First, what is a witch?
As witch expert Diane Purkiss explains on Episode 83 of the English Heritage podcast:
The definition of witch changes over time. The word witch dates from around 800 AD. It originally referred to men who practise witchcraft but 200 years later refered to female magicians and sorceresses. Later it meant women who were meant to cooperate with the devil or other evil spirits.
Focusing on the time when most witch marks were made, a witch is someone who can do harm simply by wanting to do harm, by using a power intrinsic to her body or by calling on a larger, darker power in the cosmos. She perhaps wants to harm you because she’s envious, or because you’ve been rude to her outside a shop one day. Some witches can harm you by simply looking in your direction, but others must swap parts of their body (usually their blood) for the service of those occult powers.
Actaeon — a famous hero in Greek mythology and, in Witchcraft, the actaeon is the stag-horned God of the Forest. The Greek hero came to a bit of an unfortunate end. He was in the forest one day when he accidentally saw Artemis naked. She was bathing starkers in the woods. The goddess caught him looking at her, entranced by her beauty. She told him not to speak again or he would transmogrify into a deer. But then he heard his hunting dogs and called out to them. Of course he turned into a deer. He started running deeper into the woods, but he’d trained his dogs to hunt deer, you see. They tore him to pieces. What’s he got to do with witchcraft? The Horned God is one of the two main deities of Wicca. Actaeon ALSO had horns, see? When traditions/beliefs/rituals come from several different strains of thought, we call it ‘syncretic’. The Horned God is a classic syncretic deity. You see it a lot in fantasy and horror. One of my favourite contemporary horror films is The Ritual, in which the stag-horned God of the Forest has clearly influenced the monster.
Age Discrimination — When it comes to accusations of witchcraft, disablity, gender and age intersect. The people most likely to be called witches were a category of people considered surplus to social requirements, without a place in village life: elderly, women, past childbearing age. An enduring philosophical problem: What are elderly women for? If a woman’s major function is to provide children, women who cannot do that are considered useless. Worse, during times of food scarcity, barren women are considered a waste of food. Elderly women have always troubled society. The more ugly and poor they are, the more upsetting they are. On top of all this, once it was a crime to be Catholic in England, the last ones still praying in Latin were of course the elderly, who liked to pray as they always had. This proved a problem for Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman hanged in England for witchcraft. Among other things, Agnes was hanged for praying in Latin, the language she had always used for prayer. When customs change and old customs are construed as ‘witchcraft’, the elderly are vulnerable, and sometimes charged with the heinous crime of simply failing to keep up with the times.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Renaissance fairy story turned into a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Tempest is another Shakespearian play featuring witches but is not generally considered his ‘witch play’.
Altar — the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implements — a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the alter be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground.
Amulet — needles and pins are classic amulets of evil. Sulfur and gum arabic are also highly recommended by experienced jinxers. Graveyard dust and coffin nails are good for causing harm.
Apples — If you’ve read Snow White you’ll already know how apples are associated with old women who poison younger women. Apples make a frequent appearance in folktales, as do other fruits and vegetables. It seems that pica for fruit and vegetables was very common — not surprising in times of food shortages, when unborn babies are sapping nutrients from the mothers. Pregnant women were punished for giving in to these cravings. It was believed that supernatural forces would intervene and make life terrible for the unborn child (see Rapunzel). For a pregnant woman on the verge of starvation, an apple would be an easy sell. In early stories of witch craft, witches become associated with apples. The apples are used to gain power of young women (and also over children).
Arrow position — A physical position similar to the Eastern asana and mudra. During certain Pagan rituals participants adopt this position. Feet are placed together and the arms are raised directly overhead, palms touching.
Athame (or athalme) — a black handled, double edged dagger with a magnetised blade. It represents the witch’s power and is used in rituals. It’s a clear phallic symbol, though the pointed blade suggests the element of fire, which it also symbolises. The act of plunging it into the Chalice represents the union of the male and female principles. It’s also used to mark a magical circle. It’s not used for cutting. If witches want to actually cut something they use a bolline.
Auto-da-fé — “act of faith”. A ritual held during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Religious authorities would decide if someone accused of a crime was guilty or not. After that, there was a public ritual, known as Auto-da-fé. Civil authorities performed the punishment. Originally punishment comprised a variety of forms but eventually became equated with just one form, burning to death.
A Year And A Day — a unit of time used frequently in witchcraft. e.g. “I dedicate myself to studying with this coven for a year and a day”.
Badmouth — these days, to badmouth someone means to criticise them, probably behind their backs. But the origin of the word originally meant hexing and cursing someone.
Barrow tomb — A barrow tomb is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Also called: Tumulus (plural tumuli) burial mounds or kurgans. Over the world, this has been a common way to bury the dead. Turning now to Anglo Saxon society in England: The Anglo Saxons were Christian, but they started to work themselves up about a particular urban legend. They believed mysterious people were showing up at barrow tombs to summon the dead by pouring blood all over the tombs. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, they thought the summoned dead had some useful special poweres, such as telling the future etc. They didn’t want this happening, so the Anglo Saxons built gallows on the hillsides of barrow tombs. That way, they could at least consign all the dangerous criminals and hypothetical, supernatural baddies to the same area.
Befana — Witches tend to be divided into ‘good and bad’. Befana is the ‘good witch’ from Italy who brings presents to children on Epiphany. (Many other countries get a male Santa Clause instead.)
Befano — Consort of Befana. From the God Faunus (the Roman horned-god of the Forest, known as Actaeon to the Ancient Greeks).
Beldame — An ugly looking, evil old woman. Also spelt beldam. We fear the elderly because they remind us that we all get old, if we’re lucky.
Bell, Book and Candle — This phrase actually comes from Catholicism. It refers to the ritual of excommunication: the ringing of a bell, the closing of the Bible, and the snuffing of a candle. For some reason, a number of modern witches like this ritual and use it to close any ritual of their own. This may have been the influence of a rom-com play called Bell, Book and Candle (1950). In this narrative, a witch loses her witchy powers if she happens to fall in love. Hence, the connection between the phrase and witchcraft became established.
Benandanti — Italy enjoys a goodly number of ‘good witches’. These ones fought ritual battles against the Malandanti (bad ones) over the fate of the harvest.
Besom — The witch broomstick isn’t just any old broomstick. It is technically a besom. The brush of a normal modern broom tends to be narrow and wide, whereas the brush of a besom tends to be circular.
Bewitching — To bewitch is to cast a spell on someone with witchcraft or to capture their attention in another way. The American witch does a lot of bewitching; European witches not so much. Witches can bewitch people, animals and objects.
Bigghes — ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet).
Black Book — Witches originally used a ‘black book’ to handwrite their spells/recipes/chants and so on. When Gerald Gardner came along he changed the name to Book of Shadows.
Black virgin — a german witch hunting invention. An iron case the size of a human body covered in spikes. It was closed around the victim and designed to torture but not kill when it closed around her.
Black witch — “Black witches are usually shown with evil tendencies and rarely get happy endings.” (N’ganga Makhosi) Examples: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Rosalind Walker, “The Vampire Diaries’” Bonnie Bennett, “American Horror Story: Coven’s” Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and Queenie, CW’s “Charmed” reboot, as Macy Vaughn becomes an evil witch. “Black witches have a tendency to fall into two categories — supportive friends to the more powerful and popular protagonist or a witch with some malevolent quality.”
Blessed be — found in many modern religions but typical of NeoWiccan. Shortened to BB. In ritual, it basically means “let this be blessed.” Sometimes an officiating member says it and participants repeat it after. In her novel The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood uses a similar phrase for her dystopian world: “blessed be the fruit”. The people of Gilead greet each other in this way. It’s based on this from the Bible: “Blessed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your livestock, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks” (Deuteronomy). But because “blessed be” is also associated with witches, there are definite witchy vibes in Atwood’s Gilead greeting.
Bracelet — Men wear gold bracelets and the women wear silver. In some sects everyone wears it on their left wrist. In other sects men wear theirs on the right wrist. The witch’s name and degree is engraved into their bracelet. For the new age witches into palm reading, the bracelet also refers to the lines below the palm.
Broomstick — witches’ equipment is specific to the witch, as brushes are specific to the artist, clubs specific to the player. It becomes filled with the user’s vibrations and takes on magical properties for the user. It makes decisions independently of the user. The broomstick is used for flying to the witches’ Sabbat or sweeping the house. Made of hawthorn, hazel, rowan, willow, broom, birch or blackthorn twigs. Like the wand, is a reminder of the tree worship of old. The original broom was actually a stalk of broom plant with tufts of leaves at the end. The broom plant has always been associated with the giving and blasting of fertility. It was the custom of witches to leave ordinary brooms in their beds to fool their husbands when they took off for the Sabbat. In some handfasting rituals with the couple jumping over the broomstick/besom. (Jumping over a broom to get married isn’t limited to witches.) (See: Besom)
Broomstick ointment — rubbed onto a broomstick to turn it into something that can fly. Aconite, deadly nightshade, hemlock, cinquefoil, sweet flag, poplar leaves, parsley, soot, bats’ blood, the fat of unbaptised infants. (The first three are highly hallucinogenic in small doses and lethal in large ones.)
Bodkin — There is a long historical connection between women and sewing, as sewing is women’s work of yore. With this in mind, it probably makes some sort of sick sense than a sewing instrument would be used to torture so-called witches. Modern bodkins function like a tweezer to draw elastic, cording and so on through tubing and casings. Old bodkins were shaped like miniature ice picks. During the Witch Craze, the story went that when a witch sold her soul in a pact with the Devil, the Devil would mark her with a spot. (A Devil’s Mark.) This spot would be insensitive to pain. Inquisitors would ‘check’ a woman’s entire body with the sharp bodkin hoping to find the Devil’s Mark. Eventually, under extreme pain, people black out. At this point, the torturer would conclude that the Devil’s Mark had been found.
Bolline (or biolline) — a white handled knife used to make other magical objects or tools or to incise letters or symbols on wood or wax. It is shaped like the crescent moon and is silver in colour, also in deference to the moon. Some Wiccans say this knife is never for paring cheese or carving roasts but others will use it for cutting herbs or for cutting mistletoe directly from the tree or for similar practical purposes. This knife is also used in Druid tradition.
Book, The — Witches make a deal with the devil and this big tome is the official set of bound papers straight from Hell. A witch will try to get you to sign it.
Book of Shadows — Influential neopagan Gerald Gardner seems to have renamed the ‘Black Book’ the ‘Book of Shadows’. But he might have stolen this lovely phrase from from a 1949 article in the Occult Observer, “The Book of Shadows” by Mir Bahir. Spells, incantations, rituals and recipes are recorded. It’s best that the book itself is made by the witch. Leather or cloth for the cover, handmade paper or parchment for pages. The book must be destroyed upon the witch’s death. This is why so little remains about witchcraft today — it exists as an oral tradition. In some sects, new witches are meant to copy out The Book of Shadows by hand. Considering this intense labour, it’s ironic (or perhaps natural) that “The Book of Shadows” is so often shortened to BoS. According to Gerald Gardner, he got the Book of Shadows from Old Dorothy’s ancient coven, surviving from the 16th century. Modern witches don’t necessarily take him at his word, by the way. Anyone who has studied Elizabethan English knows that whoever wrote it made a hash job of trying to make it sound old. The Book of Shadows is factually incorrect in places, e.g. it talks about witches being burned alive in England (when in fact they were hanged). It also plagiarises (from Aleister Crowley and a magazine article about an Old Sanskrit manuscript).
Boschetto — An Italian word for a coven of witches, literally a ‘grove’. (Related to the beautiful English word ‘bosky’, meaning wooded. In Middle English, ‘bosk’ was a variant of ‘bush’.)
Bowl of salt and water — on the altar to represent the elements
Bruja — Spanish word for ‘witch’. (Male witch is ‘brujo’.) The word used to be used in Mexico to refer to a woman knowledgeable about folk magic but these days the word doesn’t have such a great connotation.
Burning Times — refers to the witch craze, with emphasis on the body-burning aspect of torture. Burning has become eroticised, linking death and pain with sexuality. Anne Sexton became known as a poet with “Her King”, in which Sexton identifies with the witch archetype, a desirable version of herself. (See the final stanza for a good example of eroticised burning). The eroticised burning woman can also be seen throughout the work of Sylvia Plath e.g. in “Witch Burning”. For both poets, burning works as a metaphor for “a caress that accepts the body’s responsiveness” (in the words of Diane Purkiss), and pain equals passion.
Cakes and Wine — the end to any ritual. A small ‘feast’. Might actually be bread and ale.
Cape (or coat) — confers magical powers. It’s usually dark blue or black with magical signs or symbols embroidered or painted upon it in gold. Magical alphabets, pentagrams and zodiacal emblems are decorative elements. In all religions, certain garments are worn only int he presence of the deities and are put aside when returning to “the world”.
Cantrip — This Scottish term means a magic spell. It tends to be the minor, mischievous kind. (Witches can be tricksters.) It has been used in novels and role-playing games and means whatever the creator wants it to mean. It sometimes refers to a spell that reads the same forwards and backwards.
Catholicism — Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in England, was accused of praying in Latin. In 1566 it was a crime to be a witch, and it was also a crime to be Catholic. In the case of Agnes Waterhouse, the two crimes intersected and resulted in her murder by the state. Historically, the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism mirrors the transition from Paganism to Christianity. Once a society moves on in its common belief system, practices once considered Orthodox are now considered not-Othodox (and also mysterious). These practices, once considered normal (in this case praying in Latin) is now considered witchcraft.
In the Middle Ages praying in Latin was associated with healing magic, but after the Protestant Reformation was now a sign that you were speaking to Satan.
Cauldron — An iron cauldron or kettle for preparing Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches actually use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course. The shape often resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Most of all, it symbolises the massive pregnant belly of the woman who gave birth to the world, the Great Goddess. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration. Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation. Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. In Celtic legend, cauldrons contain an unending supply of knowledge or food. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. Despite many stories in which witches cook food in cauldrons, that’s not what they’re for. They’re for lighting fires and for filling with water and flowers.
Censer — incense burner
Chalice (or drinking horn) — for sacrificial wine or water. In some traditions the sacred marriage (sexual union between incarnate god and worshipper) is performed symbolically by plunging the athame into the chalice. (The athame represents fire and the chalice represents water, so they balance each other.)
Charge of the Goddess — a gospel used by many modern witches in a variety of adapted forms.
Charles LeLand — an amateur folklorist who argued for the survival of pagan religious beliefs in Europe. He wrote Aradia, Or The Gospel Of The Witches. He claimed to have met a woman called Maddalena who had come from a long line of witches.
Chelmsford — The earliest English witch trial happened in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1566. Agnes Waterhouse (a.k.a. Mother Waterhouse) (c. 1503 – 29 July 1566) was the first woman executed for witchcraft after this trial. She was tried along with two other women from the same village. Agnes confessed to having been a witch and said her familiar was a cat (later turned into a toad). She called the cat Satan, sometimes spelled Sathan, which originally belonged to Elizabeth Francis. The cat/toad detail sticks out, but among many other things, Agnes was charged with praying in Latin. We know all this because it’s written down in a pamphlet. You can read the contents here, with modernised spelling, which makes it a bit easier.
Christianity — Unlke Pagans, who were happy to say occult powers came from some uncatalogued minor deity, Christians were hung up on the question of where supernatural beings came from. Christianity couldn’t sit happily with Pagan ideas because, according to Christianity, there is only one God. This is how Christianity ended up with a more thorough theology of the occult, eventually leading them to the conclusion that if occult powers don’t come from that one singular God, they must come from his opponent — Satan. The 12th century onwards was a period when ideas about Satan, devils and Hell became concretised in people’s imagination. This way of thinking ended up costing about 30,000 people their lives.
Circe — the first great witch in literature, described by Homer as “goddess or girl, we couldn’t tell” and when she’s first seen by Odysseus’ men she seems a sweet young weaver, weaving ‘ambrosial fabric sheer and bright,/ by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven.” Before her loom she sings ‘a chill, sweet song’. She doesn’t seem to be a witch at all, but witch she is and she accused of: enthralling men, turning them into swing, the power to make men impotent, both sexually and otherwise.
Cimaruta — An amulet meaning ‘sprig of rue’ in Italian, also known as the Witch Charm. This amulet is made of silver and resembles a sprig of rue with various other symbols in its three branches (generally a crescent moon, key, stars, daggers and flowers). The cimaruta dates back as far as 4500 BC. It might be worn as a pendant or larger ones may be hung in the doorway of a witch’s home. The cimaruta is double-sided. The three silver branches of the cimaruta relate to the Triple Goddess.
Cingulum — A consecrated witch’s cord. It’s either nine feet long or based on measurements of the witch’s body. Witches use it to mark out a circle for ritual. The cingulum may be worn around the waist to represent the initiation level of the witch (similar to a karate belt). It might also have meaningful knots tied into it. The knots might be used sort of like Catholic rosary beads, or indicate status to other witches, or the knot masses may function like amulets.
Cloves — worn around the neck in a conjure bag promote friendship (voodoo/hoodoo)
Common knowledge — People never asked themselves whether witches were real or not. Everyone just knew they were real — I mean, they lived in every village! That question only started to be asked towards the end of the 17th century.
Cone of power — a metaphor for the will of the group. They ask for things as a group and consider that they can hold sway over distant things.
Conspiracy theories — the contemporary equivalent of modern witchcraft. A subculture comes up with a theory to explain misfortune. People are very reluctant to accept the stochasticity of life. This tendency to search for causes of misfortune can be seen from the 1550s onwards, connected to the Reformation and nascent Protestantism. This kind of thinking holds true today. We still don’t like the idea that we are unable to decide our own fates. We prefer a causal account of things that happen to us. The Early Modern belief that bad things happened because of witches was an Early Modern version of conspiracy theory.
Conical hat — associated with heretics in the Middle Ages. May derive from horns worn by many pagan deities to denote power. The brim is probably a 17th century addition. Pointed headdresses have always aroused the accusation of deviltry. Gnomes now wear it too, though they dye it red and shrink it.
Conjure bags (or charm bags) — These belong to the voodoo/hoodoo witch tradition rather than the European one. Many contemporary witches use them. They are little drawstring pouches (of red flannel or leather) worn around the neck or waist of the conjurer. They’re hung upon trees on the property of one whose luck one wishes to affect — usually for ill. “Laying the trick” refers to planting a charm bag where the intended subject must cross over it. The bags contain 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 or 13 objects: gemstones, herbs, powdered sulfur, coffin nails, pins, needles, graveyard dust, rabbits’ feet, lodestones, scarabs, horseshoes, nail clippings, photographs, locks of hair, dice, and counterfeit coins.
Contagion of the Deity — the idea that holy objects should not be used in other than holy places. (This is not just witchcraft but common to all religions.) It’s therefore unlucky to steal something from a place of worship.
Cookbook Witch — A witch who has tried to teach themselves witchcraft and spells out of a book. (Think of Daniel in The Karate Kid before he is taken on by Mr Miyagi.)
Cord (or cingulam) — the magical binding cord that the witch wears around her waist and uses for symbolic binding rituals of all sorts. It is red, nine feet in length, and plaited. Natural materials such as cotton, silk or wool are preferred.
Corn Dolly — A woven wheat stalk in the form of a figure. Also called corn mothers. They’re meant to look like women, but some of them don’t much. In any case, the corn dolly symbolises fertility and the harvest. (Shapes made out of wheat stalks figure large in horror, along with haystacks, which tend to look a bit like monsters at night.) In American English, corn refers more generally to ‘grain’.
Cosmic Mother Of All — Starhawk, a modern feminist witch, uses this phrase to describe the Mother Earth-type character “whose breasts poured milk into the firmament and who birthed new stars, whose curved and luscious body was the very earth they trod on”. This figure stands in contrast to the Judeo-Christian/Islamic notion of a masculine God creating everything alone, while sidelining the female body entirely. “Images-of-women feminism” is Diane Purkiss’s phrase to describe a way of thinking about femininity in a way that is “annihilatingly prescriptive”. This thinking prescribes that positive images of women are: lactating, motherly, strong, authoritative. There is no thought to who mothers her. This idealised imagery in fact supports the patriarchal notion of the woman as nurturer of others. Many thinkers have believed in an “originary matriarchy”; this isn’t limited to witchcraft: Robert Briffault, Erich Neumann, J.J. Bachofen, Jane Harrison, Arthur Evans, and especially J.G. Frazer. The Goddess Of Everything (whatever we might call her) was originally invented/discovered by male scholars, not by empowered woman witches. The narrative goes like this: Women are subordinated today because The Great Mother (standing in for women in general) originally controlled everyone, and men had to wrest back some control of their own because women were so oppressive and also incompetent as leaders. And that, folks, is why the patriarchy exists. Tl;dr: Patriarchy is women’s punishment, and the natural order of things. Unfortunately, modern witchcraft doesn’t always do a great job of dismantling that particular narrative.
Coven — traditionally 13 in number but anywhere between 3 and 20. They begin by ‘casting the circle’, which isolates and purifies the holy place where magic will occur, where gods and goddesses will manifest, where time will disappear, where faith will become incarnate.
Covenant of the Goddess — In 1975 a number of covens banded together and formed Covenant of the Goddess. The organisation was founded by Starhawk in California and people can still join it today.
Covenstead — the location of the coven
Covendom — the area around the covenstead. Traditionally one league in size. (About three miles in all directions.)
Cowan — Anyone who is not a witch.
Craft — A shortening of ‘witchcraft’. (It is also used by Freemasons to describe their fraternity without publicly naming it.) Sometimes people say ‘Art and Craft’, meaning witchcraft.
Craft-names — the name a witch receives after an initiation ritual. Craft names tend to allude to favourite deities. (Covens are also named.)
Crossing The Bridge — Corresponds to ‘funeral’.
(Filthy Peasant) Crone — Adrienne Rich’s term for a midwife/sister/woman in touch with the earth and all things natural. We see similar outworking of this archetype in fairytales, and in contemporary folktales written for children. These women might be quite stupid e.g. Hildilid. They are often surrounded by a menagerie of pets and farm animals (who she considers pets). They often display hyper empathy with these animals (and I suspect they’re unable to slaughter them).
Crowns — Modern witches wear thin bands of silver with a silver crescent moon at the front. This and the garter might convey rank.
Crow’s foot — Crows were feared as an indicator of death, and witches apparently used them when casting spells against enemies. Crows’ feet were therefore known as ‘witches feet’. It was also believed that witches could transform themselves into crows to travel unnoticed to sabbats. The word ‘crow’s foot’ also refers to the wrinkles around the eyes, and thereby also indicate the inevitable approach of death.
Crucible — A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. Metaphorically, a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.
Crucible, The — a play by Arthur Miller and later a movie starring Winona Ryder. The real Abigail Williams was somewhere between 10-12 years old, but Miller turned her into a seductive, lustful teenager. Thematically, The Crucible is a straight-forward denunciation of mass hysteria and intolerance. Contrast this with other works of fiction which try to help their audience find a way of keeping strange characters as part of our society, without the martyrdom e.g. the poem “Song of Power” by Elaine Feinstein.
Cruentation — one of the medieval methods of finding proof against a suspected murderer. The common belief was that the body of the victim would spontaneously bleed in the presence of the murderer. Is mentioned in Daemonologie, King James’s crazed book about witches, who he believed would kill him.
Cunning Folk — The cunning folk in Britain were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic in Britain, active from the Medieval period through the early 20th century. The cunning woman is a witch-like character seen in plays such as The Wise Woman of Hogsdon by Thomas Heywood (1638), The Alchemist (1610) by Ben Jonson. During this long era, people could set themselves up as “cunning folk” and sell services such as curing illness, finding missing objects/buried treasure, and also removing the dark magic imposed by some other witch. So any village with a dark, terrifying witch would also be home to a number of people claiming they’re able to defeat that dark witch with their own magic. Those cunning folk were identified as witches by the people doing the prosecuting. Ultimately, the prosecutors decided who got to live and die, so it was a bit dangerous setting yourself up as one of the cunning folk. The cunning folk were real people, not just fictional. There would have been cunning folk in just about every village in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially at the peak of the witch hunts in the British Isles.
Deals with the Devil — In Scotland, witchcraft was understood as a deal between a ‘witch’ and the devil. We know this because there exist records of Scottish interrogators asking women about supernatural encounters (more so than happened in England). (Look up the story of Elspeth Reoch.)
Degrees of Witchcraft — There are four levels of witchcraft, first, second, another second and third — neophyte, middle stage, second middle stage and fully fledged. Each degree has its own symbol. Sometimes witches write the symbol after their name: an inverted triangle, a triangle, a pentagram (star), and finally a triangle on top of a pentagram. The triangle is also known as the ‘three-fold salute’ and during initiation the shape of this inverted triangle is also drawn in the air, and in sequence on the breast, breast, genitals and breast.
Daemonologie — King James of England had an obsession with witches and witchcraft and wrote a book about them, called Daemonologie (1599). Its subtitle is much longer. He was convinced witches were going to kill him. He supervised the torture of women who were meant to be Witches. In 1604 he had passed repressive anti-Witchcraft laws. He commissioned a group of scholars to translate the Bible into English. King James insisted that “his” Bible must be Protestant and passages must not support the Catholic Church. He also demanded that Witches should be condemned as evil at every opportunity. In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was published. King James refused to pay the people who had done the massive job of translating it. In short, he inflicted much suffering on people who deserved so much better. In the end he wasn’t killed by witches at all. He died of a stroke. He also had a case of severe dysentery (bloody diarrhea). This is caused by particularly nasty gut bacteria or parasites. But he probably blamed that on witches, too.
Daughter coven — a breakaway coven, still under the guidance of the mother coven
Dedicant — Someone who dedicates themselves to a period of study/practice with a coven
Demons — As the witch craze was kicking off, attention turned to monks and their wet dreams. Monks were required to confess their sins, and were asked about what happened during their wet dreams. Typically the dream would involve a dominant female figure and being sat on. The Scholastics then came up with an elaborate narrative in which monks were accompanied to their dormitories by demons, disguised as monks. They decided the demons must be there to harvest the monks’ seed. Why would demons want monks’ seed? Because of the cold and moist natures of demons, they acquired as much male seed as possible. This is also exactly how they thought of women. They believed women were sexually insatiable. Because of women’s cold and moist natures, women were constantly trying to perfect themselves by acquiring copious amounts of male seed. This is one example of how demons, witches and women became lumped in together.
Then they make a connection with women who think they fly through the night with the aid of a supernatural being. The concept of the witch’s sabbath comes from these two ideas amalgamated. As soon as these ideas are brought together the whole legal process changes to be about that narrative.
Deosil — Clockwise. In Scottish folklore, deosil/sunwise/sunward (clockwise) was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. The opposite course, counterclockwise, was known as widdershins (Lowland Scots), or tuathal (Scottish Gaelic). (For more on the symbolism of cardinal direction see here.) In witchcraft, “deosil” ususually refers to the direction of a witch’s dance or circle-casting.
Devil’s Marks — areas on a witch’s body seen to be insensitive to pain. See also: teats. Spelled witch ‘markes’ or witch ‘signalls’ in documents.
Diana — sometimes considered the Goddess of all Witches
Dianus — Margaret Murray’s God of the Witches. Margaret Murray was a feminist trailblazer in some ways, entering anthropology and going off on digging adventures before it was acceptable for women to do so. Still, people are complicated. She conceived the God of the witches as male, turning Diana into what she considers a masculine name.
Doreen Valiente — After Gerald Gardner started his witchcraft cult, based on what he said he’d heard from Old Dorothy, a disciple of his called Doreen Valiente became one of his main helpers. She said in her autobiography that she even wrote some of the rituals. But Gardner preferred to credit anything he hadn’t done himself to the mystical Old Dorothy and never acknowledged Valiente. This example speaks to the way in which witch cults, like any other, tend to be led by men, with the work of women hidden, despite women disciples being necessary to the entire operations.
Dorothy Clutterbuck — The real witch from an old witch family that Gerald Gardner claimed to have met. He called her ‘Old Dorothy’ and everything he didn’t make up himself, he attributed to her. Apparently Old Dorothy belonged to a coven of hereditary witches who had practised witchcraft for centuries. (Leland told a very similar story, but about a woman called Maddalena.)
Drawing down the moon — A ritual by which the High Priestess becomes in effect a goddess for the duration of the ritual. The rite is performed on the first night of the full moon, at midnight, the “witching hour.” The witch evokes the goddess within herself—that is, becomes the goddess incarnate. The goddess is she whom we call the triple goddess, the moon goddess, with her three phases—waxing, full, waning. She is Diana/Artemis, Astarte, Aphrodite, the Mother Goddess, and thus associated with birth, death, rebirth, and the lunar cycles. Meditation, chanting, dancing, and singing may all be used to evoke the goddess. The point is to reach a state in which human and divine edge for a time within the person of the dear of the coven.
Drawing down the sun — a newer expression based on ‘drawing down the moon’. This sometimes describes the riual in which the High Priest becomes in effect a god for the duration of a ritual. (The male equivalent of drawing down the moon.)
Drinking horn or chalice — filled with wine
Dunking — a form of water torture also known as ducking or ‘swimming’. It was thought that one way to identify a witch was to bind her hands and feet and throw her into a body of water. A real witch would float. (And if she wasn’t a witch, she would have sunk and drowned unless hastily rescued.)
Eclectic — The word means ‘deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.’ It is used to describe Pagans and Pagan traditions which borrow from various different sources. Pagans took their culture from spiritual beliefs, philosophy, magic practices and created their own way of life. Modern Eclectic Witchcraft or Eclectic Wicca works the same way, even drawing from popular fantasy novels such as The Mists of Avalon.
Elder — In some covens you count as an elder if you’ve been the leader of a coven for nine years.
Elizabethen Poor Laws — These laws led to a lot of misery for a lot of people. The people most likely to be accused of witchcraft were those considered disposable to society. Beforehand, some of society’s poorest were accommodated by monasteries, but then came the dissolution of monasteries. Now, poor/disabled/aged/illegitimate people without family to support them became the burden of individual parisioners. It follows that those people became much more hated and resented than before.
Eostara — (the initial ‘e’ is silent) is one of the Lesser Wiccan Sabbats, usually celebrated on the Vernal or Spring Equinox (March 21 in the Northern hemisphere). Also known as Eostre’s Day, Rite of Eostre, Festival of the Trees and Lady Day.
Esbat — a small gathering of local witches. A ‘small Sabbat’.
Faery Wicca — the intersection of fairies and witches. People who practice fairy wicca work with nature spirits.
Fairies — Diane Purkiss is an expert on witches and also on fairies (see her book Troublesome Things.) She explains that occult powers were once thought to come from fairies, but not the Tinkerbell fairies we think of today — from the older, darker, hairy fairies. These fairies might help you with the housework… or completely take over your life. What have ancient fairies got to do with witches? After the Protestant Reformation people didn’t want to believe in fairies anymore because the concept didn’t fit with the teachings of the Bible or with the fundamentalist idea of the afterlife. At this point, fairies became re-interpreted as devils. Now, any witch who calls on such beings is thought to be summoning the powers of hell to assist her. The so-called witch is even more threatening and scary than she ever was before. People believed they needed to take even more measures to guard themselves against her.
Fairy cross — a rock in the shape of a stone, thought to function apotropaically (warding off bad luck). The points represent earth, air, fire and water, and Christian has also influenced the thinking behind crosses as good luck charms. Also called: andalusite, chiastolite, staurolite.
False confessions — If you really believe in witches and witchcraft, you are also susceptible to believing that your, yourself, may have such powers. There are a surprising number of people recorded in history who came forward to confess they had killed or harmed someone using their own witchcraft. During the Witch Craze, this could be a suicidal act. “False confessions are not rare […] young people are particularly vulnerable to confessing, especially when stressed, tired, or traumatized.”
Familiar — short for familiar spirit — a common domestic animal given to the witch by the Devil — according to Inquisitors — to do her malicious bidding. They suckle on the witch’s blood, probably through one of her extra teats. The notion of the witch’s familiar comes out of the folklore of household fairies — brownies, elves and hobs, but not all famliars are fairies. Familiars can also be the ghosts of dead children, demons and ghosts. The concept of the familiar came from Scotland and England. Like fairies, familiars originally exhibited all forms of morality (they could anywhere between the extremes of good and bad), but after the Reformation, belief in the supernatural became very black and white — from that point on, all supernatural creatures were either good or bad.
Household fairies were considered demons. (Because they’re not angels.) After the Reformation, the animal familiar of a witch is considered an imp in disguise, a low-ranking demon, around to serve those in league with satan (similar to the lover’s valet, footman or chambermaid in 18th century opera). The familiar does small, bad deeds, leaping over fences the witch can’t clear, secreting itself in places where a witch can’t hide. Dogs, cats, bees, mice, rabbits, bats have all been cited in witch trials. They had fanciful names: Various British witch trials record a gray cat called Tittey, a black toad called Pigin, a black lamb called Tyffin, a black dog called Suckin, and a “red lion” called Lyerd. There were also assorted imps called Great Dick, Little Dick, Willet, Pluck, Catch, Holt, Jamara, Vinegar Tom, Pyewackett, Grizzel, and Greedigut. It was believed that the imp fed on human blood from the witch’s teat. (The teats might actually be little warts or polyps or wens.) A wen = a common cyst of the skin; filled with fatty matter (sebum) that is secreted by a sebaceous gland that has been blocked. If a woman had these, it was ‘proof’ that a woman was a witch. The familiars crave human blood. According to science, their little bodies are so mightily debauched that their bodies are subject to the continual reflux of particles and require some nutriment to supply the place of the fugacious atoms. They do this by sucking the blood of witches.
Famtrad — Short for “Family Tradition.” This refers to a Wiccan or Witchcraft tradition that is centered around the beliefs and practices of a single family as opposed to a tradition centered around individual personalities or a coven.
Fascinous — caused or acting by witchcraft (obsolete). From Latin fascinum (“witchcraft”).
Fraudulent Medium’s Act — in 1951 this act in England and Wales replaced the witchcraft statutes and affected how some witches went about their business. Gerald Gardner, for instance, started publishing nonfiction works about witchcraft, then formed his own coven. He got his first followers from the members of his nudist club. This act remains a residual power that the state can draw on. There have been campaigns to abolish the last vestiges of witchcraft law (ie. the Fraudulent Mediums Act), and also attempts in Scotland to issue a free pardon to accused witches.
Garter — green, buckled in silver. Has magical powers, probably. Green is the fairy color, associated with Robin Hood, the green man and wood sprites. Some witch queens have as many as seven buckles on their garters. It might be red, made of silk, with long red ribbons and a pink rosette. Perhaps they’re used to remind them to behave well sexually. (Or perhaps the buckles are like notches on the bedposts?)
Ged — a fictional magician invented by Ursula Le Guin, but cited as if a ‘real’ sage rather than fiction by Starhawk. Modern witches sometimes conflate fiction with their witchcraft reality.
Gerald Gardner — The leader of the Gardnerian sect of modern witches. Gerald, who was English, is probably the most famous neopagan and was around for the 1960s, which is good for him — an era ripe for new-old things. Unfortunately for Gerald he didn’t make it til the end of the sixties. He died in 1964 at the age of 79 on board a ship to Tunis (the capital of Tunisia). Gardner is known as The Father of Wicca, not to be confused with The King, Alex Sanders. (Notice how the founding figures of modern wicca are thought to be a handful of men? The history of modern witchcraft isn’t empoweringly feminist.)
Gibbet — any instrument of public execution including guillotine, executioner’s block, impalement stake, hanging gallows, or related scaffold
Gloves — when witches wear gloves they are made of cat skin with fur on the inside.
Gobber tooth — a protruding front tooth. John Gaule, a 17th century clergyman listed gobber tooth as one way to tell a witch, along with a wrinkled face, furrowed brow, hairy lip, squint eye, squeaking voice, scolding tongue, rugged coat, skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand and a dog or cat by her side.
Goety — an archaic word for the black magic or witchcraft in which the assistance of evil spirits is invoked. Necromancy.
Grandmaster — witch cults were highly organised. There were twelve to a coven led by a grandmaster. The grandmaster’s assistant was Maiden of the coven, sometimes called Maid Marian where the legend of Robin Hood was strong.
Green — Why are witches green?
Grimoire — a book of spells
Hag — In its 14th century sense, hag meant a repulsive, vicious or malicious old woman. By the mid 1500s it had come to mean an evil spirit, demon or infernal being in female form. By the 1580s it meant a woman who had dealings with Satan (ie. a witch). The word hag is probably a shortening of Old English hægtesse, “witch fury”.
Hagborn — a person born of a witch or a woman considered wicked
Hag-ridden — something ridden by hags (like a horse) and therefore afflicted with nightmare. This term is just one example of how we still make use of supernatural/witchy thinking to describe our psychological state. Other examples are ‘haunted’ (by a memory or dream), ‘diabolical’ (difficulties), ‘possessed’ (by an idea), and I’ve lately noticed a resurgence of ‘cursed’, especially among kids, to describe something unpleasant or weird in general.
Halloween — a holiday that recognises (and seeks to remedy) the sun’s retreat. In pre-Christian times, great bonfires were lit to stimulate the sun to imitation. Anglo-Saxons called them ‘need fires’. Christians changed this autumn holiday to All Saints’ Day but pagan symbolism lingered. October 31 has variously been called: November Eve, Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, and today Halloween. It is a bonfire holiday and a harvest holiday, incorporating the ideas of harvesting both the fruits of the earth and the souls of the dead. The Great Mother relinquishes her power to the winter god (The Horned God). Halloween is a liminal time — the last night before full winter (in the Northern Hemisphere) when the darkness is thickening. To this day, the idea of the Winter Solstice comes with a degree of anxiety.
Handfasting — traditionally refers to any sort of ‘making fast’ of a pledge by the shaking or joining of hands without official means, mostly an unofficial marriage (usually until such a time that a couple can get married legally). The term fell out of use as the practice itself did, but has seen a bit of a revival with neopaganism. Neopagans sometimes say “handfasting” in place of “wedding” or “marriage” to avoid perceived non-Pagan religious connotations associated with those terms.
Hanging — During the English witch craze, accused witches were hanged rather than burned.
Harridan — a scolding (even vicious) old woman
Hecate — a.k.a. Hekate is a goddess in ancient Greek religion and mythology, similar to a witch. She is most often shown holding a pair of torches or a key. In later periods she is depicted in triple form. Hecate is associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, night, light, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery.
Herbs — the most famous in witchcraft: mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade. The richest in legend and lore: mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade, thorn apple, monkshood. Witches discovered the majority of the drugs in modern pharmacopeia e.g. digitalis (for heart disease), ephedrine (for hay fever and asthma). Ergonovine (from ergo) and atropine (from belladonna) were discovered by witches and used in the management of labor and delivery. Witches gathered herbs at night, not just for self-concealment but because they had to be plucked during specific phases of the moon in order to work. Some when the moon was waning, some during full moon, some during an eclipse. Often she had to be sky clad.
Herb-lore — The idea that (herbalist) witches make use of herbs for healing/midwifery and so on. Metaphorically, in narrative, the herbs can stand for ‘agriculture’ and for ‘untamed nature’. The herbalist witch is a modern fantasy in which it is believed domestic skills were once valued, and only became lost once men started to take over the sphere of medicine and midwifery. This particular fantasy is sometimes called ‘cottagecore’ in contemporary-speak. See it also in a 1987 short story called “The Green Woman” by Meghan B. Collins, about a good witch’s bad love affair. (Included in the collection Don’t Bet On The Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, edited by Jack Zipes. Another example is Earth Magic: A Wisewoman’s Guide to Herbal, Astrological and Folk Remedies by Claire Nahmad and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. These texts share in common an ‘escape to the country’ fantasy, juxtaposing urban life against country life. (Country life is timeless, unchanging, stable and natural, so this fantasy also appeals to those who feel the times are moving too quickly, and the fear that we will be hopelessly left behind.)
Hex — These days a hex is an evil spell or a curse but hex is also another word for witch. The witch meaning is older. This word originated in the United States of America, from German hexe (to practise witchcraft).
Horned God — known by his powerful door of male goat. His eyes blaze with passion and he has an immediate sexual effect upon all females present. He might manifest as Pan or a normal goat or just an object of lust. See also: Actaeon.
High Priestess — the leader of a coven
Hoodoo — Hoodoo, also known as conjuring or rootwork, is a cultural tradition practiced largely in the southern United States with ties to Yoruba religious spirits and deities, similar to voodoo and Santeria. “One film that serves as a slight reprieve from the racist storylines is Paramount Pictures’ “Spell.” Featuring a predominantly Black cast, the thriller still showcases Black witchcraft but without demonizing hoodoo as a whole.”
Incubus — a male demon believed to lie on sleeping persons and to do sex to sleeping women (a.k.a. rape). An incubus also refers to someone who depresses or worries others, or to a situation resembling a terrifying dream
Infertility — Most witches were either single or post menopause. There’s a particular horror about a woman whose marriage is no longer or never was fruitful. Anxiety about barrenness. Again it’s about transmission — the assumption is that you’ll pass barrenness on somehow through your eyes to somebody’s flock of sheep/crop/orchard.
Initiation — a metaphor for rebirth. (The torture of witches is also known by the same name.) When tortured, she receives a witch’s mark (a tattoo?), a new name and a kiss to the Grandmaster of the coven, usually the kiss of infamy. The initiation of witches is similar to the initiations which take place at puberty in various cultures around the world.
In The Broom Closet — a riff on ‘in the closet’, borrowed from LGBTQIA+ communities. Refers to a witch who isn’t out to their family/friends/co-workers about their beliefs.
Jinx — an evil spell, or a person believed to bring bad luck to others around them
King of the Witches — Alex Sanders, from Birkenhead, England. June Jones wrote a book about this guy. (She called her book King of the Witches, so that’s what Alex was called after that.) Media loved him. It helped that he loved to wear a loincloth. His story was that he’d been initiated into witchcraft by his grandma. His first wife wasn’t really into the supernatural, so that marriage didn’t last. He went for a walk one day and met up with a wealthy couple who said he looked just like their son. They became his patrons. Alex Sanders was a a colourful figure, and key to the neopagan revival of late 20th century England. He died in 1988 (lung cancer). Between 1998 and 2003 neowiccans were able to chat with him from the spirit world but the ghost of Alex Sanders seems to have moved on (for now).
Kiss of Infamy — a kiss on the devil’s ass. Also called the kiss of shame, the shameful kiss, the osculum infame. It was commonly believed during the witch craze that all witches paid homage to the devil by kissing his rump.
Lady Lilith — a seductive witch created by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English poet, illustrator, painter and translator, 1828-1882). Lady Lilith is just one example of the new breed of glamorised witches who began entering fiction, poetry and art at the fin de siècle (end of the 19th century). Other examples of seductive (rather than crone/hag) witches are Morgan Le Fay as portrayed by Frederick Sandy and Sidonia Van Bork created by Edward Burne-Jones. These male artists created their sorceresses for a number of reasons, most probably because the seductive witch was a male fantasy, but evil and seductive witches were also supposed to warn women away from embracing their own desires. These sorceresses were evil but also signified freedom, and their freedom became their punishment. These new glamorous witches also served as a warning to men against the emasculating magic of a beautiful woman. However, real women tended to enjoy these freedom stories and created fantasies of their own. Woman writers started creating their own glamorous witches in which sex appeal became one of their occult powers (e.g. Evelyn de Morgan).
Lavender — brings sexual power (voodoo/hoodoo)
Law — As soon as laws are made against witchcraft, it inevitably follows that this law is applied. One of the earliest law codes we have, the code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) has a statute against sorcery. When the Henrician and Elizabethan witchcraft statutes were passed in England, culture changed. Previously, if you suspected your misfortune was down to witchcraft, you’d go and privately hire a white witch to remove the bad magic for you. But once the anti-witch laws were in place, as well as doing that, you could make a formal complaint. England’s anti-witchcraft movement lasted in law from about 1500-1710, about 200 years. This spans the period when the elite believed in witchcraft. (Makes sense, since the elite were in charge of making the laws.)
Leechcraft — the art of healing, medical knowledge and skill
Lilith — Lilith is an example of an ancient witch. Ideas about witches predate Christianity. Lilith is a character in Jewish mythology, developed in the Babylonian Talmud (3rd to 5th century AD). Lilith is just one character providing us with evidence that ideas about witches existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Near Eastern civilisation created an especially rich corpus of stories about female demons, and also left evidence of many carefully crafted protection spells.
Long Compton — The last witch prosecution in England was 1709. But there were still witch lynching e.g. in 1893 in the village of Long Compton. Long Compton is on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border. This village is historically interesting in part due to the nearby stone circle. (These kinds of artefacts often function to keep beliefs alive.) 1893 is long after the law credits witchcraft accusations. After the law stopped dealing with witchcraft, people continued vigilante justice against those they believed were witches. In 1893, one woman in Long Compton was stabbed to death with a pitchfork. It was thought that if you stabbed a witch above the heart, this would remove the spell. Clearly that’s what someone was trying to do. 1893 is not that long ago, and is almost 200 years after the last legal witch prosecution in England.
Lookism — Discriminatory treatment of people considered physically unattractive. Discrimination based on appearance is still a major problem for modern society, but right up into the Early Modern era, lookism had another troubling layer to it. From ancient times until Early Modern times, people really did believe that if you looked at something ugly it will somehow come out in any malleable or formative part of yourself. Related to this kind of transmogrification, people literally believed that if at the point of conception the woman looks at a picture of a Black man, then her baby’s skin would be black. They believed all sorts of related wacky things. Another example: A woman’s baby would be covered with hair if she looked at a picture of John the Baptist. People invented stories to explain routine birth defects, and of course the mothers were blamed for causing defects by doing something she shouldn’t have. If you believe this is how the world works, it follows that everything you see is something that you’re “allowing into” yourself. If you go out and see a woman with one eye, a crooked tooth/back, limping, you don’t look at her, because she can transfer some of her bad luck onto you, just by looking at you.
Love Magick — The Greeks and Romans had many laws covering in particular the area of love magic. Each witch has her own method for helping people fall in love. One method is to draw a minikin on a piece of paper meditating on the beloved person. It has to be 13 inches tall. If the loved person has drawn on the paper or touched it, that works better. Use this manikin to cut a pattern out of an old bedsheet, folded over. If the persona has been on your bed, don’t wash the sheet and use that. Use the two halves to sew the manikin. Leave the head open for stuffing. Turn it inside out. However, modern witchcraft is a watered down, sanitised version of the love magic that was once practised in Ancient times. Ancient people were pretty vengeful! One of the most terrifying kinds of Greek and Roman magic is curse magic, where someone might invoke the power of a particular deity (most famously Hecate), but also Athena/Minerva at Aquae Sulis, to cast a curse on someone who had turned you down. This magic ensured this person could never have sex with anyone else so long as you lived. Curses are disturbingly graphic and physical. People might cast a curse to make someone’s genitals disappear, or to make someone’s thighs permanently stitched shut. Unfortunately, literal infibulation is not simply a figment in the imagination of the ancient spurned lover trying to cast a curse to help themselves feel better: the ritual removal of the external female genitalia and the suturing of the vulva is practised today.
Love philtre — a drink credited with magical power; can make the one who takes it love the one who gave it
Love Poppets — poppet means puppet. In sympathetic magic, witches are called upon to bring lovers together by binding does representing them, while saying invocations and burning candles. The poppets might be made of cloth, straw, clay or wax. In the clay and wax models, bits of hair, nails and skin might be incorporated into it. The doll is stuffed with herbs sacred to Venus. A potpourri of dried rosebuds, blackberry leaf, dittany. Elderberry, motherwort and vervain should be tried. Chant the lover’s name all the while you’re doing this. Make a similar poppet to represent yourself out of using cloth you have touched or used. Decorate the doll in some way that represents them. Bind them together using red ribbon previously consecrated to Venus. It has to be cut in some multiple of seven (inches) long. Or even better, the same number of inches as the age of the beloved. (Does metric work?) They have to be laid on an altar and invoke the aid of the gods. Afterwards you can put it in a cigar chest or linen close and the potpourri love poppets will make your clothes smell nice. Do this ritual on a Friday, which is sacred to Venus and also to freya the Norse goddess of love. Repeat for another two Fridays. Repeat as necessary.
Mab — The Fairy Queen or Queen of the Fairies. Mab is a figure from Irish and British folklore, believed to rule the fairies. Based on Shakespeare’s creation, in English-speaking cultures she is often named Titania or Mab.
Maddalena — the witch Charles LeLand claimed to have met.
Maenad — A female follower of Dionysus, associated with intense reveling. Also an excessively wild or emotional woman.
Magick — contemporary witches prefer to spell it with a ‘k’ at the end. Magick performed in kitchens is no less effective than magick performed in churches.
Magickal Childe — a child thought to have been caught up in witchcraft or with a witch for a mother, or a child conceived during magical sex acts.
Magick circle — nine feet in diameter and cast (drawn in the air) with the athame. It is the place betweenn two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here.
Magnolia — said to create conjugal contentment (voodoo/hoodoo)
Malefica — Maleficium is the Latin word used in court proceedings to describe witchcraft used to inflict harm (evil deeds). Torturing and witch hunting was worse on the European continent than in England. In England, witches were punished for malefica (evil deeds), not for heresy. For example, witches were charged for causing blight to crops, babies to die, illness. These were civil rather than ecclesiastical crimes. In England witches at least had to be punished under civil law, which had constraints against torture and burning. (In England, witches weren’t burned — they were hanged.) ‘Malefick witchcraft’ is also a phrase seen in documents. In Elizabethan England, the maleficium laws turned ordinary citizens into spies on one another, exacerbating anxiety, creating mistrust.
Margaret Murray — A woman who believed the god of the witches is called Dianus. Her model of witchcraft is a fertility cult centring on the worship of a horned god. She wrote The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in 1921, and is considered an authority by many modern witches. She believed that people prosecuted for witchcraft were members of a nature religion surviving from pre-Christian times. They weren’t accepted by Christians because they had ritual sex with a hairy god.
Matrifocal — focusing on women. Modern witchcraft sects are interested in this aspect.
Mirror — A witch looks into a mirror and sees other things than simply a reflection. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the step-mother (witch’s) mirror even talks. A witch’s mirror is black and shiny enough to reflect somethin, but not so reflective that you get back a perfect mirror image. A black shiny surface is therefore good for scrying (fortune telling). When Charlie Brooker wrote his Black Mirror series he took the historical supernatural witch’s mirror and gave it double duty: The modern black mirror is a tablet computer or iPhone.
Mists of Avalon — a series of novels by Marion Bradley, and influential to the practice of some modern witches. The story is a retelling of of the Arthuriad which itself draws on writing by modern witches. This book perfectly exemplifies the link between practising modern witches and fantasy fiction.
Modern witchcraft — As a practice, modern witchcraft dates back only so far as the end of the second world war. However, its discursive origins date back to the Romantic period. People who lived in the Romantic period were into pantheism. We can see that today in fiction and poetry. You don’t have to be a witch to have a residual belief in maleficent witchcraft. When we feel animosity, we can believe that sense is harmful in its own right. This seems to be a natural human tendency which needs to be critiqued and examined before it’s discarded.
Necklace — some have magical properties. Some are made of seashells, acorns, seeds and wood. Others are made of blue glass beads (worn today in the Middle East as protection against the Evil Eye). Others contain crescent moons, symbols of Diana, the goddess most often associated with the witch cult.
Necromancy — communicating with the dead, usually hoping to predict the future.
Obeah — A form of folk magic, medicine or witchcraft originating in Africa and practised in parts of the Caribbean. Also refers to witch doctor or spell. Origin uncertain; apparently from a Caribbean creole, probably ultimately from a West African language.
Old Race — Some use ‘The Old Race’ to describe witch-like communities thought to live in the centre of the forest. People who live in towns and villages harbour a fear that one day they’ll swarm out from the forest and descend upon the rulers. In contrast, the disenfranchised harbour a fantasy that if they went deep into the forest they would be welcomed, or that the Old Race will come out of the forest and liberate them.
Paganism — Most people these days have a sense of witchcraft which comes from fantasy/children’s literature. Those ideas are far removed from reality. As an example, we have an idea that the ‘real’ historical witch comes from Roman Paganism. Instead, most historians of witchcraft say Christianity functioned to stigmatise what were once Orthodox Pagan beliefs by calling Orthodox Pagan beliefs witchcraft. Early Christians (up to the 11th or 12th C) treated witchcraft as a joke. If women ever confessed in church that they were having witchy dreams and so on, confession manuals from this era (studied by people working in the church) advised that women should be told to calm down. Witch stories were considered nonsense. As evidence, an 11th century penitential advises people to tell their parishioners that if they say they’ve gone flying at night with Diana that they’re making it up, it was just a bad dream. Paganism did not actually influence the beginning of the witch craze. (Cf. Scholasticism, which had far more to do with the witch craze than Paganism.) Today, not all Pagans identify as witches. Witches exist on a particular branch of Paganism. Some don’t want to use the word ‘witch’ because of all the baggage. (For example, many people think witches are Satanists. In another misrepresentation, witches are associated with the New Age movement, which many witches also despise.)
Panpharmacon — a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases. A panacea
Pishogue — An Anglo-Irish word meaning witchcraft, a spell or magic, especially spells which make people better or increase production of milk in cows and so on.
Poppet — Pretty much the same as a voodoo/hoodoo doll except usually just a piece of wax or knotted rag, or any sort of stand-in that doesn’t have to look like the victim much at all. (If anything can be a poppet, then anything at all found around a so-called witch’s house can be used as evidence in court.)
Poulaine — the long-toed, phallic shoe shoe point sometimes grew so extended that it had to be stuffed and canned to the ankle to prevent it from tripping the wearer. Introduced to France during the eleventh century, it took on such exaggerated proportions that the phrase ‘your poulaine is more man than you’ became a taunt for laggard lovers. Both phallic and horn imagery are evoked. This shoe (along with the horned headdress) was denounced from the pulpit.
Puffballs (or girdle of puffballs) — strung together with a magical pouch hanging in their midst. Different from the cingulum. The pouch itself contains the witch’s charms and amulets. It’s made of skin. It’s a variation on the voodoo/hoodoo charm bag.
Radio — Widespread radio seems to be the thing which finally put an end to popular belief in witchcraft in England.
Richard the Third — Richard III (1452 – 1485) was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1483 until his death in 1485. During his reign, there were stories going around about how witches were trying to assassinate him using witchcraft. In the public imagination, the countryside was populated with ugly little old ladies with the powers to take down a King, despite all his guards and so on. This was terrifying. Until now, witches hadn’t been taken too seriously by the elite ruling class (the top 5%). But now the ruling class started to join the rest of the population, wondering if witches really were a great menace. This coincinced with witchcraft becoming theologised. Now the ruling class in the British Isles, as well as the peasants, started to take witches seriously. Now life started to get really terrible for anyone accused of witchcraft.
Rue plant — the rue plant (depicted in the silver amulet the cimaruta) is both protective and a tool of witches, who use it to cast spells and throw hexes.
Sabbat — witches’ sabbath. A melange of meeting, dance, orgy, love feast, bacchanal, feast of Priapus, and a parody of Christianity. May derive from fertility dances of Paleolithic times around the antlered representation of the incarnate god. But it borrowed from every religion through the ages, and finally from Christianity. Witches were said to fly to Sabbat on broomsticks, up chimneys, through billowing clouds. When they arrived they oiled themselves for the dance using powerful hallucinogenic ointments which may have been introduced vaginally. What do witches do at sabbat? That depends on which country we’re talking about. English witches were not thought to have wonderful sexy times at Sabbath — English witches just ate a lot. If your food had been stolen from your English barn, say, you’d likely blame a witch, since English witches were thought to have a capacious appetite (for food).
Sado-State — a term used by Mary Daly, referring to states which use torture, dismemberment and murder to control the population.
Salem — The town of Salem is today a tourist trap but the illage itself renamed itself Danvers in the 1800s, so many tourists don’t realise it’s there. In Danvers you’ll find a memorial to the Salem witches who lived there. The best-known is Rebecca Nurse. You can visit her house. Remember, Salem was just a tiny village in the woods with a population of about 200 people. This clearing was quite a way from the village (especially if you travelled by foot).
Samhain — October 31st, a.k.a. the Celtic New Year, Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, November Eve. Importantly for witches, this is This holiday is the Wiccan new year. Many people celebrate with costume parties and trick-or-treating. Samhain is the night when the God dies and leaves the Goddess alone until Yule, when he is born again. Halloween/Samhain is a time when the doors between real world and the supernatural open to each other.
Satanism — Modern witchcraft is not Satanism and nothing like Satanism. Even Satanists often feel misunderstood because people think they worship Satan. Organised Satanism is a mixture of atheism, libertarianism and Machiavallian pragmatism. Satanists celebrate the freedom to indulge. (For Satanists, Satan is a symbol only; they are skeptics who don’t believe in supernatural beings.)
Scholasticism — According to one historical theory, Scholasticism had far more to do with starting the witch craze than Paganism ever did. Scholasticism was an attempt to arrive at a really complicated empirical theory of everything. This way of thinking also developed as a way of defeating heresy. Scholastics had excellent imaginations and as part of their theory of everything, they really did start to believe that there were evil demons hanging around at night, stealing men’s seed.
Scrying — a.k.a. “seeing” or “peeping”. The practice of looking into a suitable medium (e.g. a crystal ball or a black mirror) in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions.
Skyclad — naked. Clothing reduces the power that emanates from the human body. In cold climates they practise energetic circle dances to warm up before stripping off.
Secrecy — the reason for secrecy is that it’s thought secrecy brings spiritual power.
Sects — In modern witchcraft there’s no single person in charge, and there is no single set of unified practices and beliefs. Sects include: Gardnerians (Gerald Gardner), Dianics, racial faeries, Alexandrians (see: Alex Sanders), hedge-witches, famtrads (family witches). Witches like their diversity, as diversity is evidence of freedom. Beliefs in common: Worship of a Mother Goddess and her male consort (polytheism). All sects understand the natural world as a spiritually significant place (pantheism). All sects adopt a festive calendar similar to those from the ancient world, with feasts. Witchcraft is all about ritual, some old, some invented anew.
Self-Blessing (or Self-Dedication) — a personal ritual whereby the witch dedicates herself to the service of the Mother Goddess and the Horned God. It can be done with a coven or before one’s own alter. Use oil, incense, candles or water, wine and salt. Do it when you feel you need to rededicate yourself to the path. It might be done naked in a tranquil place. Stand on sprinkled salt, light candle, anoint the eyes, nose, mouth, breast, loins, feet with water and wine.
Sorceress — In England, during the witch-craze, 90% of people accused of witchcraft were women. But in other countries more than half were men. The image of the ‘seductive sorceress’ we see in pre-Raphaelite art comes from medieval and Arthurian legend. But in reality, most of the women tried for witchcraft during the witch craze were elderly, disabled and had some ‘unevenness of body’ such as a missing limb or eye, or differently coloured eyes. The view of sorcery we have today is romanticized and post- Victorian.
Starhawk — a modern Jewish witch who wrote the book Dreaming the Dark (1982), arguing for disarmament, environmental action and sexual liberation (as well as emphasising inner tranquility).
Strappado — a form of punishment or torture in which the victim was secured to a rope and made to fall from a height almost to the ground before being stopped with an abrupt jerk. Also refers to the instrument that does this.
Strix — There’s a hefty body of anxious legislation about a figure called the Strix who is an evil sorceress.
Supernatural — Supernatural thinking almost always comes down to the following: birth, sex and death. Modern stories tend to convert supernatural beliefs of the past into metaphors for psychological states. For instance, modern productions/interpretations of Hamlet present the witches and ghosts as metaphors for Hamlet’s inner state, considered figments of Hamlet’s imagination. Earlier audiences who actually believed in these things would have understood the supernatural aspects of Hamlet more literally.
Sympathetic (or Imitative) Magic — primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought. Sailors feared women who whistled because of the sympathetic magic implied in “whistling up the wind”.
Succubus — from Medieval folklore, a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men. As happens to almost every other word which originally means ‘woman’ something, has also come to mean sex worker. The word succuba is also used.
Teat — Around one in 500 humans, or 0.2%, have “supernumerary nipples”. If you were unlucky enough to be American during their witch craze, your extra nipple may have been considered evidence that you are a witch. Other normal and common marks may have been used against you as well. They are collectively known as ‘witch marks’. But the supernumerary nipples were thought to be for suckling familiars. It was believed that witches couldn’t feel these areas if they were poked and prodded.
Trial — We don’t have the complete records but, perhaps influenced by Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, people today tend to assume that once you were accused of witchcraft, that’s it, that’s curtains for you. In fact, most English cases resulted in acquittal. About 25% of English witches were convicted once they went to trial. However, even if you were acquitted you could still die in jail. We have no figures on that. Not counting lynchings and people who died in jail, England records about 3000 deaths, maybe more. This is how trials tended to proceed: In England, before a witch trial took place, a Justice of the Peace would be doing the rounds trying to work out if there was a witchcraft problem in the area. The JP would build up a file of depositions and also probably confessions from the accused. Other witches would commonly be named, and this might lead to a trial with a jury. Important to remember: There were no defence barristers or prosecution lawyers in Early Modern law courts. If you were accused of witchcraft and taken to court, there was no one to stand up for you.
Trial by ordeal — Trials which put peple through ‘ordeals’ (torture) e.g. dunking.
Tunriða — Old Norse word meaning “hedge-rider”. (Along with Old High German zunritha. Refers to both witches and ghosts.
Unwitch — to release someoen from a witch or from witchcraft
Wand — may have tree worship at its root. These are magical branches plucked from sacred trees in sacred groves. The best wand will be made of one of the woods sacred to the White Goddess: elderberry, willow, rowan, hazel, oak or mistletoe. A straight and slender branch should be hollowed at the centre (the pith removed). Some traditions require it be transcribed with a pentagram as well as the witch’s ritual name (the name given to the witch on her initiation). More importantly it has to be blessed in the name of the Mother Goddess and consecrated as a tool of the witch’s will. The stronger the witch’s will, the more invincible the wand.
Weigh house — A weigh house was a public building where product was weighed but during the witch craze, they found another purpose: for weighing people accused of witchcraft. If the victim were lighter than a certain weight, they called her a witch and she’d have to pay them money to avoid persecution. In 1931, friends Jan Waslh and M.C. Escher wrote and illustrated a book called The Terrible Adventures of Scholastica. The story is about the witch of Oudewater. Oudewater is a small town in the Netherlands famous for its Witch’s Scales. Defendants wanted to be tried in Oudewater because they did not rig their scales there. As a result of this honesty, no one was ever found guilty of witchcraft.
Weird Sisters — the witches of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, considered Shakespeare’s witch play.
Wise Woman — a (rural) woman historically considered to be knowledgeable in matters such as herbal healing, magic charms, or other traditional lore. A witch, basically. This healing wise woman witch is a modern witch archetype, seen in fiction such as Wise Woman by Monica Furlong, about the single, liberated woman healer/midwife who lives on the edge of a town, in that liminal space where civilisation meets forest. She grows herbs in her garden and is (to modern audiences) harmless, perhaps genuinely healing to those who dare visit. In reality, the midwives during the Witch Craze were more likely to side with the persecutors. Also, women accused of witchcraft were often married with young families to care for, and quite likely accused of witchcraft by another woman. (We know this from evidence given by women at trials.) The midwives were the Aunt Lydias, regulating rather than liberating women’s bodies and sexuality. They were in a good position to search for witch marks, or determine whether a woman was pregnant or not, at the behest of state power. Just because the midwives had great knowledge about women’s bodies it doesn’t naturally follow that they were using this knowledge for good. The concept of the witch as healer is worldwide e.g. Spanish curandera, ‘female healer’ (witch).
Witch cake — a cake made from rye meal and the pee of little witch girls. Sometimes ash would be among the ingredients. The story of the witch cake came out of Salem in America. Tituba was the slave of a local minister and supposedly baked a cake using these ingredients. A white neighbour ‘admitted to’ telling Tituba how to bake one of these magic cakes. What was the point of witch cakes? If a dog eats a witch cake the dog (a familiar) supposedly reveals the identity of the witch. (Not sure if they thought the dog would talk?) Anyhow, Tituba was trying to identify the person responsible for bewitching young Betty Parris. Later she was accused of being a witch herself, because she dabbled in witch magic. (Didn’t make any difference that the magic didn’t work.)
White candles — often used on the altar
Witchcraft Act — The Witchcraft Act of 1735 continued to be used until relatively recently, notably in the famous witchcraft case in England during WW2. Designated as Hellish Nell, Helen Duncan (by vocation a spiritualist and medium, 1857-1956) was prosecuted after claiming the spirit materialization of a sailor told her HMS Barham had been sunk. (Unfortunately for her, it had actually sunk.) She probably got these details from a friend in the navy, but because she seemed to know all this before it had been officially announced, and because she was known as a spiritualist and medium, Helen Duncan was one of the last people convicted under this act, soon to be replaced in 1951 with the Fraudulent Medium’s Act.
Witch-craze — The historical repression of witches during one particular period in modern history. Witchcraft (or sorcery) has always existed. Ideas of witches exist, really, from the very earliest human societies. There has never been a time in human history when people didn’t have an idea of malign magic. Unlike sorcery itself, or the concept of witches, the witch-craze was a distinctly modern historical phenomenon, like Nazism or Stalinism. Multitudes of human beings, mostly women, were condemned to horrible deaths for ‘crimes’ which today we consider wholly fanciful. Witch-craze lasted from 14th through to the 17th century.
Witching hour — There is controversy about what witching hour is. We know that witching hour is a notion of a magical time when the barrier between the other world and where undead, restless entities may be able to pass over from the other world into the material world. This includes witches and their familiars. Shakespeare used it a fair bit in his plays. Witching hour is generally considered to be between midnight and 3 a.m. in England’s Early Modern period.
Witch mark — Witch marks may refer to an extra nipple or similar, thought to be bodily evidence that someone is a witch. Witch marks is also the name given to protective markings found on old buildings. These marks are good evidence that even once the elite stopped believing in witchcraft, the common people continued. Witch marks are about trying to invoke an idea of goodness. If you believe that old, ugly lame women will transmit all this to others, you also believe that beauty can be similarly transverted, that beauty and evenness are the best way to counter that kind of ugly unevenness. So making a beautiful ritual mark is itself a good protection against an ugly person/spirit. Witch marks mostly survive domestically. Witch marks survive best in houses that are themselves crooked and uneven.
Witch trials — As part of the witch craze, The Great Age of Witch Trials took place in Europe between 1550 and 1700. Nobody agrees on how many people were murdered. Estimates range between 500,000 and 9 million. Many were burned alive. After 1700 trials disappeared almost completely. Why the sudden change in 1550? Until then, Christian authorities had refused to acknowledge the existence of witches. But in 1550 they reversed their position, resulting in a witch hunt across Christendom. There were probably economic factors involved. Also, Old women are terrifying — they remind us all of death. No coincidence that the witch trials begin at the same moment as the European Reformation in religion, which radically reset relations with the dead by deleting purgatory and the cult of the saints. Before that the living could be useful to the dead by praying for them. This was a way of managing emotions around dead loved ones. It worked both ways — you could ask the dead to act on your behalf in front of God. But the Reformation got rid of this transactional relationship with the dead.
Witch-pricker — a tool used by inquisitors to prick so-called witches skin. The blade slid into the handle under pressure and if the witch didn’t seem to feel it this was proof of her guilt.
Witch’s Year — Keyed to agricultural times and seasonal changes. Spring (March 21), Beltane (April 30), Midsummer, Lugnasadh (August 1), Autumn, Samhain, Yule (December 21), Imbolc (February 1).
Zunritha —Old High German word meaning “hedge-rider”, along with Old Norse tunriða.
- The 5 best books on witches and witchcraft, as picked by Diane Purkiss, Professor of English Literature, Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. These books don’t at first glance appear to be about witches.
- Diane Purkiss herself wrote a wonderful book about witches: The Witch in History: Early modern and twentieth-century representations
- Witches in children’s literature
- Why are witches green?
- Burlesque witch archetype
The header image is a pre-Raphaelite painting by John William Waterhouse, of Circe Offering The Cup To Ulysses. In Greek mythology, Circa was a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, enchantress or sorceress. For more similar images see this post at the Art of Myth blog.