or, Witches 101
Our word witch stems from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, which in turn comes from the Indo-European weige, meaning violent strength. It has the same root as the Latin vincere, to conquer. Some of our English words stemming from the same word are: victor, victim, wicked.
All Witches are properly called, “Witches”; it is not proper to refer to male witches as warlocks, wizards, or sorcerers.
Witchcraft is a religion. Another term for the Witch cult is The Old Religion, and it may well be the oldest extant religion. A precise uncovering of its origins is probably impossible, since it arose in many forms and many times and places, and Witch deities have been called by many names. Adding to the obscurity is the fact that the religion is a secret one. Its beliefs, practices, and traditions have all been transmitted orally.
Basically, the Witch cult developed from the worship of the Moon Goddess. The Moon was early thought of as feminine, since a correspondence was noted between its 28-day cycle of wax and wane and the 28-day human menstrual cycle. Hence, from very early times, the Moon was associated with fertility and worshipped as Great Mother, life-giver. The Greeks called her Artemis, the Romans, Diana; other peoples called her by scores of other names. The Moon Goddess came to be depicted as more or less human, often shown with multiple breasts or with her symbol, the crescent moon.
In time, anything crescent shaped came to symbolize the Moon Goddess. The crescent horns of animals, for example, became sacred symbols; and when a male deity developed in the religion, he had cloven hooves, goat’s legs, a tail, and horns on his head. It was this deity who formed the popular Christian image of Satan.
Witches are not Satanists. Witches primarily worship a female deity who is considered to be the Life Principle; Satanists worship a male diety thought of as the principle of evil. The Witches did and do not think their deities as evil.
You may disagree when you hear of some of their practices. Yes, Witches did engage in orgies. Yes, they did boil babies. Baby fat was an essential ingredient in some of their magical recipes. They preferred to steal unbaptized babies, another reason Europeans were eager to have their bundles from heaven baptized as soon as possible. Meanwhile, until the baby could be baptized, you would put salt around the cradle, because Witches would avoid salt - or at least, so it was thought. I do knot know whether they really did avoid it or not. Salt is used to this day in the Roman Catholic baptismal rite.
Witches were and still are organized into groups, called covens, of no more than thirteen. (This is where we get the notion of unlucky thirteen.) But on certain special days, Witches gathered into larger groups at festivals called Sabats. Two of the most important days were the Spring Equinox, when the days began to be longer than the nights and Witches gathered to usher in the Spring; and the Fall Equinox, when the days began to be shorter than the nights and Witches gathered to ensure that Winter would not last forever. The Summer Solstice (Called Lady Day or Midsummer’s Eve), the longest day of the year, and the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, were also important holy days.
In the Druidic form of Wicca, among the Celts in the British Isles and in Normandy, October 31 was called Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”, as in a female pig). People believed that on this "Day of the Dead", the deceased returned to haunt the world, to visit their families, and to take revenge upon their enemies. At night, great bonfires were lit atop every hill to frighten the spirits away. People huddled in their houses all night, keeping watch, having cleaned their houses thoroughly and made elaborate preparations to be sure the wandering spirits would find nothing offensive there. This is the origin of the tradition of spooks being out and about on Halloween.
Witch ceremonies were designed to ensure the continuing fertility of the crops, the animals, and the people. Fertility depended upon the regular rising and setting of the sun and moon, the cycles of rain and sunshine, the comings and goings of the seasons – and all of these, in turn, were controlled by Great Mother. Witch rituals, then, were designed to help the Great Mother along, to give her encouragement. This was done by means of imitative magic. Imitative magic involves acting out some hoped-for outcome, imitating it, so the deities will see what you want done and be encouraged to do it. If you stick a pin into a doll’s chest in hopes that someone the doll represents will have a heart attack, you are using imitative magic. What the Witches did to ensure fertility was to put on animal skins and horns and dance around in a circle in a sort of gallop, astride a broomstick or pole wich served as a phallic symbol. Then, when the dancing and the drugs in their brews had worked them into a frenzy, they copulated with as many people as possible.
Broomsticks, besides serving as phallic symbols in fertility rites, had at least two other functions. In the days before superhighways, Witches traveling cross-country often used them as walking sticks. Encountering small streams, hedges, fences or puddles, they also used their broomsticks as pole vaults. Thus Witches really did use broomsticks as means of transportation, in a way.
Furthermore, Witches really did believe they could fly on those broomsticks. Before you could go flying, you had to anoint both yourself and your broomstick with magic flying ointment.
Witches were expert pharmacologists. They had learned, and had kept as dark secrets, which plants could kill and which could cure, which yielded stimulants and which, depressants, and which plants yielded hallucinogens. What they were really boiling up in those infamous brews was drugs.
Magic flying ointment was a foul-smelling, pea-green concoction, the recipe for which still exists. Apparently, the active ingredient was a hallucinogen, atropine,
a powerful alkaloid found in such European plants as mandrake, henbane, and belladonna ... or deadly nightshade. The outstanding feature of atropine is that it is absorbable through the intact skin… Several modern experiments have recreated witches’ ointments based on formulae preserved in old documents. One group in Göttingen, Germany, reports falling into a twenty-four hour sleep during which they dreamed of “wild rides, frenzied dancing, and other weird adventures of the type connected with medieval orgies.” Another experimenter speaks of “the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my body … at the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying.”
Why the staff or broom that can still be seen between the legs of modern-day Halloween witches? According to Harner, it was no mere phallic symbol: [It} was … an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes, as well as providing the suggestion of riding a steed, a typical illusion of the witches’ ride to the sabat.2
In other words, those poor dears who thought they were trafficking with the devil were only trafficking with nasty old broomsticks.
In short, the Witches, besides being pharmacologists, were atropine-trippers. So there is some debate among historians as to how many of these Sabats ever really took place, and how many were only hallucinations.
Some of them, at least, really did happen and the custom of wearing costumes on Halloween stems directly from them.
There were at least two reasons for wearing costumes at Sabats. The first, already mentioned, was for imitative magic: you looked and acted as much like an animal as possible. With the rising power of the Vatican, however, costumes assumed a second purpose: protection. It is estimated that somewhere between half a million and nine million people were burned to death for Witchcraft in Europe between the 15th and 17th Centuries. So if you were a Witch, and particularly if you were royalty or nobility or otherwise well-known, it was to your advantage to come to Sabat in masquerade.
When Europe was first Christianized, it was very common for people to belong both to the Church and to the Witch cult. To believe that God had a Son Who had appeared on Earth and Who was Savior was all fine and good, but you still had to make the Sun and the Moon go around the Earth and the seasons come and go. Christianity had no provision for this necessity. Thus not only common folk, but also nobility, princes nominally Christian, and even clergy and bishops were sometimes also Witches.
Why were Witches so persecuted? They posed certain threats, some imaginary, but some very real, to “Church” and society. For one thing, Wicca was a rival religion.
Moreover, the magic of the Witches was greatly feared and in fact, sometimes did really work. All those potions, lotions and brews, for example, really could relieve the pains of childbirth or cure or kill or send you flying over the rainbow or drowning in the depths of drug-induced hell.
Witches really did know how to hypnotize you. Imagine how frightening that would appear in the Middle Ages.
Sympathetic magic, closely related to hypnotism, also undoubtedly did work. Sympathetic magic operates on a well-known principle, the power of suggestion, and sympathetic magic is still to be found in some cultures. Missionaries in Africa, anthropologists in Mexico, from time to time report the following phenomenon. A person commits some offense so heinous that his family, clan or tribe calls a special meeting, sometimes amid much ceremony, in which the offender is officially ostracized and cursed. The accursed is told he will die within X number of days. And much to the amazement of the missionaries and anthropologists, exactly that happens. So strong is the victim’s belief in the power of the curse, and so terrified does he become, that he weakens and sickens and dies, despite all efforts of modern medicine to save him. (He could hardly do anything else, for to avoid death would require a complete destruction of his worldview. Dying is usually easier, especially if a person is unaware of having any particular worldview, or of the concept that there might be alternative worldviews.) Back in the Middle Ages, then, sympathetic magic worked among believers in it, just as it does today.
Witches also practiced what we today might parapsychology: ESP, clairvoyance, precognition, and the like, more than dabbling in the occult. All such practices were (and in Orthodox Christianity, still are) considered at the very least to be flirtations with demons. (And if you doubt this, the book I discussed at length this summer should convince you, the one called The Young Man, The Gurus, and Father Paisios.)
Still other behaviors, not even intended as magic, were taken for magic, and feared. If you walked by your neighbor’s field with a frown on your face and a few days later a hailstorm ruined his crop, you might be in serious trouble. If the children in your neighborhood were being nuisances and you glared at them and shortly afterwards one of them took sick, your life might be in danger. If you were a lonely little old lady and took a cat into your house, beware! Pets, as such, were unknown in Medieval Europe. People had dogs, but they were strictly work animals; they were for hunting and herding; they were emphatically not pets. There were cats, too, but they were wild, as in much of Europe today, they still are. Cats were not domesticated in Europe until the mid-Seventeenth Century. So to have an animal in your house at all was weird and suspicious. If, on top of that, yor cat was tamed, and would actually consent to have anything to do with you, to be familiar with you, well, that was supernatural! Thus, we associate Witches with cats.
For all these reasons and more, the Old Religion was considered very dangerous, and Witches were persecuted. Unfortunately, however, the main reason they were persecuted is even uglier than that. The upshot of it is, Witches were made scapegoats for the ills of their day, in much the same way that Hitler made scapegoats of the Jews:
The principle result of the witch-hunt system … was that the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes … Not only were the Church and state exonerated, but they were made indispensable. The clergy and nobility emerged as the great protectors of mankind against an enemy who was omnipresent but difficult to detect. Here at least was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector … the witchcraft mania … dispersed and fragmented all the latent energies of protest. It demobilized the poor and the dispossessed … filled them with mutual suspicions, pitted neighbor against neighbor, heightened everyone’s insecurity, and made everyone feel helpless and dependent on the governing classes …3
Ironically, it was neither Rome nor the State that brought about the demise of Witchcraft. It was people such as Copernicus and Galileo, whose theories showed that all the dancing in the world won’t get the Sun to go around the Earth; in fact, it never had gone around the Earth.
Witchcraft never did die out completely; there are some families in which it has been handed down through all these centuries. Recently, Witchcraft has enjoyed a modern revival. Initially, the stimulus was Dr. Margaret Murray, an anthropologist who in the 1920’s wrote a book called The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and another entitled, God of the Witches. These two books, almost singlehandedly, resurrected Witchcraft from almost total obscurity. (Dr. Murray, just before her death, came out of the broomcloset and professed Witchcraft herself.)
More recently, the Witchcraft revival has largely been a function of feminism, of women seeking a woman-centered religion. The modern Witch cult attracts mainly the young, the anti-establishment people, folks disillusioned with their denominations, rebels, romantics, and feminists.
Modern Witches assemble in homes, apartments or dormitories, in groups of 13 or less, ideally with an equal number of males and females. They don’t dress up; they strip down. The only item they wear within the magic circle is a necklace, preferably of silver, the color of the Goddess. Clothes, they say, prevent their magical powers from flowing freely. They sit in their magic circles and practice their old magic and seek unity with their Goddess. They still chant spells and charms, still practice what we would call parapsychology, still bind one another with strict oaths of secrecy. And Halloween is still their High Holy Day.
1 What Were Those Witches Really Brewing? Is the title of an article by Andrea Dworkin that appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1974. It’s a feminist diatribe, but I have always liked the title and wish to give her the credit for it.
2 Harris, Marvin, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 219-220.
3 Ibid, p. 236 ff.