Witches & Witchcraft
The witch is a medieval fear which has become a modern archetype. The cauldron, the broomstick, the familiar and half a dozen other fantasy creations owe their origins in popular mythology to the witch. This article focuses on the witch and witchcraft itself in a traditional setting and is not intended as in any way a reflection on the post-modern techno-paganism of Wicca. In fact, while “modern witch” propaganda would have the general public believe that Wicca is the latest extension of an ancient religion which predates Christianity, the truth is that Wicca as we understand it today probably dates from around the time of the Second World War and certainly has its roots somewhere in the twentieth century AD. Margaret Murray is the source most often quoted in support of Wicca as pre-Christian paganism, despite the fact that her theories have been broadly discredited and are now dismissed by most serious scholars. The continuing proliferation of this belief is due in large part to the fact that Wicca is an unstructured belief system where, unlike Judaism, Christianity and the Muslim faith, there is no core truth maintained in a scripture.
Those interested in the practicalities of modern witchcraft should find an abundance of information online, and might wish to consult A Witches’ Bible 1 by Janet and Stewart Farrar as this book, which endorses Margaret Murray’s theories, is probably the most comprehensive book available in the area of belief and ritual. The writer of this article is an atheist and has no interest in encouraging the practice of witchcraft, however as Wicca is an acknowledged religion it is not his place to discourage its safe and conscientious practice.
What is a Witch?
Authorities differ on the origins of the word “witch”: Edain McCoy 2 believes the word comes from either the Old English word “wyk” meaning “to bend or shape” or the Anglo-Saxon “wit” meaning “to have knowledge or wisdom”; while David Pickering 3 believes it to originate from the Old English word “wiccian” meaning “to practise sorcery”. It isn’t necessary for this discussion to decide which, if any, of these are accurate, since all descriptions could reasonably be applied to a witch.
In defining what a witch is, Pickering differentiates between a witch and a sorcerer. Sorcery, he says, is “common to all foklore and to virtually all eras… but does not necessarily involve any deeper specifically anti-Christian purpose”. He goes on to say that “a witch, however, necessarily renounces the rites of baptism in order to make a pact with the devil, with the aim of enjoying inherent magical gifts and gaining direct access to occult power…. In signing such a pact a witch lines up against everything that the Christian Church represents and is presumed to intend the repudiation and destruction of God Himself”.
The archetypal witch is someone – note that witches were not exclusively female – who obtained their powers through demonic covenants. It is traditionally believed that the witch gave her soul to the Devil in exchange for such powers, however in most documented cases of witchcraft, bargains and sacrifices were made with regard to some lesser demon or intermediary.
But this archetype was long in formation. In the tenth century AD the Catholic Church was entirely unconcerned with sorcery, the Church regarded sorcery as being the delusions of individuals; the very rational Catholic Church considered claims of people flying through the air as being harmless hallucinations to be discouraged but not punished. Wise women – who would later often be decried as witches – at this time were local doctors and vets more than they were sorcerers, while “the common populace relied upon a wide array of charms, amulets and other superstitious beliefs as well as upon the power of prayer both to protect themselves and, on occasion, to bring harm to an enemy” 3. It was not until 1320 that witchcraft was officially declared to be heresy, which released the Inquisition to destroy all those who practiced witchcraft. Still, witchcraft did not begin to be demonised into the wicked practise we perceive it to be today until the mid fifteenth century when witch trials began and hundreds were tortured into giving confessions and put to death on the most spurious of evidence. It is worth noting that very few of the persecutors actually believed in witchcraft and that those charged with the crimes were almost always scapegoats for local mishaps – the failure of a crop, the death of a child – perhaps through what we now know as cot death or sudden infant death – or any of a hundred reasons might lead to a woman being burned or hanged as a witch. Witch trials did not subside in Europe until the late eighteenth century, with the last known trial being in Switzerland in 1793, while in Britain the law against witchcraft was repealed in 1736.
The Witches’ Coven
The coven, supposedly a gathering of thirteen witches or twelve and a demonic sponsor, is probably one of the most famous institutions of mythology. Covens of three are also commonly associated with witches; most notably in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and in more recent fiction such as the Jack Nicholson film The Witches of Eastwick and the books of humorist Terry Pratchett. The former number seems to derive from the number of apostles plus Jesus Christ, while the latter refers to the so-called Rule of Three which appears many times in magical myth and in this case the three witches fulfil the roles of maid, mother and crone, which are said to be the three forms of the mother goddess. The number of members in a coven in modern times appears to be quite variable; with several hundred members being able to claim membership of particularly large covens.
There is an issue of debate as to whether traditionally any such cabalistic activities ever transpired. Certainly declarations were made, usually under torture, that covens did exist and members of the covens were named in many cases, but it is entirely possible that these were names supplied by the torturer to the accused witch rather than the other way around. The lack of any real faith or internal consistency in the traditional practice of witchcraft suggests that it was actually much more a solitary practise and that many of the Sabbat activities were imposed upon witchcraft by its enemies and were drawn from earlier pagan belief systems.
While covens in general are likely to be a fictional creation of both witchfinders and literature, there are some specific instances of real cabals of witches or sorcerers. Typically, these were not orgiastic rites, but meetings of intelligent people, usually men, who viewed sorcery and alchemy as just a different kind of science. These types of organisations predate witchcraft in the traditional sense and persisted well into Victorian times when interests in mysticism and hypnosis were again resurgent in England.
Paraphernalia of Witchcraft
As previously stated many artefacts are associated with the practice of witchcraft and the archetypal witch. This section deals with the origins of these items and their role in the witchcraft mythos.
Broomstick: During certain rituals witches would often straddle lengths of wood and this is the likely origin of the broomstick myth. While some witches claimed to be able to fly they were actually more likely to employ animals such as cats or goats, or tools such as spades, or even to fly under their own power, than to use a broomstick. Few witches ever claimed to be able to fly, and there are no reputable claims of anyone having seen a witch fly. The reason for the prevalence of the broom is probably because of the large number of brooms in existence; every home would have had one, and more notably, everyone accused of being a witch would have one. For an example of an AD&D fantasy broomstick, see the Grand Broom of Flying.
Cauldron: The cauldron is a truly pagan item, symbolising rebirth it was an icon of the Celtic age of northern Europe and may have featured in several druidic rituals. Druids did not possess the technology of writing and so we have only the cauldrons themselves as proof, but many scholars believe that the cauldrons could have been used in rituals of human sacrifice. In witchcraft rites it was traditional to have a feast at the Sabbats. Cauldrons, being the only suitable cooking utensil available to feed a number of people, became associated with the rituals. Discovery of druidic cauldrons across Europe led many to incorrectly connect them to witchcraft. The belief that witches used cauldrons to brew poisons or magical potions is a mythical affectation and has nothing to do with their historical use. For an example of an AD&D fantasy cauldron, see the World Cauldron.
Familiar: A witches familiar was supposedly an imp or minor devil animal form which would perform spells or other tasks at the bidding of the witch. Familiars appear to be a British invention though it has been said that “the idea was probably descended from primitive animal worship of the kind once common throughout Europe” 3. It is certainly true that the hare was a commonly worshipped Celtic symbol – which has since been incarnated as the Easter Bunny – and it is not inconceivable that other animals generated similar cults. It is hard to say how much familiars featured in real witchcraft since some witches, especially those in Britain and later in America, often admitted to having familiars, while on continental Europe such things were very rare. In judging it is worth pointing out that, as Pickering states, many of the animals accused of being familiars were exactly the kind of animals that a lonely old woman would keep as company.
Hand of Glory: One of the few items whose real and imagined significance appears to be identical. The hand of glory was the severed hand of a hanged man cut from him while still on the gibbet. The hand is then prepared in a special way – which is not described on this website, but which can be found in David Pickering’s Dictionary and in a variety of other sources. Once prepared the hand is used as a candle itself with the fingers being lit, or as a stand for a candle, which is supposed to enspell people into unbreakable sleep as long as the candle burns. In this use it was said to be a favoured device also employed by thieves. Additionally, witches were said to keep a hand to increase the effectiveness of brewed poisons. Go here for an example of an AD&D fantasy Hand of Glory.
Hat: The pointed black hat which every witch is now portrayed as wearing has no historical backing. Witches actually went to Sabbats naked. The hats were those worn by the Puritan women of America and England during the seventeenth century at the height of the witch trials. The hats were probably solidified in the public perception of witches with the Salem witch trials, which were actually economically motivated and are not believed to have found a single genuine practitioner of witchcraft.
Witch Ball: This item, taking the form of a small mirrored sphere, was traditionally nothing more than an ornament. It was said that witches could use these items to scry or divine distant places, people, or future events and also to deflect the power of the evil eye. This item is likely to have inspired, or been inspired by, the crystal ball which is a much more famous item of very similar use often employed by fortune tellers and conventional sorcerers. Go here for an example of an AD&D Witch Ball.
Witch Bottle: Probably the least known of the implements of witchcraft was the witch bottle and as such it seems to be an item of genuine superstition and witchcraft practice rather than a mythic affectation. Typically these were bottles made from either glass or iron and were used to combat curses placed on a person. To use the bottle you had to fill it with the afflicted person’s urine as well as horseshoe nails, hail nail clippings and blood and heat the bottle on the fire. If the witch bottle’s powers were applied successfully then the curse would be reflected back from the victim to the caster. Originally use of the witch bottle was a complicated affair, but towards the end of its use the ritual was vastly simplified. Go here for an example of an AD&D fantasy Witch Bottle.
1: Farrar, J & Farrar, S (1996) A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook, Phoenix Publishing (Custer, Washington, USA)
2: McCoy, E (1997) Making Magick, Llewellyn Publications (St. Paul, Minnesota, USA)
3: Pickering, D (1998) Dictionary of Witchcraft, Cassel (London, Great Britain)