The following is an ongoing research project to understand some of the lore, legends and fallacies about ancient witches. The goal, to uncover ancient customs and reveal a character called a ‘wys woman’ or ‘wise woman’. Some of the images contained in this section are of a medieval or Gothic nature. These images represent portrayal of witches in popular culture during the middle ages and renaissance periods. Much of what we know about witches today is based on superstitions conceived in Neo-classical art and Gothic literature. You can follow along; there’s lots of links and references.
Who are witches? People have different reactions to the word ‘witch’, “Spooky. Old hags. Taboo. Superstitions. Fear.” People don’t declare themselves witches often. The term gets varied reactions, some unfriendly. You can see more of these images at The Tate Gallery.
What would a witch be like, one from long ago, in an ancient era? How would she talk? Was she political? Did witches actually brew herbs in a forest lair?
Origins of Witchcraft
What does the word “witch” mean? Witches are surrounded by such obscurity and mystery that we have to trace the origins of the word witch to understand what role this person played in society. If you want to get a reaction, ask someone what they think a witch is. People disagree on a proper definition — even “witches” themselves. It depends on our interpretation of the term.
A linguistics reference suggests: The root of “witch” in early language was wy-, “to bend, twist” having to do with trees: wyg-, meaning “elm” and wyt, meaning “willow” or artifacts woven or twisted out of them and the very concepts of weaving, twisting, binding and bending. These words began to evolve. Their pronunciations were changed several times, the connotations of bending and weaving, etc., were maintained and elaborated.
When we think of the word, “witch” consider the Anglo-Saxon wic-, meaning “to turn, twist or bend” later growing into “weak,” “wicker” and “wicked,” all based on bendable or twisted. In Old English, wicca/wicce became a specifically magical term. In Old Norse, the root vik- became “to turn aside, conjure away, exorcise.” Germanic wik- became wikken, “to foretell” and Dutch wicker, “a soothsayer.” The link between all of these roots is wys-, meaning “wise.” The article surmises that original meaning of wicce/wicca was “wise one.” read the article
Researchers discover the grave of a priestess, a seer, who used various rituals, some with willow, to advise Germanic tribes around 100 BC. Evidence suggests she may have performed her role when Rome’s Caesar conducted his northern conquests. The personal effects found in the grave belonged to a woman with religious and political importance. She was found entombed on the Danish coast with Roman valuables and her own collection of antiques, such as a stone age axe. These antiques are considered religious artifacts. Researchers say her collection indicates a woman of “high status with a magical function.” Read more about bog burials.
Wikipedia also offers insight into the history of the Völva (also Vala, Spákona) a shamanic seeress in Norse paganism, and a key character in Norse mythology. The “wand carrier” or “carrier of a magic staff” has been excavated in various finds. The archeologists identified artifacts as shamanic in origin and dating from an earlier epoch. The were likely passed ceremoniously from one priestess to another. Völvas belonged to the highest level of society. Read more about Norse Priestesses.
Allen Greenfield writes in his History of Witchcraft: In a sense witchcraft or “wisecraft” has, indeed, been with us from the dawn of time, not as a coherent religion or set of practices and beliefs, but as the folk magic and medicine that stretches back to early, possibly Paleolithic tribal shamans. read the article
Susan Seddon Boulet, 1986, Shaman, Visit turningpointgallery.com to find out more.
Robert Sewel describes The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Alice Murray, 1863 – 1963. “Ms. Murray was an archeologist and a specialist in Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptology. An ardent feminist, she claimed that the persecution of witches was an attack of the patriarchal establishment on ancient, woman-centered religions. Ms. Murray claimed these ancient religions were rooted in European Pagan fertility cults that extended back to the Palaeolithic era. This caused a deal of controversy among her peers and her opinions were ridiculed.” read the article
Our perception of witches: Early biblical accounts of witches are rare, but severe, advising the faithful “not to suffer a witch to live…” Conjuring spirits was not encouraged, in fact, prohibited. Saul visited the witch of Endor to seek advice and met with a bitter end. Theological contempt laid the groundwork for political and religious killings throughout the centuries, and in many cases, state endorsed.
The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and Black Death, the bubonic plague swept Europe and disabled medieval feudal systems. Growing dissatisfaction with the Church, the Great Schism (1378-1417), led to a reformation of spiritualism in pagan and heretical thought. Fifteenth-century popes, in an attempt to stem this trend towards mysticism diverted attention and criticism of their opulent lifestyles. The Age of Exploration, brought fears of the beyond, including ideas of “hirsute wild men, women and their families,” monstrous races, and bizarre creatures of undiscovered lands beyond Western Europe. Druidic, Roman, Celtic and Middle Eastern philosophies had also left past legends and traditions, each contributing to a mosaic for stories and tales. “Along with such ideas blossomed the imagined existence of witches, individuals who used sorcery (the magical manipulation of nature’s forces) to achieve their desired goals.” The struggles and fears of the day soon became reflected in the arts. Our influences on witchcraft include the fears of the past. Read the entire article, Sacred and Profane: Christian Imagery and Witchcraft in Prints by Hans Baldung Grien by Stan Parchin.
In an essay by Diane Russell, Eva/Ave: Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990) she writes “The persecution of witches began in the fifteenth century. Before that, sorcerers, as they would be more properly called, might be friendly or unfriendly, but they were not feared and hated. Even at the end of the sixteenth century there were friendly sorcerers in the Friuli region of Italy who were thought to fight bad sorcerers and thereby protect the fecundity of the soil. Yet these people themselves were eventually convinced by authorities that they were in fact witches.” read the article
The Maenads: Art and literature also shaped our perception of witches. Above, Baldung Grien’s woodcut typifies a belief of what witches “were up to” – scheming, conspiring and conjuring spirits and curses. Greek classical literature may not have helped the cause of the forest dwelling “wise woman”, more so if her activities were considered peculiar. The Iliad told of the Maenads. In Greek mythology, Maenads were fanatical female worshippers of Dionysus, the Greek god of mystery, wine, and intoxication, comparable to the Roman god Bacchus. Maenads means “raving ones”. They were known as wild, insane women who could not be reasoned with. Legend tells that the mysteries of Dionysus inspired the women to ecstatic frenzy; they committed acts of violence, bloodletting, sexual deviation, self-intoxication, and mutilation. They were usually pictured as crowned with vine leaves, clothed in fawnskins and carrying the thyrsus, and dancing with wild abandon. The Maenads celebrated a rite of spring called Anthesteria, one of the four Athenian festivals in honour of Dionysus (Dionysia), was held annually for three days, the eleventh to thirteenth of the month of Anthesterion (the February/March full moon). Anthesteria caused hysteria among participants.
The Witches Hammer – Malleus Maleficarum: At this point in European history, an infamous “how-to manual”, or “witch hunting guide” was written for the identification and dispatching of witches: 1484 – The Malleus Maleficarum (translated to The Witch’s Hammer) was written and introduced to the Catholic Church. Also in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issues the SUMMIS DESIDERANTES AFFECTIBUS, which ordered the elimination of the craft. Deborah M. DeCloedt Pinçon describes how the Malleus Maleficarum came about in 1485 Innsbruck. A woman named Helena Scheuberin was accused of witchcraft. She was the wife of a wealthy local merchant and “not afraid to speak her mind”. Helena spat on the ground when she saw the new inquisitor in town, and didn’t go to his sermons. She also discouraged others from attending the inquisitor’s sermons and accused the inquisitor himself of being evil and in league with the devil. She was accused of witchcraft and the subsequent questioning focused on her sexuality. Helena hired an attorney who won the case for her on the grounds that no standard definitions existed that uniformly described what a witch was. The inquisitor in this case was a man named Henry Institoris [also known as Kramer] coauthored the Malleus Maleficarium along with Sprenger in response to this trial’s outcome. read the article
Medieval woodcut depicting demons and witches. medieval woodcuts
Depiction of witch trial by clergy: note the similarity to the woodcut above. 16th century witch trials
The propaganda battle against witches was on. With witches classified as evil and a scourge, religious and state leaders had no empathy for heretics who sought to abide by the laws of nature, or who disagreed politically. Any true “wise woman” would have taken to the hills and stayed out of the limelight. Another mystery is the number of innocent people who were executed for suspected crimes of witchery. Many texts allude that executions were political, though art of the time period documents a level of fear and hysteria. Stories of the Salem Witch Trials are still told to describe mass hysteria. Greenfield writes: It comes from yet another priest, Father Cornelius Loos, who observed, in 1592 that “Wretched creatures are compelled by the severity of the torture to confess things they have never done, and so by cruel butchery innocent lives are taken…” read the article
In research by Deborah M. DeCloedt Pinçon on sott.net, the author writes, “The late middle ages and early modern period were very rough, and outside of elite circles, interpersonal conflict was rampant and expressed through gossip, insults, scolding, threats, curses, legal action, physical assault, and threats of ritual magic. Jealousy and economic inequalities were often the cause of conflict, and women didn’t have recourse to courts like men did. Physical assault was common; one woman would take by force that which was owed her, particularly when she didn’t have a man to help arbitrate conflicts in court. Urban women were likely to have expressed their sexuality more openly in the early modern period, and this communicative behavior certainly would have met with censure from men within the church and the community. An ideal woman in a patriarchal society would keep her voice “soft, gentle, and low”, and would behave in a chaste manner. read the article
Additional information on the process of witch trials can be found at Court depositions in 16th century English witch trials “The chronology of the relevant legislation reflected the growth of concern over witchcraft from the 1540s onwards. The main relevant Acts were passed in 1542 (repealed in 1547) 1563 and 1604. They prescribed a range of punishments, of which death by hanging was the most extreme. The last execution in England (Alice Molland) took place in 1684 and the last trial (Jane Wenham) in 1712.” read the article
Economics and the Environment: In an article be J.P.Sommerville it is surmised that economics was a factor. Many accusations of witchcraft began with beggars cursing those who had refused to assist them. Widows tended to be dependent on the local community for support, and the few who expressed their resentment against the stingy were often the object of witchcraft accusations: “In the case of the Lancashire witches (1613) Elizabeth Demdike, the main witch, said she had first met and sold her soul to the devil when she was coming home from begging, and admitted that later she and another woman were at the house of Richard Baldwyn, who said “get out of my ground whores and witches, I will burn the one of you and hang the other.” She then asked the spirit to take revenge “on him or his.” She cursed Baldwyn all around the village and so was the obvious suspect when his young daughter suddenly fell sick and died. In 1674 Anne Foster had tried to buy mutton at below the market price and went away “murmuring and grumbling,” and threatening the farmer when he refused; a few days later when thirty of his sheep were found suddenly and inexplicably dead, his neighbors said it was witchcraft.” read the article
Russell writes: In a study of witches in Gascony, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladune pointed to four principal “crimes” for which witches were held to be responsible. They could take away the strength of young men and sometimes went on to kill them. They could make men impotent, and hence they struck at the ability of humans to reproduce. They could destroy the crops of farmers by conjuring up such harmful natural phenomena as hailstorms. Finally, they were thought to increase their own material wealth by striking at the holdings of others. Witches were thought able to fly through the air in performing their evil acts; to achieve flight, they used unguents on themselves and their poles, ointments supposedly made of infants they had killed. read the article
Deborah M. DeCloedt Pinçon agrees. Empirical data was researched and supported a correlation between extreme cold and the number and frequency of witchcraft trials between 1520 and 1770 a.d., This may explain why witches were blamed for magically controlling the weather. She suggests that a particularly cold period in 1560 a.d. coincided with increased numbers of trials after nearly 70 years of relative inactivity . read the article
Avoiding accusation, an actual wys would have likely been discreet and practiced their faith at a distance, in a cloistered environment, attending to their ways privately. A wys was also apt to be in tune with their natural and social surroundings, intuitively adjusting their activities as led. Consider that a wys would have maintained friends, tended and cared for infirm, consulted on the spiritual growth of their community. Townsfolk may have been quite guarded over the abilities of their intuitive neighbor.
Influential Literature on Our Modern Perceptions: William Shakespeare, Thomas Middleton, and Goth
Two English playwrites have between them, shaped modern perceptions of witches. The cauldron stirring, cackling hag—this was the accepted romanticized impression of a witch in the early 17th century. Shakespeare gave voice to perhaps the three most famous witches in Macbeth. The dialog, mannerism, and atrocious nature of ‘the three sisters’ were paralleled in another work, The Witch, by Thomas Middleton. These constructed characters acted as prophetesses and harbingers of doom, fulfilling a plot device in the works and setting a tone for the stories. Enter the horror genre. Later, in the eighteen century, the supernatural, the occult, and sublime artists, such as Fuseli, romanticized the characters of Shakespeare and Middleton. To this day, the Shakespearean image stands as the personified witch. read Macbeth
Thomas Middleton wrote his play, The Witch, in 1613. The cackling crone Hecate boils concoctions in her cauldron, communicates with her pets and subordinate witches, consults familiar spirits, casts spells and flies! Middleton (who probably conspired with Shakespeare in his works) definitively portrayed the stereotypical witch that endures in modern culture.
Horror, mystique, superstition, and obscurity combined to inspire 19th century artists and writers. Along came a fascination with things sublime, an evil antagonist pitched against a romantic backdrop. Gothic portrayals of witches became popular. The allure of taboo, risky entertainment, filled salons and parlors full of readers vicariously enjoying the feminine beauty in desperate, supernatural story lines such as Bram Stoker’s, Dracula. Gothic style developed to test the extremes of human perception at the time. The needle spires of cathedrals; dark brooding paintings of death and the afterlife; contrasting elements of light and shadow in literature. As state and religious persecution waned, writers and dramatists exploited superstitions.
Witches in Popular Media: In modern western cultures, witchcraft has, in some ways, been commercialized. Perceptions are influenced by popular media images and these in turn by the folklore and legends paraphrased in scripts and books. Universal portrayals of witches still propagate the pagan, black hat, black cat, cauldron brewing stereotype. Hallowe’en has developed into a yearly merchandising event and the classic broom riding hag or crone is still a staple among children in costume and in images. Many young children can recall the fear of seeing Disney’s poison apple wielding stepmother in the retelling of Snow White. Warner Brothers’ Witch Hazel was a cartoon nemesis of Bugs Bunny. Elizabeth Montgomery became the “witch next door” with modern age concerns in the ’60s sit-com Bewitched. Periodically witches come back into vogue in media, including: Blair Witch Project, the television series Charmed, The Witches of Eastwick, and in popular music.
Wicca and Pagan: To understand the many diverse orders of Wicca, neo-pagan and earth-linked religions that have evolved today, it’s fair to consider that in many geographic regions, various forms of natural spiritualism exist. Seers, witches, and shamans continue to interpret and intuit phenomena and occurrences. Many ancient rites and ceremonies are still practiced and a renewed connection with the natural environment is sought by many, urban and rural. For this informal research project, an overview of some predominant sects is included to understand motivators behind an ancient wys. Many good websites are easily found that contain a wealth of data and searching key terms will reveal much more information. Generally, much of what we understand of modern witchcraft evolved from Celtic-European tradition through druids, soothsayers and mystics. There were rituals, practices and codes of conduct (rede). Crops were predicted, seasons analyzed and nature communed with. The Wicca studied what was in their natural environments: herbs, stars, moon orbits, animals. Spiritual hierarchies exist in Wicca and the communication with spirits is practiced.
An Alternative Religion article describes Drawing Down the Moon from The Book of Shadows a popular Wiccan reference of rituals. The Goddess of the Moon is invoked into a Priestess, who becomes the embodiement of the Goddess. The name could be derived from Thessalonian witchcraft, but resembles portions of the Thelemic “Gnostic Mass,” read the article
By seed and root, by stem and bud, by leaf and flower and fruit, by Life and Love (Garnerian DDTM ritual)
not unto Thee may we attain, unless Thine image be Love. Therefore by seed and root and stem and bud and leaf and flower and fruit do we invoke Thee. (From Crowley’s Gnostic Mass)
The Gnostic Mass, though somewhat modern, is intriguing. This suggests an ancient knowing heritage. A path worth considering. Wicca and pagans are as diverse as the winds. Most claim to follow the true craft, but their styles vary. Witches seem to occupy two distinct realms: religious and pagan. Religious witches appear to follow biblical taboos to suit an alternative deity or group of gods. Pagans appearing more as nature interpreters and healers. Both sects using ceremony, charms and spells.
Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches was published in 1899 by Charles Godfrey Leland. A writer and folklore researcher, Leland purports of an ancient sect of witchcraft called Stregheria. Within the text, Leland offers descriptions of ceremony and rituals in the traditions of this remote Tuscan practice. Read more at absoluteastronomy.com
Many sects of neo-pagan witchcraft have varied lore and traditions. Even the lexicon and translations of obscure text can have different emphasis for different practices and requires a variety of sources and cross references. Another read on the tradition of Stregheria, and specifically Aradia, can be found here at stregheria.com
Magick-whispers.com has a fairly detailed list and descriptions. They divide European witchcraft into three main categories: Classical, Gothic, Neo-Pagan Among the oldest sects are: Ceremonial, which encompasses traditional rituals with a basis of Egyptian magic outlined in ancient Cabalistic writings. Again, terminology is key: is the ancient tradion Strega or Stregheria? As an ancient tradition of Italian witches which focus on moon lore, nature, symbolism, spirits, spells and natural objects, Strega has been popularized in recent history. Teutonic, recognized as Nordic and one of the earliest known forms of the craft. Celtic, also known as druidism focuses on nature, ancient ones, healing and the magical qualities of plants, animals, stone, water, fire and earth. read the article
Ecauldron.com lists the following: Asatru; Church of All Worlds; Discordianism; Druidry; Feri; Gwyddons; Hellenismos (Greece); Kemeticism (Egypt); Religio Romana (Roman); Religious Witchcraft; Senistrognata; Thelema; Wicca Groups; and even more sub-groups: Candomble, Santeria, Satanism, Voudon… Not only are there other Pagan religions besides those listed here, but many of these religions have sub-divisions (denominations/sects/traditions) within them. read the article Wikipedia also list varieties of witchcraft sects, including descriptions categorized by geography throughout the world. read the article
“Magic Circle”, 1886. John William Waterhouse
Which witch was The Witch? As stated above, this research project is to make a comparison between a character in a book and ancient practices we have come to know as witchcraft. The character of the book seemed in touch with a great spirituality that honored a single god through a duality of spirit and nature. She was in tune with more than human concerns. She knew how things worked. Cimaruta, a plant associated with witchcraft symbols was hinted at in the book. There were also references to number 13. Also the symbolism between the plants, animals and a sense of “knowing” were key in the book. What sect would adhere to these creeds? An article by Alternative Religion revealed an interesting clue: The cimaruta of today is evolved from ancient Etruscan amulets and has become associated with Strega (an Italian/Roman flavor for of Wicca), and so-called Italian Traditional Witchcraft …purporting to be the gospel of a secret Dianic Roman witchcraft tradition. read the article
What was this secret Diana Connection? Sacred-texts.com opened a new line of research: …the symbols of Diana, relate to her in the form of Luna (the moon), the wife of Dianus; Janus and Jana are alternative forms of one and the same word. As keeper of the gates of heaven, Jana was entrusted with her husband’s key to open portals for Aurora and the life giving PhÏbus, and close the gates of night. She might also be regarded as Hecate-Proserpine, who as mistress of the lower world might open the gates and free the imprisoned spirits…
Diana Triformis is known as the Giver of light and life, and concerned for women in labour and nature. One entity is referred to with three distinct names: In heaven she is the Luna; upon the earth, Diana; in hell she is Proserpine.
The article also explains that the ancient Neapolitan term for witch is Janara (Diana). Consider that ancient shamans used symbols and ceremony to explain, teach and classify both the natural world and the spiritual realm: Luna/Diana/Prosperine; heaven/earth/hell. Diana/Dianus; male/female; yin/yan; physical/spiritual. The “witch” was the layperson’s connection to understanding and connecting with nature and spirit. Sacred-texts.com offers a detail-rich article connecting the Gnostic, Hermetic, Diana, Egyptian and Greek goddesses through ancient artifacts. read the article
An illustration of Diana Triformis: Luna, Diana, Prosperine.
“I smell what cannot be predicted. I see where the day has not yet shone. I hear the silence of a winter not yet hardened and the song of a spring not yet revealed.” – The Witch
Knowing: Witches, Spells, and Selling the Wind The Witch of the book taunts with a clue. There is an ancient artifact that speaks of thoughts similar. It is a tablet that has been revered for thousands of years. It has fascinated scholars through the ages, shaping belief systems. The Emerald Tablet is an ancient code that predates many religions. Perhaps our witch was aware of it? Are you? It consists of thirteen lines. From here, we link to knowing and gain some understanding of an ancient witch from long ago…
See the image by Renata Ratajczyk – Forest Lady – at lightvisionart.com
Next research projects: Aradia, Ishtar and Inanna.
All images are copyright of their respective owners and are used here under Fair Use for research and informational purposes and represent the subject of this article in critical commentary.