A Glossary of Witch Words

Circe offering the Cup to Ulysses

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Renaissance fairy story turned into a famous play by William Shakespeare.

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).

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.

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.

Bigghes — ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet)

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.

Blessed be — found in many modern religions but typical of NeoWiccan. Shortened to BB. 

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. 

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.)

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 of Shadows — the book the witch keeps to record all that she has learned of witchcraft. 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.

Bowl of salt and water — on the altar to represent the elements

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”. 

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 resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. 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 3 legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the 3 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.

Edward Frederick Brewtnall - Visit to the Witch 1882
Edward Frederick Brewtnall – Visit to the Witch 1882

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.)

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.

Cloves — worn around the neck in a conjure bag promote friendship (voodoo)

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.

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 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. 

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.

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. 

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 movie starring Winona Ryder based on the play by Arthur Miller. The real Abigail Williams was somewhere between 10-12 years old, but Miller turned her into a seductive, lustful teenager.

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.

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. 

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.

Devil’s Marks — areas on a witch’s body seen to be insensitive to pain. 

Drinking horn or chalice — filled with wine

Esbat — a small gathering of local witches. A ‘small Sabbat’. 

Familiar — short for familiar spirit — a common domestic animal given to the witch by the Devil — according to Inquisitors — to do her malicious bidding. The witch’s familiar comes out of the folklore of household fairies — brownies, elves and hobs, but not all famliars are fairies. They can also be the ghosts of dead children, demons and ghosts. The concept of the familiar is specific to Scotland and England. Like fairies, familiars originally exhibited all forms of morality, 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.

Elvira Mistress of the Dark aka Cassandra Peterson (American, b. 1951, Manhattan, KS, USA)

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. 

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?)

Gloves — when witches wear gloves they are made of cat skin with fur on the inside.

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.

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”.

Hag-ridden — something ridden by hags (like a horse) and therefore afflicted with nightmare.

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). 

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. 

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. 

High Priestess — the leader of a coven

Incubus — a male demon believed to lie on sleeping persons and to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women; someone who depresses or worries others; a situation resembling a terrifying dream

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.

Kiss of Infamy — a kiss on the devil’s ass.

Lavender — brings sexual power (voodoo)

Leechcraft — the art of healing, medical knowledge and skill

Love Magick — 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.

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.

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. 

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)

Malefica —  Torturing and witch hunting was worse on the continent than in England. In England, witches were punished for malefica (evil deeds), not heresy. For example, causing blight to crops, babies to die, illness. It was a civil rather than ecclesiastical crime. She had to be punished under civil law, which had constraints against torture and burning.

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.

Paganism — Most people these days have a sense of witchcraft which derives from fantasy/children’s literature. Those ideas are far removed from the reality of popular witch beliefs about real people. We also have an idea that the ‘real’ historical witch comes from Roman Paganism. There’s a hefty body of anxious legislation about a figure called the Strix who is an evil sorceress. We have this idea that Roman law influenced European law codes. But 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. Paganism did not actually influence the beginning of the witch craze. Scholasticism had far more to do with the witch craze than Paganism.

Panpharmacon — a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases. A panacea

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 charm bag. 

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. 

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).

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.

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.

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.

John William Waterhouse - Sorceress
John William Waterhouse – Sorceress

Supernatural — Supernatural thinking almost always comes down to the following: birth, sex and death.

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 — a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men

Tunriða — Old Norse word meaning “hedge-rider”. (Along with Old High German zunritha. Refers to both witches and ghosts.

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. 

White candles — often used on the altar

Witch — The word dates from around 800 AD. It originally referred to men who practise witchcraft but 200 years later referred to female magicians and sorceresses. Later it meant women who were meant to cooperate with the devil or other evil spirits.

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. One of the earliest law codes we have, the code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) has a statute against sorcery.  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.

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.

FURTHER READING

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.

Burlesque Witches In Storytelling

Witches have a long history in storytelling, but they aren’t always scary. They aren’t always Baba Yaga types, sometimes murderous, sometimes helpful. There’s another variety of crone who is a ribald storyteller. She’s related to the classic witch, but her function in stories is quite different.

She is known as the burlesque witch. For a definition of burlesque, see here.

What is her name?

From eighteenth century nursery rhymes:

What does she look like?

As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:

  • crone features
  • chapfallen jaw
  • toothless bight of chin and nose in profile
  • a Punch-like proboscis
  • carries a stick
  • wears a conical hat
  • apron and petticoats

The Burlesque Witch In Greek Myth

There is a fearsome cannibalistic mother from Greek myth, unable to save her own babies, and so vengeful against life, the universe and everything that she won’t let anyone else have babies either. So she eats children. Her name is Lamia.

Lamia tied to a tree, tortured by a satyr.

Diane Purkiss describes Lamia like this:

In a culture that values youth and finds age repulsive, like that of Ancient Greece (or like our own culture), Lamia’s predatory abduction of youth might signify the way children and parents are divided by age. … Lamia is invariably depicted marked by the terrible stigmata of the childbearing woman. A fifth-century Athenian vas shows her as a naked woman tied to a palm tree, and tortured by satyrs. She has a sagging belly and pendulous breasts, signs of ageing, and in particular, of the ageing that follows childbearing. The result of being taken over by that demonic child inside is to become an object of fright to the very child who has stolen her youth. In trying to rob children of their youth to restore her own, Lamia is a picture of the tangled feelings of the mother whose own youth has been absorbed, eaten, by the child she bears.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

The modern Internet burlesque witch, too, bears the kind of ageing specific to women who have given birth, though she is never shown with her (now grown) children. She is clearly a descendent of Lamia, but as happens to all fearsome female mythic creatures, she is either sexualised or rendered laughable. The burlesque witch is an interesting mixture of both, because both of these things have happened: her sexuality is grotesque, and that’s what makes her laughable.

Examples Burlesque Witches in Modern Pop Culture

  • Maxine is the cartoon character who most regularly comes through my feed. Maxine is a Hallmark character who has her own Facebook page, of course. She’s a grumpy, wise-cracking old woman.
  • You’ll find Maxine characters on many comedy series. The Simpsons gives us Patty and Selma.
  • violet crawley quotes is in the Burlesque Witch tradition, but she is of the upper class. One of the main character jokes is that she looks down on the middle-class, because her upper-class status is so fragile.
  • Catherine Tate’s Nan is an excellent example of the Burlesque Witch because she has a very reliable habit of being nasty-nice. She’ll be fake lovely, then as soon as someone leaves the room she turns. Nan is simply a modern take on the Baba Yaga character, who can be nice or mean, and we never know what we’re going to get at any given moment.
  • Betty White is the standout example. We like to imagine her as she appeared in The Golden Girls. A popular Twitter handle makes use of her name. Its MO is to point out the ridiculousness of politics in particular, from behind the jaded wisdom of an old woman who has seen it all. The real Betty White’s twitter feed is quite different.
  • Here in Australia, the Betty White parody account has been emulated, but uses recently retired SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin as its avatar. Here we get the double comedy factor of an older woman (who is meant to be buttoned-up) crossed with a serious newsreader, who spends all day saying serious things. When ‘Lee Lin Chin’ joined Twitter, a lot of us wondered if this really was Lee Lin Chin. We hadn’t seen much of Lee Lin Chin outside her news reading role, but every Australian can see that her fashion sense masked a flamboyant personality. Now and again we got a glimpse. One famous blooper shows Lee Lin Chin saying, “Who is that handsome…” of a young male news reporter, not realising the camera had flipped back to her. We loved that, and could could imagine this ribald twitter account really was written by Lee Lin Chin, even though the twitter personality was more like that of a hard-drinking frat boy. Lee Lin Chin was also asked to play herself in a series of short films, in which she does play this character.

The Internet Burlesque Witch

I’ve seen plenty of burlesque witches on my mother and aunties’ social media feeds. Women who share these memes tend to share images of women older than they are, in true ‘old age’ rather than ‘late middle age’. The joke is that an old woman

  1. Sees herself as still sexually attractive/active
  2. Sees herself as not still sexually attractive/active.

As a result, the burlesque witch can be mined for sexual comedy in either direction:

Who's that sexy beast
Who's there

Sometimes the burlesque witch is simply making light out of old age. Often the joke is that she feels like a young woman stuck in an old woman’s body:

I believe my house is haunted

But of course, old women are appropriated by younger people making ageist memes based on the regular tropes:

Half mile of open on ramp

Others are based on stereotypes but are shared by older women themselves:

Knitting noodles

Features of the Internet Burlesque Witch

Chin Gin
  • Sagging breasts (often exaggeratedly so — a common joke is that they drag on the ground, be tucked into a belt or be mistaken for testicles)
  • Fashion sense is youthful. She wears clothing more typically worn by teenagers, and doesn’t care.
  • Loves to drink and although she doesn’t feel bad about this, she does mention it a lot.
  • She carries a lot of middle-aged belly fat, but we can imagine she was ‘curvy’ in her youth.
  • She eschews exercise, except for ‘exercise’ such as picking up massive wine bottles, pulling the lever on her recliner and other minimal efforts.
  • Chocolate is a favourite food, standing in for any of life’s little luxuries.
  • She speaks her mind, and is often depicted with a large mouth wide open.
  • Rather than a chapfallen chin, she has a double/triple/quadruple chin.

The Ritual Film Study

The Ritual Film Poster

“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.

STORYWORLD

When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to a safe country like Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?

In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears. Importantly, the forest exists on the edges of civilisation. On top of a hill, the men make a memorial to their dead friend. This makes use of the symbolism of altitude, and cleverly, turns the area into a two-fold liminal space — between civilisation and forest, between life and death.

One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact. Nightmares feature as a strong thread throughout the film. The entire film could be the main character’s nightmare, in which he dreams he has lost not only one friend but all of them, one by one, plagued by guilt and blamed by them.

The man’s post traumatic stress disorder is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost.

This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological shortcoming. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas. The main character must come face-to-face with his demon (the monster). He literally comes face-to-face when the monster uses its creepy hands to grab his face.

STORY STRUCTURE

The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).

If you’ve watched enough horror you’ll predict who will be picked off first: The cockiest one. And you’ll also predict who’ll be left alive: The weakest one.

Whether we code this story as a nightmare or as a metaphor for the main character’s real life, he has lost all of his close friends by the end. But he has psychologically recovered sufficiently to go with his life. This is a classic pyrrhic victory. (These go hand in hand with tragic dilemmas.)

CHARACTER WEB

THE FRIENDS

This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for shortcoming, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.

At this point the men face a moral dilemma, literally depicted by a road (a dirt trail) similar to a crossroad. Forge on or turn back to in solidarity with their injured friend?

If this were a group of women in the same situation it would be more difficult for the writer to come up with a good reason for them not to turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded  this luxury.

Competitive masculinity is apparent in the dialogue. The guy who hurts his leg is called an ‘Egyptian princess’. Later Hutch (the embodiment of tough manliness — and also the first to be plucked off) accuses another guy of conjuring up fairy tales, like his daughters. These guys think that being a man is the opposite of being a girl. What would a girl do? A girl would turn back. Hence, they have no choice but to press on. They take a ‘shortcut’ through the woods. This journey will reduce them to children a la Hansel and Gretel.

The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.

Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the conscious desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.

THE MONSTER

The Ritual monster silhouette

I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.

Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:

  • We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
  • We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
  • The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
  • Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.

Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)

The Ritual Monster

THE WITCH

The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old witch in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.

Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.

THEMES

This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is genuinely scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.

By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.

The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.

Bedrock by Annie Proulx Storytelling Techniques

bedrock annie proulx

“Bedrock” is a short story from Annie Proulx’s collection Heart Songs, published 1999. This is a subversive feminist tale, which challenges the readers assumptions about ‘gold-digger’ women and especially those we dismiss as ‘rednecks’.

“Bedrock” makes a good mentor text if you:



  • Are writing a story in which the reader is asked to switch sympathies, or to question their sympathies after a reveal. Another story which does this is “Shut Up And Dance”, from season three of Black Mirror. Asking an audience to consider our empathies after revelation that a character is a sexual predator is especially subversive in the current political climate. While Annie Proulx is not well-known for being a feminist writer, this is a subversively feminist story (but only if you read until the end, which can be a problem). Proulx makes use of writing tricks to help us empathise with Perley more than Maureen in the beginning: He is old and perhaps incapable of maintaining his farm; he has a wife who doesn’t cook food he likes and who won’t touch him in bed; his previous wife died; his new wife is changing everything about what’s ‘rightfully’ his house; the reader is unlikely to ‘approve’ of the modifications, since her taste is grotesquely kitsch.
  • Related to that, this story is an excellent case study in how to make that transition between sympathetic and alienating character. Annie Proulx uses details — before we learn that Perley is a pedophile we are shown him on a pillow cover cross-stitched with Dutch girls, for instance.
  • If you are composing an opening sentence which you want to carry different meaning when the reader comes back to it a second time. This is probably because you’ve guided the reader into a new way of thinking by the final paragraph, and now they’re curious to re-read, wondering how on earth that happened. In short, subversive stories are especially well-suited to an opening sentence with a revised-different meaning.
  • Or if you’d like a model of how to create an opening paragraph which stands as a condensed, metaphorical version of the entire story.
  • Annie Proulx makes heavy use of something similar to a ‘transferred epithet’. I don’t think her descriptions count as that exactly because the epithets describe the objects as well as the humans (not instead 0of). We might instead call this technique a kind of pathetic fallacy. A flawed character looks through flawed glass (when it’s his vision of the world which is flawed).
  • Perhaps no more than many other of Proulx’s short stories, but this is another excellent example of a main character described as part of the landscape. In this case, an old farmer literally feels like he’s turning into stone. This ties in with the title — this is a story about beds and who we share them with. If we share our bed with the wrong person it feels hard as rock:

Atoms of this granite whirled in his body. Its stony, obdurate qualities passed up through the soil and into plant roots. Whenever he took potatoes from the heat-cracked bowl, his bones were hardened, his blood fortified. But Maureen, he knew, was shot through with some wild astral substance so hard and dense that granite powdered into dust beneath her blows.

  • ‘It was a very  sharp, clear day when he began to lose the farm’. This marks the transition from backstory to ‘frontstory’, which is a little similar to how picture book writers switch from iterative to singulative.
  • Proulx likes one-syllable words, which can be seen in the names she often picks for her characters (though not in this particular story so much). In a phonetic emulation of the hard, unforgiving landscape she uses words like ‘crump’ and ‘blat’, with their hard sounds that make them sound like curse words without actually being curse words. Notice, too, how ‘crump‘ and ‘blat‘ are being used as nouns. Some words are both verbs and nouns, but Proulx thinks nothing of turning a good-sounding verb into a noun as she sees fit.
  • Foreshadowing such as ‘The guilty scents of willow pollen and the river in spring flooded the room, the looming shape of the past was suddenly uncovered like a hand pulled away from a face. He seemed to feel drying mud beneath his nails.
  • Colour motifs — the colour blue is connected to Maureen, who likes a blue variety of potato which I believe Annie Proulx made up — ‘brute’ potatoes, perhaps a riff on ‘butte’? For more on fantasy food, listen to this podcast. Perley and Maureen get married in (cold, white and blue) winter, which contrasts against the first time he married, late summer, under a cast of yellow. Perley himself is connected to the colour yellow, which at first is presented to the reader as something happy (connected to summer and warmth), but the wonderful thing about the colour yellow is that it can be used both ways, and when something can be used for both positive reasons and negative, you can count on Annie Proulx making the most of that. Yellow also indicates old age and sickness. (Another example of Proulx using both sides of a word is in “Heart Songs“, in which a woman is sweet and fruity and delicious, but the blackberry is also an invasive weed, so that particular romance is naturally, fatalistically doomed.

CHARACTERS OF “BEDROCK”

Maureen

The story opens with Maureen, splitting wood in a bare yard surrounded by a circle of broken bark. This is a subtle way of setting her up as a witch. (According to witchcraft, a magic circle can protect you from harm.) The dark sky and lightning paint a picture that could come straight out of Sabrina.

The bark itself is broken — almost a transferred epithet, if the bark were not also broken, because later we learn that Maureen is herself broken. But she is wielding an axe. The broken will become breaker. This is a masterful opening scene, a nutshell version of the entire story.

Maureen is four years younger than Perley’s own daughter.

Like an archetypal witch, her weapon of choice is poison. We first learn of this when Perley detects a sugary taste under his denture.

Perley

Significantly, when we are first introduced to Perley, he is watching her. On a re-read, it is very creepy. This is how he preyed on her in the first instance — watching the girl as she worked. He’s watching her braid bouncing — long hair in a braid is a symbol of girlhood more than anything. Through Perley’s eyes we see her girlishness. This is what attracts him.

LILY

Perley’s daughter at first seems a wholly unsympathetic character. She is the classic unaccepting child, rejecting the new step-parent to the detriment of her father’s happiness, concerned only about inheritance. But by the end of the story it’s clear that there’s an entire backstory of Lily and her father, and she has good reason to reject him. In a small community, it’s impossible to think she doesn’t know about her father’s pedophilia.

One paragraph tells us that Lily identifies more with her mother than with her father. Lily knew why the mother had saved a poem — to put on the gravestone — whereas her father had no clue.

NETTA

The off-stage character — Perley’s widow. In close-third-person from Perley’s point of view, we learn that Netta had a ‘low, dry voice’, and that their conversation was functional but not companionable. She had houseplants.

SAMUEL

I’m not convinced Lily has married well. Samuel has empathy for his father-in-law and suggests the way to fix his loneliness is to marry again.

SELMA RUTH

A romantic potential for Perley, before Maureen comes along. But Perley can’t imagine cohabiting with a woman stuck with the task of bringing up her grandchildren rather than let the state take them. In short, although Perley wants a partner, he wants one without ‘baggage’, even though he himself has baggage, and women his own age are stuck in these caregiving roles and therefore, that in itself, makes them less attractive to same-aged men. Annie Proulx obviously sees this common late-life marriage issue for exactly what it is.

BOBHOT MACKIE

Maureen’s older brother and also an abuser, using his younger sister, who is already ‘damaged goods’, to take over the old man’s farm, despite knowing the sacrifice on his sister’s part.

STORYWORLD OF “BEDROCK”

Another regional critique embedded in Heart Songs sees Proulx swing to the opposite pole from New England’s conventional portrayals, balancing their romanticism not with realism but with impoverishment and grotesquerie as if to shock, rather than persuade, her readers into questioning what they may think they know about the region. In “Bedrock,” the ageing farmer Perley is finagled into marrying the much younger Maureen Mackie. Almost immediately, she takes over the operation of the farm and savagely beats Perley when he tries to object. The farm runs to ruin, and Perley spends less and less time in the house while Maureen sleeps with her brother in the bedroom. At the end of the story, we learn that this entire episode is the Mackies’ revenge for Perley’s having raped Maureen when she was a child. The physical and imaginative center of “Stone City” is the long-abandoned compound of the Stone family. As one character describes them,

They had all these shacks with broken-down rusty cars out front, piles of lumber and empty longnecks and pieces of machinery that might come in handy sometime, the weeds growin’ up all crazy through ’em everywhere. The Stone boys was all wild, jacked deer, trapped bear, dynamited trout pools, made snares, shot strange dogs wasn’t their own and knocked up every girl they could put it to. Yessir, they was some bunch.

Rural farmhouses, Proulx seems to be saying, can be facades for all manner of human perversity, and the pastoral hills breed horrifying social pathologies and violence. This is not the sort of thing that makes it into Vermont Life.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

This ‘facade’ of a pastoral idyll is also known as an ‘snail under the leaf setting’. Suburban areas of cities are often used as snail under the leaf settings, too.

While Proulx may attempt to reverse the polarity of Vermont from charming to chilling, it remains an exotic place apart, a screen upon which visitors can project their desires for a different and somehow more fulfilling life.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

For all their knowledge of the land and how to live on it, Proulx’s rural characters are not idealised as “nature’s noblemen.” They are not merely victims of a national market economy that has made their ways of earning a living obsolete, or of the intrusion of influences from outsiders and the media that has weakened and in some cases destroyed aspects of traditional culture. In these stories Proulx depicts the effects of years of poverty, backbreaking work, domestic violence, incest, rape, and anger that sometimes smoulders for decades before it erupts in acts of revenge. The stories often end with ironic twists of characters’ expectations, for which Proulx has prepared the careful reader with earlier clues.

Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEDROCK”

SHORTCOMING

Perley has a dangerous attraction to a young woman which has harmed her and now, in his old age, it will harm him.

DESIRE

He wants a wife to fill the hole of his dead one. If not a wife, then a sexual partner.

OPPONENT

Bobhot (a clear opponent) and Maureen (who presented at first, to a desperate old man as an ally).

PLAN

Perley asks his daughter to help him, but she won’t.

He watches the farm from nearby woods, as if he’s an outsider. We’re not told directly but are left to infer that he’s waiting for a chance to strike.

BIG STRUGGLE

When Bobhot is drunk, Perley attacks him in the kitchen with a pry bar.

ANAGNORISIS

Perley is well aware of his own voyeuristic tendencies, but now he realises it’s been reciprocated:

They must have seen him, too, in his warm woolen jacket, driving the shiny truck along the road with his little daughter beside him, the new freezer. They stared at the house every time they went past the farm.

NEW SITUATION

We don’t know if Bobhot and Maureen will return in the morning to finish their poison job on Perley, but there’s nothing in the text which suggests this will happen. More likely, in line with Proulx’s pessimistic view — the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.