in the castle at Mulgrave and, as is occasionally the case with even the most harmonious of marriages, found himself in what may have been, although documented evidence is sadly lacking in this particular detail, an entirely justified disagreement with his spouse. Upon the realisation that his position in whatever dispute was ensuing was failing to be acknowledged, it apparently became clear that his only recourse was to hurl a gigantic lump of earth at the hapless woman.
    His duly scooped up fistful of soil created the void that is now the Hole of Horcum. Bel, perhaps as a result of being on the receiving end of earthen projectiles on previous occasions, undertook the most sensible of precautions and ducked, the large lump of earth landing nearby and forming what is now Blakey Ridge.[2]
    This rather eccentric couple are also said to be responsible for the construction of Wade’s Causeway, also known as ‘Old Wife’s Trod’, ‘Auld Wife’s Trod’, ‘Skivik’, ‘Gateskichewic’ and ‘Wade’s Wife’s Causey’, an ancient trackway of some 6,000 years in age whose actual builders are unknown. [3]
    The legend states that Wade, clearly in a more amenable frame of mind, built the causeway so as to allow easy ingress for his wife’s regular excursion to the market or pasture with her cow. Interestingly, the exact identity of Wade’s companion appears to be little understood. Despite the fact that contemporary tellings of the legend referring to an equally large woman (she carried the stones to build the causeway in her apron) known as Wade’s wife would lead to a not unreasonable assumption that they were an association resulting from wedlock, there is some debate within folklorist circles as to whether this was indeed the case. [4]
    Antiquarian Hilda Ellis Davidson is of the impression that Bel is in fact the cow, and that no woman exists as part of the legend, [5]
    To add to the confusion, the etymology of the word ‘wife’ can be traced to the middle English word ‘Wif’, which I am reliably informed simply means ‘woman’ and therefore, keeping the older names for the track firmly placed within our intellectual frame of reference, ‘Old Wife’ is actually nothing more than ‘Old Woman’. This opens up speculation as to who exactly this woman is (assuming, if you’ll pardon the potential deformation, she’s not a cow). It has been suggested that Bel is a corruption of the Norse mythological character of Beyla, whose function was that of a milkmaid. [6] and given that Wade has a vast amount of mythological backstory rooted in Norse mythology this is perhaps an understandable approach. [7]
    Alternatively, it has also been suggested that Bel is of an equally high stature, not just in physical proportions but also in theological context. An analogy has been made that promotes the concept of Bel as the Gaelic goddess figure Cailleach, who is a multiple aspect deity comprising such diverse elements as hag, mother, warrior and fertility. [8] Given the somewhat exceptional non de plume of this character it is noteworthy that she is not unknown in the Yorkshire regions and that at Rudston, where resides Britain’s tallest standing stone, the local mythology advocates the notion of Cailleach being representative of winter, and that with her death on the first day of February each year she makes way for Bride, the youthful aspect of the deity that represents spring. [9]
  1. It is worth noting that a remarkably similar tale is attributed to an equally similar landscape feature in Hindhead in the southern county of Surrey. This is also known as the Devil’s Punchbowl.
  2. Another noteworthy destination for the fearless traveller is the Red Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge, a 16th Century tavern located at the highest point of the North York Moors National Park.
  3. In addition to the various facets of the York Moor, including Freebrough Hill, he is credited (with due assistance from Bel) with the construction of both Mulgrave Castle and Pickering Castle. There is also a well nearby known as Old Wife’s Well situated 200 metres from the large prehistoric site known as Mauley Cross.
  4. The earliest published source is from 1779.
  5. This apparently reflects an earlier British tradition of the bountiful cow, who would generously proffer milk to all who came forward.
  6. A further confusion is the suggestion by some authorities that this derives etymologically from baula, meaning cow, creating a somewhat circular proposition.
  7. https://teessidepsychogeography.wordpress.com
  8. Aside from his apparent industrious building capacity and his giant stature, Wade is the English translation of a prominent Norse deity (also known as Vadi (Norse) and Wate (Middle High German)). The oldest know reference is in the Old English poem ‘Widsith’. The Þiðrekssaga states that his father was Vilkinus and his mother was a mermaid. Other sources refer to his mother as being a sub-aquatic dwelling giant by the name of Walchilt.
  9. Bride is also known as Brigit, Brigid or Brighid, meaning exalted one. She is the daughter of the Dagda and is one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, an ancient supernatural race that populated Ireland. It is our intention to give an account of these fascinating people in a future edition.

Woodcut from Ulrich Molitor’s Von den Unholden und Hexen
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