When The Sky Is Like Lace (1975) is a picture book written by Elinor Lander Horwitz and illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000). If you read Wind in the Willows and wanted more otters, this one’s for you. (I’m not familiar with otters but I think these may be river otters rather than sea otters?)
Some picture book authors have the ability to tune into a childlike way of speaking. When The Sky Is Like Lace achieves that voice magnificently. For other picture book examples of childlike speech patterns, check out the work of Chris McKimmie, e.g. Good Morning, Mr Pancakes. Books like these are often described as ‘whimsical‘.
Then there’s the witch link between women and cats, who are thought to be witches’ familiars. During the witch craze, a small proportion of men were also tried for witchcraft, but the modern witch archetype is an old woman who sometimes transmogrifies into a beautiful young woman in order to trick men or to test them.
Nine lives: Cats are said to have nine lives, and women ten cats lives.
“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.
Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.
THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM
This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.
A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.
[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.
Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)
When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.
There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.
For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.
For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).
But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.
Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?
Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).
Broomsticks are useful storytelling symbols that serve double duty — they are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Broomsticks may keep a woman housebound, but also afford the imaginative freedom to fly.
Which is the correct way to sit on a broomstick? Take a look at the images below:
Now take a look at this witch from about the middle of the 15th century, who sits on her broomstick with the broom part in front:
Honestly, this is how I’d be clinging onto a broom:
Not all women in the sky with broomsticks are riding said broomsticks.
See also the two part series on broomsticks possibly being about ergotism at the Ridiculous History podcast. The witch riding a broom may be a drug reference. This sounds like a post hoc explanation to me, but the hallucinogenic component of the bread mould is much less upsetting when absorbed by the skin rather than taken orally. It is speculated that ergot was historically taken via the anal membrane, and speculated further that this was applied using broomsticks. (I can’t understand why broomsticks would be needed.)
Brooms and Witchcraft, Part 1: A Killer in the Rye?
Most people are familiar with the stereotypical image of a witch: a haggard, often older individual with a peaked hat, black robes, a demonic familiar and, oddly enough, a penchant for cruising around on broomsticks. But where did that last, weirdly specific, trope of flying on a broomstick actually come from?
Brooms and Witchcraft, Part 2: Inquisitions and Iniquity
Could the stereotype of witches on broomsticks actually be a drug reference? Join Ben, Noel and Casey as they continue digging through the history and folklore of witchcraft — and how it affected pop culture in the modern day.
The cartoon below, by Norman Bridwell, is funny to those of us who grew up with the idea that Santa and his reindeer drove/pulled a sleigh. In fact, Bridwell is combining a couple of different Christmas-time legends. In Italy, for instance, it is an old woman who delivers gifts down the chimney and she is often thought to ride a broomstick. Her name is Befana.
For those of us with vacuum cleaners, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time once tied to brooms, brushes and dustpans. The task of keeping dirt and dust from the home was constant — and necessary — because without constant attention the home would attract rodents. At certain times in history, rodents in the house meant death.
For this reason, in Ancient times brooms in a temple were considered sacred. You had to have clean hands to use one.
There are plenty of superstitions concerning brooms, because the act of sweeping is inherently metaphorical.
One version of ‘correct’ sweeping looked like this: Start by the door and sweep inwards. If you sweep your dust outwards towards the front door you will sweep your luck away. (I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.)
Brooms have had both indoor and outdoor uses, all resulting in hard work.
Brooms have phallic associations (and doesn’t everything?). According to one old superstition, if a single woman stepped over a broom lying on the floor, she would become pregnant out of wedlock. The degree to which people imagine stuffing things inside women to control us will forever baffle me.
It wasn’t just women who have been symbolically tied to brooms. Victorian era British art often depicts boys alongside brooms, as a shorthand symbol of poverty. These are working class boys, some are perhaps chimney sweeps.
The boy below is sitting outside in the dark. Darkness and brooms don’t go luckily together. In Europe it considered unlucky to sweep your home after dark.
A broomstick made from tying twigs around a stick is known as a besom. Besom originates from the old English besema meaning ‘woman’ (because guess who did all the sweeping). ‘Besom’ has the same root word as ‘bosom’.
The first broom sticks typically used twigs from the broom plant (hence the name).
The broom does another double duty — in the pleasant and calming scene depicted below, the broom seems to simply add balance to the composition, and also act as another feature of the home, alongside gardens and pets.
Here’s a similar bucolic composition from the same painter:
The outdoors equivalent of the hygge broom is the garden rake:
In the painting below we may wonder at the inclusion of the broom. We see a pretty girl admiring herself in the mirror — what’s with the broom edging into the scene?
It all becomes clear when we learn the title of the painting: Borrowed Plumes. A plume is a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament, or anything that spreads itself out as a bird plumes its feathers.
So these are not her clothes. This is a little brown bird dressing up as a fancier bird. The broom nearby tells us she’ll never be free of her mundane duties though, significantly, the broom isn’t positioned to appear in the mirror image.
Below, children dress up for play. A broom is a mandatory accoutrement when dressing as Cinderella.
The broomstick below serves to anthropomorphise the mouse.
Broomstick weddings were common term during the 18th and 19th century England and referred to weddings not regarded legal.
In America slaves who lived on plantations were often refused the right to marry. Naturally they fell in love and yearned to commit themselves to the love of their life. When two lovers jumped over a broom together they were considered married. This tradition is related to the metaphorical act of ‘sweeping away’ — and fresh beginnings.
Others claim the stick on the ground represented a division between their old home and the new. Lovers thereby jump into their new home together, this time as a couple.
Brooms can be used to get rid of unpleasant things from the house — other than just dirt and dust.
According to Chinese folklore, you can get rid of a vampire (jiangshi) by sweeping it out with a broom.
According to French folklore it’s considered bad form to sweep up after dark in case good luck is swept away with the dirt.
In Ancient Rome special broomsticks were used by sacred ‘midwives’ or wise women to symbolically sweep away any negative influences from a house in which a baby had just been born. These midwives were precursors to the modern conception of a witch, who flies around on a broomstick.
When an illustrator signs on to illustrate a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, I bet the scene they look forward to the most is depicting the gingerbread house. On the other hand, how to make it original?
Hermann Vogel (1854 – 1921) was a German illustrator who worked for the publishing company Braun & Schneider. He was famous for the artwork which accompanied an 1881 collection of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and also for an 1887 collection of satirical fairytales by Johann Karl August Musäus.
Kubel added black witch’s cats, which should have alerted the children, really. The children are rosy cheeked and look pretty well-nourished to me. The witch isn’t immediately obvious. The eye is drawn to the children first, catching the ambient light. The witch is dressed in white, but remains standing in shadow. The house is small, closing around her, like the house itself will gobble you up. The foregrounded tree reminds us that we are in the forest.
Otto Kubel was a German painter and illustrator who lived from 1868 – 1951. He studied at the Dresden School of Applied Arts then worked uneventfully, it seems, as an artist and sometimes illustrator of children’s books.
Kubel did live in various different places around Germany: In the early 1900’s Kubel went to live in Furstenfelbruck (a well-known artists colony — home of “Die Brucker Maler”). Next he lived in Munchen where he basically stayed put, apart from the later part of the Second World War in which he stayed in Partenkirchen.
Wanda Gag had only black and white to work with. She surrounds the children with white so they don’t disappear by accident into the image. This makes it look as if light emanates from the children themselves. In most depictions of the gingerbread house, light seems to come from the house itself, or out of the surrounding trees. The witch has not yet appeared, but a black cat on teh stoop lies in wait.
Wanda Gag made the Grimms’ fairy tales popular in America during the 1930s and 1940s, which is when anti-German sentiment was on the rise.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as produced by Disney in 1937, helped when it came to popularising these German tales across the Atlantic.
Wanda Gag was born in 1893.
She was the daughter of a ‘free-thinking painter’ with seven children who he couldn’t feed properly. This might explain partly why Gag felt so drawn to a tale which is ultimately about starving children? Her father died when she was only 15, too. It’s possible she idolised him in the same way the tale idolises paternity (and vilifies maternity).
Gag is most famous for her book Millions of Cats.
She died in 1948, before she had finished the job she had set out to do, which was to translate and illustrate 50 of the Grimm tales.
Anastasia Arkhipova is an artist living in Moscow. She comes from an artistic family. Her father and grandfather were also book illustrators. But she formally learned the craft from well-known illustrator Boris Alexandrovich Dekhterev (1908 – 1993). She’s been a working illustrator since she was a student.
KAY NIELSON’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
These children look a bit thinner than many other depictions. The trees are absolutely huge. The foliage growing around the house is affected by its magical aura and is therefore green, even though all the other trees are in ochres. There’s a soft curviness to this illustration. The only hard angles are the windows and chimney. Light comes from the house, somehow.
Kay Nielsen was a so-called Golden Age illustrator from Denmark who lived from 1886-1957. (Despite the name Kay being largely a feminine name in the West, in Denmark it is a masculine name.) Like Wanda Gag, he came from a highly artistic family. In 1939 he moved to California and because he was a white man and also good at art, he secured a job working for Disney. Can you guess which movie he worked on, judging by his style?
Well, he did some concept paintings for The Little Mermaid. His work was used in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia. (Here’s the thing about that movie: It wasn’t actually produced until 1989. Nielsen died a long time before then.)
Walt Disney only employed him for four years. He had to return to Denmark, where he spent his final years. Unfortunately, trends had moved on, and Nielsen’s style of illustration was no longer in fashion.
Felicitas Kuhn (born 3 1926) is an Austrian children’s book illustrator born in Vienna. She started paid illustrating work in the 1940s, then retired a short while later in 1957.
Russian-Ukrainian illustrator Svetlana Kim was born in 1947.
Vojtěch Kubašta (1914 – 1992) was a Czech artist as well as an architect, so we might expect him to really enjoy creating pop-up houses, including fantasy houses such as one made of gingerbread. Kubašta was actually born in Vienna but moved to The Czech Republic (as it is known today) at the age of four.
He got into pop-up (three dimensional) art after 1948, when the Czech communist government made it very difficult to work in publishing. So he started making three-dimensional cards which advertised products: porcelain, sewing machines and what-not.
American illustrator Sheilah Beckett (1913-2013) was the first female artist hired to work at New York’s Charles E. Cooper Studio. Like various other illustrators of children’s books, Beckett also worked in advertising and greeting cards. She created art which sold wafers, chocolates and also advertisements for General Electric.
Sheilah Beckett never retired from illustration, and she moved with the times, switching to graphic design software as the times changed around her. (Note that she died at age 100!)
You may recognise Sheila Beckett’s work from Little Golden Books e.g. My Little Golden Christmas Book: Favorite Christmas Rhymes and Stories (1957) The Twelve Days Of Christmas: A Christmas Carol (1992).
Sheilah Beckett is a good reminder to us all: If you’ve always wanted to pursue a creative career but think you’re too old, you’re not!
Gustaf Adolf Tenggren (1896 – 1970) was a very well-known Swedish American illustrator. He had a fairytale style influenced by Arthur Rackham, also very famous and distinctive. Tenggren’s work is easily recognisable due to the silhouetted figures and caricatured faces.
Margaret Winifred Tarrant (1888 – 1959) was an English illustrator, and children’s author, specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s.
This is a much more recent publication. I’ve covered it here. Neil Gaiman re-visioned the story and crafted a less sexist version than the usual, giving Gretel more agency.
This one looks almost like a photo which has had a Photoshop filter put on it. Look closer and you immediately see it’s not, but there’s a weird, unsettling realism about it. The light comes clearly from the moon filtering through trees, though Mattotti has surrounded the children — or the shadows of the children — with white as Wanda Gag did. The layout is also similar to that by Wanda Gag, with the children coming in from the right to a house positioned centre left.
Rodeffer is an artist working today, in a style that harks back to the 1970s. This is a relatively symmetrical version of the gingerbread house. It doesn’t look all that much like food — it doesn’t make you want to lick the page, but the hints of sweets are there. (It would be hard to make this look tasty in this colour palette).
GINGERBREAD HOUSE BY FRANK ADAMS
This edition of Hansel and Gretel was published around 1941, with illustrations by American Frank Adams (1914 – 1987). Before he got into art, Adams was an engineering draftsman during World War 2.
The war was hugely influential for this artist, whose best-known work is for The Home Front, published 1944.
Rie is short for Marie, who lived between 1887 and 1977. Born in the Dutch East Indies to a ship captain father, Cramer came back to the Netherlands and turned into a prolific Dutch illustrator. When commentators talk about the interwar period of illustration, they’re talking about the iconic work by Rie Cramer.
This artist was also a social activist. Some of her work was banned during WW2 for attacking National Socialism. So she wrote for an underground newspaper to get around the ban.
Bill Burgard foregrounded the creepy trees in this minimalist illustration. This is a forest with no life in it at all. There is a light source, coming from the bottom left. The house itself is almost in the centre of the layout… but not quite. These two aspects combined contribute to the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere.
VARIOUS OTHER ILLUSTRATIONS OF HANSEL AND GRETEL’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
THE EDIBLE HOUSES TROPE
Edible houses predate Hansel and Gretel. “The Land of Cockayne” is a poem from a 14th century manuscript, Kildare Poems. This is Ireland’s earliest known literary text in (Middle) English. This particular poem is a satirical piece about a corrupt community of monks, who lead a life of fantastic luxury and dissipation in the mythical land of Cockaigne.
The gingerbread probably didn’t come into this German tale until its English translation.
Schwankmärchen (Farcical tales) of Schlaraffenland (German): delicatessen products are on the roof
Fabel de Cocaigne (French): fish, bacon, and sausages are on the roof
Navicula sive speculum fatuorum by Geiler von Kaisersberg: Pfannkuchen (pancakes) on the roof
The poem “Das Schlauraffenland” (1530) by Hans Sachens: Fladen (pancakes]) on the roof
Wrozki by Podworzecki (1589) (Polish): sides of bacon and dumplings etc.
Hänsel und Gretel: the witch’s house is built from bread, covered in cakes and the windows are made of clear sugar. (The text of Hänsel und Gretel is from various retellings from Hessen. Told by Henriette Dorothea Wild, 1793 – 1867).
Note: the house is made of bread, the roof is decked with cake and the windows were made of clear sugar (hellem Zucker). “Gingerbread” probably came from an English translation.
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.
“I am that very witch. When I sleep my spirit slips away from my body and dances naked with the Devil.”
from The Witch, Robert Eggers (2015)
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.
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.
When it comes to accusations of witchcraft, disability, 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’.
Ireland’s first convicted witch. In 1324 she was accused of having sex with a demon. In paintings, she’s shown with red hair parted down the middle, with a single plait at the back. (I’m willing to bet her stand-out ‘misdemeanour’ was the growing of red hair.) By lingering reputation she was also beautiful, and heterosexual men who were attracted to her felt she had power of manipulation. She also had a few husbands die on her (from illness), and it was decided she must have cast some sort of spell to kill them.
the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implements — a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the altar be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground.
needles and pins are classic amulets of evil. Experienced jinxers recommend sulfur and gum arabic. Graveyard dust and coffin nails are good for causing harm.
A type of witch from the Hispanic tradition. The name may be related to Diana or Jana. This type of witch is a beautiful young woman in her true form, but takes the form of an old woman to test people’s charity. When she doesn’t look like an old woman, she has blonde hair, blue eyes, and wears tunics made of flowers and silver stars. She carries a gold staff and wears green stockings. She otherwise spends her days watching over animals, and hanging out in her underground palace which is full of treasure and jewels. She has a lot of treasure because everything she touches with her staff can turn into treasure.
A one-year-old boy. The very old and the very young were vulnerable when it came to ritual sacrifice in the rites of the maleficus.
Bigotry directed towards the Jewish communities. Why do modern witches so often wear tall, black, pointy hats? There’s a theory that it came from anti-Semitism in the 13th century. Jews were forced to wear identifying pointed caps, which became associated with Satan-worship and black magic. Others suggest the pointed hat came from anti-Quaker prejudice. There’s another theory that the black hats are a take on alewife hats, worn by women who sold home-brewed beer. Cf. conical hat
If you’ve read Snow White you’ll already know the association between apples and 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. After submitting to cravings, 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).
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.
“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”.
Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.
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.
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 powers, 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.
Medieval folklore also described bats as witches’ familiars, and seeing a bat on Halloween was considered to be quite an ominous sign. One myth was that if a bat was spotted flying around one’s house three times, it meant that someone in that house would soon die. Another myth was that if a bat flew into your house on Halloween, it was a sign that your house was haunted because ghosts had let the bat in. (Live Science)
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.) In Italy, la Befana is the “Epiphany Witch,” and is celebrated on January 6th (The Feast of the Epiphany). In Venice, there is a special Epiphany Regatta held on the Grand Canal, with rowers dressed as witches racing from San Tomà to the Rialto Bridge, where the finish line — an enormous sock — hangs down.
Consort of Befana. From the God Faunus (the Roman horned-god of the Forest, known as Actaeon to the Ancient Greeks).
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.
Italy enjoys a goodly number of ‘good witches’. These ones fought ritual battles against the Malandanti (bad ones) over the fate of the harvest.
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.
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.
ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet).
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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)
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.)
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.
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).
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
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.
This character archetype is very old, starting out as Baba Yaga types, evolving into Mother Goose types, and the Internet burlesque witch can be seen in characters such as (fictional) Betty White, Catherine Tate’s Nan and the old women who drink and dance a lot on Facebook feeds.
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.
The burning times/witch craze period in Europe remains a fascinating period to this day, often revisited in fiction via a contemporary gaze.
Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials and the young woman tasked with saving them all from themselves.
England, 1643. Puritanical fervor has gripped the nation. And in Manningtree, a town depleted of men since the wars began, the hot terror of damnation burns in the hearts of women left to their own devices.
Rebecca West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only occasionally by her infatuation with the handsome young clerk John Edes. But then a newcomer, Matthew Hopkins, arrives. A mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, he takes over the Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about what the women on the margins of this diminished community are up to. Dangerous rumors of covens, pacts, and bodily wants have begun to hang over women like Rebecca–and the future is as frightening as it is thrilling.
Burning In Water
There is a myth that witches burn in water. As an excellent example of how even children’s literature can add to the mythology of witches, this is an invented mythology from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. He probably knew about the body-burning of witches and also about the witch craze misconception that witches float during water torture, so combined these tropes for his story.
Cakes and Wine
the end to any ritual. A small ‘feast’. Might actually be bread and ale.
Ancient Egyptians associated the cat with the moon. To them the cat was sacred to the goddesses Isis and Bast (the guardian of marriage). Black cats are associated with darkness and death. In witch folklore, cats often make use of black cats as familiars, but as you can see, the ideas around cats, especially black ones, go beyond witchcraft.
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”.
This Scottish term means a magic spell. It tends to be the minor, mischievous kind. (Witches can be tricksters.)
Cantrip 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.
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-Orthodox (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.
The Cat Sìth is a fairy creature from Celtic mythology, said to resemble a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. Legend has it that the spectral cat haunts the Scottish Highlands. The legends surrounding this creature are more common in Scottish folklore, but a few occur in Irish. Some common folklore suggested that the Cat Sìth was not a fairy, but a witch that could transform into a cat nine times. Some people believed that the Cat Sìth was a witch that could transform voluntarily into its cat form and back eight times. If one of these witches chose to go back into their cat form for the ninth time, they would remain a cat for the rest of their lives. It is believed by some that this is how the idea of a cat having nine lives originated. (Wikipedia.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chimneys, windows and doors are considered liminal spaces where bad spirits can enter the home. Among the creatures that may fly down your chimney: witches, of course.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These witches from Mexico are said to be the ghosts of women who died in childbirth. They stole babies to eat in revenge. They are thought to gather at crossroads. People leave offerings at crossroads, hoping to save their own children.
worn around the neck in a conjure bag promote friendship (voodoo/hoodoo)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the location of the coven
the area around the covenstead. Traditionally one league in size. (About three miles in all directions.)
Anyone who is not a witch.
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.
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).
The gardener, the king, and the magician are three mature personifications of the archetypal masculine. They correspond to the sacred trinity of the feminine personified by the maiden, mother, and crone.
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Modern witches wear thin bands of silver with a silver crescent moon at the front. This and the garter might convey rank.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. (For more on Cunning Folk, listen to this podcast.)
Spring of 1620 in a Lancashire fishing community and the memory of the slaughter at Pendle is tight around the neck of Sarah Haworth. A birthmark reveals that Sarah, like her mother, is a witch. Torn between yearning for an ordinary life and desire to discover what dark power she might possess, Sarah’s one hope is that her young sister Annie will be spared this fate.
The Haworth family eke out a meagre existence in the old plague village adjoining a God-fearing community presided over by a seedy magistrate. A society built upon looking the other way, the villagers’ godliness is merely a veneer. But the Haworth women, with their salves and poultices, are judged the real threat to morality.
When Sarah meets lonely farmer’s son Daniel, she begins to dream of a better future. Daniel is in thrall to the wild girl with storms in her eyes, but their bond is tested when a zealous new magistrate vows to root out sins and sinners. In a frenzy of fear and fury, the community begins to turn on one another, and it’s not long before they direct their gaze towards the old plague village … and does Daniel trust that the power Sarah wields over him is truly love, or could it be mere sorcery?
a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something. There are people who believe curses work and they are sometimes taken seriously at government level. Emil Boc was Prime Minister of Romania 2008 – 2012, He announced a 16% tax on fortune-telling. Several self-described witches, including a celebrity called Bratara, threatened him by saying her curses always worked and if the PM were to go ahead with the taxation, bad things would happen to politicians.
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.
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.
a breakaway coven, still under the guidance of the mother coven
Someone who dedicates themselves to a period of study/practice with a coven
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.
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” usually refers to the direction of a witch’s dance or circle-casting.
areas on a witch’s body seen to be insensitive to pain. See also: teats. Spelled witch ‘markes’ or witch ‘signalls’ in documents.
sometimes considered the Goddess of all Witches
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.
Discovery of Witchcraft (The Discoverie of Witchcraft)
by Reginald Scot (1584), an English MP who had been trained in Latin and who could therefore refer to a number of texts unavailable to the masses. His Discovery of Witchcraft work includes invocations, demons’ names, potion ingredients and so on. This was an inspiration to playwrights and storytellers. Reginald Scot actually wrote this treatise to try and prove witchcraft was not a thing. Reginald Scot was a Reformed Protestant. He therefore believed God was responsible for everything, not witches. He was also caught up in a mystical religion at the time known as Family of Love. He clearly had a deep interest in mystical stuff, and I’m not sure he managed to persuade anyone to stop believing in witchcraft. He probably made many of his readers extra interested in it.
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.
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
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.)
Although the dominant world tradition of Halloween associates witches with the season of autumn, Sweden has an Easter witch. What do witches have to do with Christianity? On the first Maundy Thursday Judas betrayed Jesus. On this day, evil was released into the world. ‘Evil’ obviously includes witches. Swedes believed the evil witches would fly on their broomsticks to Blåkulla. On this island the Devil would welcome them to his court. You can protect yourself from this threat by creating bonfires. Big fires scare Easter witches away.
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.
During the European Witch Craze it was commonly believed that witches travelled about in egg-shells. This is probably because in Germany, for instance, elves and sprites were long thought to hatch out of eggs. If an egg was laid before sunrise, you could see the pixie inside, apparently. However, you don’t want to break one of these eggs with supernatural beings inside. You’d die.
In some covens you count as an elder if you’ve been the leader of a coven for nine years.
Elizabethan 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 parishioners. It follows that those people became much more hated and resented than before.
(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.
a small gathering of local witches. A ‘small Sabbat’.
Colloquially known today as ‘the evils’ (in New Zealand) or ‘stink eye’ (in a funny scene from the film Juno), a threatening gaze or stare was once thought to be so powerful it caused actual harm. As a result, numerous amulets and charms have been invented, thought to protect one from the harms of the Evil Eye. The concept of the malevolent stare features in many cultures, including for example in connection with Balor in Irish mythology, who has become known as Balor of the Evil Eye. The commonly recognised symbol of the evil eye is the Arabic hamsa, common throughout North Africa-Middle East. This symbol in turn comes from Tanit, the principal goddess of ancient Phoenicia. This symbol is often affixed to the prows of ships, for example, as an amulet. It is meant to ward off the Evil Eye, but because language is weird, the amulet itself is also called the Evil Eye. (It’s basically an imaginary stare down competition.) See also: The Evil Eye: An account of this ancient and wide spread superstition by Fredrick Thomas Elworthy (1895).
the intersection of fairies and witches. People who practice fairy wicca work with nature spirits.
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.
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.
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.”
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 familiars 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.
Short for “Family Tradition.” This refers to a Wiccan or Witchcraft tradition that is centred around the beliefs and practices of a single family as opposed to a tradition centred around individual personalities or a coven.
caused or acting by witchcraft (obsolete). From Latin fascinum (“witchcraft”).
We tend to see flogging as a kind of punishment or deterrent today, but in antiquity, that’s not what flogging was for. Flogging was for purification. Someone would get flogged to bewitch them, or more generally, to deal with any situation implying spiritual impotence.
In the Edo period of Japan (1603–1867), beliefs around kitsune (foxes) share commonalities with witch legend from all over the world. For one, kitsune can shapeshift. When a kitsune changes shape, its hoshi no tama holds a portion of its magical power. Another tradition is that the pearl represents the kitsune’s soul; the kitsune will die if separated from it for long. Those who obtain the ball may be able to extract a promise from the kitsune to help them in exchange for its return. This is similar to the Greek legend of the Graeae. (The fox’s tendency to creep about at night and murder essential livestock probably contributed to the association between foxes and witches. Also, I feel like a fox is the imaginative cross between a cat and a wolf.)
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.
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?)
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.
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.)
any instrument of public execution including guillotine, executioner’s block, impalement stake, hanging gallows, or related scaffold
when witches wear gloves they are made of cat skin with fur on the inside.
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.
Granny suffered from robustly healthy teeth, which she considered a big drawback in a witch. She really envied Nanny Annaple, the witch over the mountain, who managed to lose all her teeth by the time she was twenty and had real crone-credibility. It meant you ate a lot of soup, but you also get a lot of respect.
Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
an archaic word for the black magic or witchcraft in which the assistance of evil spirits is invoked. Necromancy.
“old women”, “grey ones”, or “grey witches” from Greek mythology. These sisters shared one eye and one tooth between them, suggesting they are each a different facet of the same individual. (This was played with in the picture book The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg.) These witch sisters are called Deino (or Dino), Enyo, and Pemphredo (or Pephredo). Their weakness is that they had to take their eye out and share it between them. Perseus took advantage of this, and while they were passing it between them he nicked it, and wouldn’t give it back until they revealed the location of the three objects needed to kill Medusa (or the location of Medusa). Their other sisters are the Gorgons. While the Gorgons lost their beauty but retained their immortality, the Graiae lost their youth and became old hags dependant on one tooth and one eye to see. In Clash of the Titans, the Graeae are called The Stygian Witches.
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.
a shortened version of the Old English word “hægtesse”, literally meaning “witch”. 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 (i.e.. a witch). The word hag is probably a shortening of Old English hægtesse, “witch fury”. Now, the word hag is most commonly used now in a derogatory, misogynistic way.
For the past decade, the depiction of an oft-nude elderly woman has been particularly prevalent in horror films. She is a hackneyed hag: at once generic and disturbing, capturing essences of real women along with otherworldly terrors. Either of portly or slight frame with a cascading stream of unkempt hair often the only thing cloaking her body, she dons signs of decay which manifest in an aging body and senescent aura.
a person born of a witch or a woman considered wicked
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.
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.
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.
During the English witch craze, accused witches were hanged rather than burned.
a scolding (even vicious) old woman
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.
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 labour 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.
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.)
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).
Water blessed by a priest is thought to repel witches. In the Catalan region of Spain and France (Catalonia), people would sprinkle holy water around their doors and around other liminal spaces of the home (chimneys and windows) because New Year is an example of a liminal time of year, and according to Catalan folklore, witches are thought to steal children away at New Year unless Holy water is used in this way.
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.
the leader of a coven
Hoodoo, also known in the West 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.” Voodoo is based on a real religion which has been appropriated by white culture to suggest a witchy, supernatural, often drug-induced vibe.
a series of words said as a magic spell or charm
Another word for wizard or enchanter.
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
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.
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.
Isis is a healer witch first mentioned in the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC). She was the Goddess of magic and wisdom. She used her magic to protect children and heal the sick. In art, she sometimes wears a sheath dress and a headdress with her name on it. Sometimes she’s wearing a crown of cow horns with a sun disk, or a crown with a cobra above her head. Isis is also the reason behind tyet amulets (a.k.a. ‘the knot of Isis’).
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.
Knot of Isis
Also called tyet amulets. These amulets signify the binary nature of life and in the Old Kingdom were typically placed on mummies in the hope that Isis’s power would shield them from disease and evil. These days when you see any depiction of a generic ‘Ancient Egyptian goddesses’, notice they’re wearing amulets to ward off bad vibes. Witch healer Isis is behind this.
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).
brings sexual power (voodoo/hoodoo)
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.)
the art of healing, medical knowledge and skill
Letters On Demonology and Witchcraft
A book by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830. Scott had always been big into the supernatural. This book is a collection of his knowledge, with information gleaned from all over the place. The book was a hit. Many people wrote him letters telling him of their own witch experiences, and about obscure witch stories he’d forgotten to include. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft was the inspiration for a tradition of Victorian novels on necromantic themes that includes Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
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.
Found in several ancient Hebrew language texts, the word “lilith” is commonly translated as “night monster” or “night hag”. The medieval text Alphabetum Siracidis, Othijoth ben Sira – a compilation of Aramaic and Hebrew folk-tales – is the earliest surviving written account giving Lilith as the name of the first woman in the Garden of Eden. The story of Adam’s first wife is much older than that however, written of (or at least alluded to) in The Book of Genesis, which is now thought to have been written circa 600 BCE.
Loki is a cunning, shapeshifting trickster god in Norse mythology. Loki could change gender. They were the father/mother of all evil women (witches and giantesses).
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.
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.
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.
a drink credited with magical power; can make the one who takes it love the one who gave it
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.
In the Malleus Maleficarum by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (1487), which became the handbook for the inquisition and torture of many people, most of them women, we find the following passage:
[According to the old proverbs t]here are three things that are never satisfied, yea, a fourth thing which says not, It is enough; that is, the mouth of the womb. Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils. More such reasons could be brought forward, but to the understanding it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft. And in consequence of this, it is better called the heresy of witches than of wizards, since the name is taken from the more powerful party. And blessed be the Highest Who has so far preserved the male sex from so great a crime: for since He was willing to be born and to suffer for us, therefore He has granted to men the privilege.
Part I, Question VI from the 1487 text Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches“)
Subtext: Women are witches because women are too lustful because women can have more than one orgasm, which is far, far too many.
[W]hat sort of women more than others are found to be superstitious and infected with witchcraft; it must be said, as was shown in the preceding inquiry, that three general vices appear to have special dominion over wicked women, namely, infidelity, ambition, and lust. Therefore they are more than others inclined towards witchcraft, who more than others are given to these vices.
Part I, Question VI from the 1487 text Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches“)
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.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays, created around 1606. Shakespeare’s Three Witches conform to a stereotype of ugliness. These witches appear “wither’d and so wild in their attire”. They “don’t look like inhabitants of the earth”. Note that Macbeth was published a few years after King James’s Daemonologie. Shakespeare was heavily influenced/inspired by real life witch trials and superstition.
the witch Charles LeLand claimed to have met.
A female follower of Dionysus, associated with intense reveling. Also an excessively wild or emotional woman.
Witches didn’t invent magic. Early human societies had magical thinking. They were superstitious, did things they thought would make their crops grow, other things to keep women safe during childbirth etc. So what changed? Why did people (“witches”) suddenly start being persecuted for performing magic during the witch craze? In the 1400s, a divide opened up — not between the ‘magical’ and the ‘non-magical’ but between the high-level magic of learned men and… well, the magic of those other people: Women, the poor, the generally disenfranchised. Also, the Malleus Maleficarum happened, aka Hammer of Witches, published in 1487 by Henry Institoris, which was a guidebook on witches and how to spot them. Witches were supposed to have got their magic from the devil. And because women were weaker than men, they were more susceptible to the devil’s tricks. Also, women were more emotional and unpredictable and wouldn’t use magic for good ends, only to punish men who had scorned them.
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. On the BBC’s Woman’s Hour program, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard described ‘witch’ magic as a way of changing the world to suit and accommodate yourself. Older women who strive to do this are therefore often called witches (often intended as an insult).
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.
nine feet in diameter and cast (drawn in the air) with the athame. It is the place between two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here.
said to create conjugal contentment (voodoo/hoodoo)
Latin phrase meaning “evil tongue”. (See also: evil eye.) Certain contemporary traditions around the world abide by this concept. For instance, Lashon hara is considered to be a very serious sin in the Jewish tradition. Lashon hara describes derogatory speech about a someone which emotionally or financially damages them or lowers them in the estimation of others.
The phrase mala lingua can be found in The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot
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.
In most countries, more women than men were tortured and murdered as suspected witches. There are a few exceptions: In Iceland and Finland, male witches outnumbered female. In Iceland, the reason for this was the fact that the magic openly performed in the Icelandic society had come to be associated with men. Likewise, in Finland, the traditional profession of a folk healer or cunning folk and the practice of magic were attributed more of often to men than to women, and that this category was the most common target of the witch trials.
a type of hair colouring, and a sign of witchy otherness and alternative beauty. The bolt of traditionally, but not always, white hair has been popularised by celebrities such as Billie Eilish and Mimi Wade. The mallen streak has only been called that since the 70s. In the 1950s it was called a hair flash and was part of rockabilly culture. The name ‘mallen streak’ originally comes from the Latin ‘malignus’ (meaning bad kind) and was first coined by pop novelist Catherine Cookson in her ‘Mallen’ trilogy. In pop culture, villainous women are often identified by their mallen streaks: Cruella de Vil, Bellatrix Lestrange, Lily Munster, Rogue, Bride of Frankenstein. During the witch craze, a naturally occuring mallen streak may have served as ‘evidence’ that a woman was a witch. Unfortunately, hair tends to grey from the front, and often in patches.
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.
‘Witch Finder Generall’. Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620 – 1647) was an English witch-hunter whose career flourished during the English Civil War. His title of witch finder was bestowed upon himself by himself. He mainly murdered people in East Anglia. He ‘only’ murdered people over a span of three years, but he and his mates managed to murder more people for witchcraft than had been murdered over the previous 100. He was radicalised after reading Daemonologie by King James. He probably died of T.B., but he’s now a legendary bogeyman anti-hero and there are various sensationalist stories around his life and death. We do know he died young, before his late twenties.
focusing on women. Modern witchcraft sects are interested in this aspect.
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.
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.
May or may not have been a real person. Although almost everything about her has been invented, she was probably a real woman living in York c. 1530. There’s always an old woman oracle in the culture. We’re always looking for people to tell the future. Henry the eighth is thought to have written about her but how reliable was he? He dictated a letter to the Duke of Norfolk with the instruction to send certain traitors his way. On the list was the Witch of York. Some sources think this Witch of York was ‘Mother Shipton’: sometimes an oracle, sometimes a witch, sometimes daughter of the devil. Stories about Mother Shipton and her prophecies formed an entire genre in the late 17th century. She became a stock character. (Listen to a podcast about Mother Shipton at Stuff You Missed In History Class.)
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.
Communicating with the dead, usually hoping to predict the future. The adjective is necromantic.
The idea of necromancy had been around for centuries, with Isidore of Seville writing about it back in the 7th century, but by the 15th century it was established in England that necromancy was the reserve of very educated men. Necromancy was not any old craft that a peasant could learn, but a very elite form of magic. Only men who could read and write; who had been to university; and who had access to a wealth of books could learn the skills required to perform it. This became of vital importance to accusations against royal women in the 15th century. A woman, even of such high status as to be part of the English royal family, would not be believed by the masses to have the knowledge to perform necromancy themselves.
The North Berwick witch trials were the first major witch trials in Scotland. They happened in 1590. A number of people from East Lothian, Scotland, were accused of witchcraft in the St Andrew’s Auld Kirk of North Berwick. They ran for two years and implicated over seventy people. Many confessed under torture that they’d met up with the devil at night. These trials are apparently what inspired Shakespeare when he wrote Macbeth.
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.
ODOUR OF CARRION
Vapores et nidores refers to ‘steam and the odour of roasting victims’. Similarly, cadaverinie nidores refers to ‘the odour of carrion’. Both phrases refer to the sacrificial offerings essential to the performance of certain rites connected to witchcraft.
Old Hag Syndrome
Before we knew about sleep paralysis, it was known as Old Hag Syndrome. The name comes from a people who feel like a hag is sitting on their chest at night, preventing them from moving. In medieval folklore the demonic Incubus and Succubus were blamed for this condition. (Listen to this podcast about Old Hag Syndrome.) Also called the Night Hag.
These evil spirits, which bring terrible dreams, are known in German and Slavic folklore as “mara” or “mare”, and so the Night Hag becomes the nightmare. The mare were thought to ride horses through the hours of darkness, leaving the creatures tired and sweating in the morning, and humans too could find themselves much depleted after a visit from the Night Hag; a night of being “hag-ridden”.
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.
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.)
a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases. A panacea
According to a 15th century guide to detecting and eradicating witchcraft, witches were capable of making penises vanish—and some even kept them in nests and fed them oats. (See more at Vice.)
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.
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.)
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.
(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.
Widespread radio seems to be the thing which finally put an end to popular belief in witchcraft in England.
When regular people believed they lived in a world inhabited by witches, anything slightly different about your body could easily distinguish you as a witch. Red hair is unusual, and therefore was dangerously associated with witchcraft. The link between witches and red hair continued long after the witch craze — Anne of Green Gables was written in the early 1900s, long after people ostensibly stopped believing in witches. But there was a very good reason why Anne did not appreciate her red hair. It wasn’t just vanity; red-headed girls battled very real prejudice.
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 coincided 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.
Royals were not immune to accusations of witchcraft. In the early 1400s in England, Dowager Queen Joan of Navarre (c1370-1437), second wife of King Henry IV of England, was accused of using evil magic to try to kill her stepson, Henry V, alongside a small handful of accomplices. She was imprisoned in Leeds Castle for several years, until Henry V released her upon his deathbed.
A few decades later, Joan’s step-daughter-in-law, Eleanor Cobham (c1400–52), who was Duchess of Gloucester, was also accused of using evil magic to kill the king, this time Henry’s son, King Henry VI of England.
By the end of the 1400s, the idea that women use sorcery for their own ends was well established. Richard III claimed Elizabeth Woodville with her mother, Jacquetta, had used witchcraft to make Edward IV fall in love with Elizabeth. No one with power questioned it.
Because of these widespread beliefs that women were manipulative, magical and invisibly dangerous, royal women had the burden of behaving in ways which would not make people think ‘witchcraft’! For them, as for the least powerful women living in poverty in the village fringes, beliefs about witchcraft kept them in a kind of prison.
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.
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 Palaeolithic 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).
a term used by Mary Daly, referring to states which use torture, dismemberment and murder to control the population.
In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, with 14 women executed by hanging. 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).
Salem Martyr, The
A Salem witch depicted by Thomas Satterwhite Noble in a painting he called “The Salem Martyr” (1869).
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.
Satanic ritual abuse is the subject of a moral panic (often referred to as the Satanic Panic) that originated in the United States in the 1980s, spreading throughout many parts of the world by the late 1990s, and persists today.
Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.
Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .
Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.
Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies.
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.)
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.
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.
Doreen Valiente, in her classic Witchcraft for Tomorrow, talks about the “magic mirror” (1999). Storytellers have played with our lowkey fear of mirrors for ages.
Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563
Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences. This Act stayed on Scottish statute books until repealed as a result of a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735. Professor Julian Goodare wrote of the act, “Few acts of the Scottish parliament can have had such deadly consequences… The result was the execution of up to two thousand people over the next century and a half.” For more on this, see this interactive map of Isobel Young’s story, which is especially useful when studying the context of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
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.
the reason for secrecy is that it’s thought secrecy brings spiritual power.
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.
Witchcraft from Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, the Balkans and the Baltic states takes a slightly different form. This 2,000 year old tradition has only a thin Christian veneer over its pagan origins. Slavic pagan gods and goddesses acquired new lives as the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (Russian hereditary witch,occultist and witchcraft scholar Natasha Helvin joins podcast host Mark Norman to discuss the beliefs, traditions and practices associated with witchcraft in the Slavic tradition.)
There’s a close connection between snakes/serpents and trickster women (cf. Eve in the Garden of Eden) and anything connected more specifically to women is prone to becoming connected (at some point in history) to witchcraft. In Ancient Greece it was thought that contact with a snake would give you the gifts of prophecy. Hey, witches also have the gift of prophecy. Snakes are also widely coded as Satanic, associated with evil, also with temptation, baby-killing vampire spirits and all things awful. This is no doubt an outworking of our natural fear of snakes, combined with a very human love of storytelling. These narratives are in fact adaptive, because they encourage us to give snakes a wide berth. Too bad about the side-serve of misogyny, hey.
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. (Modern examples include Queen of the goths, Morticia Addams, goth schoolgirls.) 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. (Modern examples include the green-skinned Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.)
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).
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.
There’s a hefty body of anxious legislation about a figure called the Strix who is an evil sorceress.
Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, The
collects data pertaining to three-hundred and five witch-trials which took place between 1590 and 1662 (representing roughly ten percent of the total in Scotland during that period).
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”.
from Medieval folklore, a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with (rape) 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. There is a passage in The Babylonian Talmud (3rd-5th C) with three references to Lilith (Tractate Shabbath 151b).
R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone, and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.
An important part of the folkore around Lilith is her transfiguration into a succbus. This passage is sometimes interpreted as that part of the story.
Don’t spend too much time with a succubus or your health, wealth and wellbeing will be affected. You might even die. The succubus is the embodiment of disgust with female genitalia.
There are accounts of men being forced to perform cunnilingus on succubi, whose vaginas dripped urine, dung and other vile juices and smells.
The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft & Wicca by Rosemary Ellen Guiley
The succubus is also a way for men to absolve themselves from sex acts for which they might otherwise feel guilty. As part of the story, men are helpless in the presence of a succubus, no matter how disgusted of her he may also be.
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.
There are trolls, goblins, and witches. Which kind of monster is Sophie?
Sophie is a monster expert. Thanks to her Big Book of Monsters and her vivid imagination, Sophie can identify the monsters in her school and neighborhood. Clearly, the bullies are trolls and goblins. Her nice neighbor must be a good witch, and Sophie’s new best friend is obviously a fairy. But what about Sophie? She’s convinced she is definitely a monster because of the “monster mark” on her face. At least that’s what she calls it. The doctors call it a blood tumor. Sophie tries to hide it but it covers almost half her face. And if she’s a monster on the outside, then she must be a monster on the inside, too.
Being the new kid at school is hard. Being called a monster is even harder. Sophie knows that it’s only a matter of time before the other kids, the doctors, and even her mom figure it out. And then her mom will probably leave — just like her dad did.
Because who would want to live with a real monster?
A Jacobean playwright who wrote a play called “The Witch” sometime between 1613 and 1616. It wasn’t published until 1778. We don’t know why it wasn’t performed on stage. It may have failed with audiences, or it may have been pulled for political reasons. Middleton’s primary source for material on witches was the Discovery of Witchcraft of Reginald Scot (1584).
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 lynching 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 people through ‘ordeals’ (torture) e.g. dunking.
Trio of Witches — The number three is hugely important in the practice of witchcraft, and it goes back a long way. Goddess triads are common in Classical mythology. Likewise, literature and art offers numerous examples of witches who hang out in groups of three. The Weird Sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are one standout example. (Acknowledging the influence of ancient mythology in Macbeth, the Goddess Hecate is mentioned on the page, Act 3, Scene 5.) Then there are the Three Witches of Ben Johnson. Aside from the tentpole examples, witch trios are seen in stories from all over the world, e.g. in Greek and Slavic traditions. The three witches often come in a trio of maiden, mother and crone, representing how women are typically divvied up by life stage (and perceived usefulness). The storybook trio of witches can be seen in real life. In Romania in 2010, after an election which involved occultists and accusations of spritual interference from influential people, a group of three witches staged an event outside the Congress of the Social-Democrat Party. These white witches held candles and healing plants and offered to extort “the violet flame” out of the Party. They said that their benevolent powers were the only way to defeat the dark power of the violet flame which was influencing events inside government house.
Dame! Dame! the watch is set. Quickly come, we all are met. From the lakes and from the fens, From the rocks and from the dens, From the woods and from the caves, From the churchyards, from the graves, From the dungeon, from the tree That they die on, here are we!
Witches’ Charm, Ben Jonson, included in Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
Old Norse word meaning “hedge-rider”. (Along with Old High German zunritha. Refers to both witches and ghosts.
to release someone from a witch or from witchcraft
Walpurgis Night (Saint Walpurgis Night) is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Francia, and is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May. Saint Walpurga was hailed by the Christians of Germany for battling “pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.” Christians prayed to God through the intercession of Saint Walpurga to protect themselves from witchcraft. In the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year leads people into darkness. It is believed that on Walpurgis Night we become visibly closer to the dead. Placate the dead with sweets. Or, frighten them with loud noises and horrible masks.
May have tree worship at its root (ha). 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.
Witches and water don’t go well together. There are a number of reasons for this. They would have suffered from PTSD after being tortured and thrown into a body of water to see whether they sank (not a witch) or swim (a witch). According to some beliefs, e.g. in Catalonia, Holy water was supposed to repel them, though it wasn’t the water that was the problem in this case, more the fact that it had been blessed by a priest, using white magic to counteract her black magic. According to this same folklore, witches avoided washing because they didn’t want to expose their witch marks, thereby exposing them to torture. It is rare to find skin that is perfect. Anyone susceptible to witch accusations would have been sensibly loathe to reveal her body to strangers. In Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam O’Shanter‘ (1791), witches are shown to be afraid to cross a stream. A running stream they dare na cross.” (If you’re being pursued by a witch, cross a stream to shake her off.)
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.
the three sister witches of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, considered Shakespeare’s “witch play”.
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).
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.)
The phrase ‘colder than a witch’s tit’ usually refers to an emotional response which is less warm than expected. The breasts depicted in images of hags from the Middle Ages are those typical for a woman who has spent her life using her own body to nurture and feed others. These breasts are the inverse of the young, pre-pregnant breasts of sexually appealing women.
often used on the altar
the use of supernatural powers or magic for selfless purposes.
‘…a white magician is just a black magician with a good housekeeper.’
Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
William Dawson Bellhouse
William Dawson Bellhouse (1814-1870) was a magician, surgeon and galvanist and other things besides. Basically, he was a ‘cunning man’. His personal magical workbook, the survival of which is uncommon among 19th century cunning folk, is now in the collection of the New York Public Library. Listen to a podcast about him here.
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.
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.
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 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 of Endor
There are mentions of witches in the Bible. One appears in the book of Samuel (written 931-721 BC): the Witch of Endor, or the Endorian Sorceress. This woman summoned the spirit of prophet Samuel. She’s depicted in an 1857 painting.
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.
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.
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).
Children’s stories led me to believe that wizards were basically male witches. But no, witches can be any gender (though most are women). The English words “magician” and “witch” have different etymologies. A “magician” practised legerdemain (card tricks, sleight of hand), whereas “witch” referred to those who were supposed to have dealings with the devil or other evil spirits. With their cooperation she was supposed to perform supernatural acts.
‘Men’s minds work different from ours, see. Their magic’s all numbers and angles and edges and what the stars are doing, as if that really mattered. It’s all power. It’s all-’ Granny paused, and dredged up her favourite word to describe all she despised in wizardry, ‘-jommetry.’
Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
In the Middle Ages people thought witches rode around on wolves (for their own sexual pleasure). Yes, that is a wolf, not the Muppet version of a llama.
Old High German word meaning “hedge-rider”, along with Old Norse tunriða.
‘Diane Purkiss … insists on taking witches seriously. Her refusal to write witch-believers off as unenlightened has produced some richly intelligent meditations on their — and our — world.’ – The Observer
‘An invigorating and challenging book … sets many hares running.’ – The Times Higher Education Supplement
One of America’s leading anthropolgists offers solutions to the perplexing question of why people behave the way they do.
Why do Hindus worship cows?
Why do Jews and Moslems refuse to eat pork?
Why did so many people in post-medieval Europe believe in witches?
Marvin Harris answers these and other perplexing questions about human behavior, showing that no matter how bizarre a people’s behavior may seem, it always stems from identifiable and intelligble sources.
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 theArt of Myth blog.
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.
As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:
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.
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.
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.
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
Sees herself as still sexually attractive/active
Sees herself as not still sexually attractive/active.
As a result, the burlesque witch can be mined for sexual comedy in either direction:
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:
But of course, old women are appropriated by younger people making ageist memes based on the regular tropes:
Others are based on stereotypes but are shared by older women themselves:
Features of the Internet Burlesque Witch
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” 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.
SETTING OF THE RITUAL
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. The memory melds with the present moment in scenes which blend forest with corner store (where the murder happened).
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 OF THE RITUAL
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.)
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’.
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 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.
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.