Newfoundland unexplained -
Last week I drove down to Trepassey to give a talk on intangible cultural heritage to the Southern Avalon Development Association. While driving towards that part of the Avalon Peninsula, I thought of a story I had collected several years back from the community of St. Vincent's.
Originally, when I went hunting for a good tale from that neck of the woods, I was put in touch with Mrs. Bride Martin, who at that point was the chairwoman of the St. Vincent's Fishermen's Museum.
With her help, it soon became apparent that if St. Vincent's is rich in history, it is as equally rich in stories of the unexplained. There are tales about the odd ghost or two, strange events and some very mysterious happenings.
One such story involves a new horse and a strange, unseen trickster.
The fairies, or so it seems, have a long association with horses. Fairies were often accused of stealing horses, which they rode hard all night before returning to the barns. In England, the malicious sprites known as goblins were regarded as pranksters, and were known specifically to tangle horses' manes.
Years ago in St. Vincent's, a local horse lover brought home a new horse. The beast was made comfortable, watered, fed, combed and made ready for the night. That first night in the barn, the new horse kicked from dusk till dawn, making terrible noises.
A nearby resident was reportedly very unhappy about the situation, as the horse kept her awake all night. In the morning, she complained to the owner.
The owner hurried to the barn and, much to his surprise, discovered that the horse's tail had been plaited or braided during the night. Oddly, the barn door had been locked tight.
The young man was puzzled, and became even more puzzled in the days that followed. This activity continued every night, and each morning when he would unlock the door, the horse's tail would be perfectly plaited.
The man checked to make sure that entry into the barn was impossible. All entrances were sealed, the barn was locked tight and the only key kept safe.
The precautions had no effect. For the next four or five days, the same thing happened. The owner was at a loss regarding the cause or a potential cure. And since all physical barriers had failed, the man decided it was time for spiritual intervention.
He related his story to a neighbour, who in turn told his mother-in-law, a sincere church-goer. The woman took a vial of holy water and poured it over the barn door.
According to Katharine Brigg's excellent "Encyclopedia of Fairies," the sprinkling of holy water is one of the chief protections against fairy thefts, spells and ill-wishing.
The Irish settlers to Newfoundland probably brought some of the traditions associated with Samhain, the old Irish Halloween festival.
One of these traditions may have influenced the wise mother-in-law, for on the night of Samhain, holy water was sprinkled on animals to protect them against evil forces.
Apparently, it worked. The horse's tail was never braided again.
Interestingly, it is not an overly common story in Newfoundland.
But a few years ago, while telling stories in Cape Breton, N.S., several people came up to me after the storytelling sessions to share their own tales. Several different people told me Cape Breton versions of the braided mane story.
I am at a loss to explain why it is apparently very well known there, but not as well-known in Newfoundland. Perhaps the Newfoundland fairies had other things to do, instead of playing with horses' manes.
Dale Jarvis can be reached at email@example.com