There have been witches in all ages and countries. That is, there have been men and women who have had a know-ledge of cures, philtres, charms and love potions and at times poisons. Sometimes it was believed they could affect the weather, bringing rain or drought. At times they were hated, at times they were loved; at times they were highly honoured, at times persecuted. They claimed to be, or were credited with being, in communication with the world of spirits, the dead, and sometimes with the lesser gods.
It was generally thought that their powers were hereditary, or that the craft was apt to run in families. People went to them whenever they were in trouble for cures, good crops, good fishing or whatever their need was. They were, in fact, the priestesses or representatives of the little gods, who because they were little would bother to listen to the troubles of little people. They are usually thought of as wild dancers, as being 'not too strict'.
In the Stone Ages man's chief wants were good crops, good hunting, good fishing, increase in flocks and herds and many children to make the tribe strong. It became the witches' duty to perform rites to obtain these things. This was probably a matriarchal age, when man was the hunter and woman stayed at home making medicine and magic. Historically, the matriarchal period has been tentatively dated from the middle of the ninth to the middle of the seventh millennium B.C., during which time caves, trees, the moon and stars all seem to have been reverenced as female emblems.
So the myth of the Great Mother came into existence and woman was her priestess. Probably at the same time the men had a hunter's god, who presided over the animals. Later, perhaps, came the idea of a future life and thoughts of the next world as being an unhappy place unless you could attain to the abode of the gods, a sort of paradise. This was thought of as a place cf rest and refreshment where one would grow young again ready for reincarnation on earth.
Primitive man feared to be born again outside his own tribe, so his ritual prayers to his god were that he might be born again in the same place and at the same time as his loved ones, and that he might remember and love them again. The god who rules this paradise must, I think, have been Death, but somehow he is identified with the hunting god and wears his horns. This god of death and hunting, or his representative, seems at one time to have taken the lead in the cult, and man became the master. But it is emphasised that because of her beauty, sweetness and goodness, man places woman, as the god placed the goddess, in the chief place, so that woman is dominant in the cult practice.
What probably happened was this: there was an organised tribal religion, with a male tribal god, and an order of priestesses and their husbands who looked after the magic. The chief priest of the tribal cult was dominant when he attended their meetings, but in his absence the priestess ruled. My witches speak of him as god of 'Death and what lies beyond': by this they not only mean the life in the next world but resurrection (or reincarnation).
He rules a sort of happy hunting ground, where ordinary folk go and forgather with like-minded people; it may be pleasant or unpleasant according to your nature. According to your merits you may be reincarnated in time, and take your chance where and among whom this takes place; but the god has a special paradise for his worshippers, who have conditioned their bodies and natures on earth, who enjoy special advantages and are prepared more swiftly for reincarnation which is done by the power of the goddess in such circumstances as to ensure that you will be reborn into your own tribe again. This is taken nowadays to mean into witch circles.
It would seem to involve an unending series of reincarnations; but I am told that in time you may become one of the mighty ones, who are also called the mighty dead. I can learn nothing about them, but they seem to be like demigods - or one might call them saints.
At a later time there were, perhaps, other reasons why women may have been dominant in the cult practice, though, as I point out later, there are quite as many men among witches as women. The Bible tells us of the poor persecuted Witch of Endor, working in secret when all other witches had been driven out of the land. It also tells us of Huldah the Sorceress, living in state in Jerusalem, consulted by the King on high points of religion when the High Priest himself could not answer.
The unfortunate consequence of the low position of woman in the Middle Ages, when it was against the general tradition of the Church to try and improve her status, or raise it to what it was in pre-Christian times, should be remembered. So the Church fulminated against Haracelsus when he wrote a book in praise of women, calling him a 'woman worshipper'. As Mr. Hughes says:
'This meant that many women resented this subjugation, and a secret religion, where woman was important and which made sexual activity a proud mystery instead of a drudgery, was made. This religion also served as a psychological Cave of Adullam for emotional women, repressed women, masculine women, and those suffering from personal disappointment, or from nervous maladjustment which had not been resolved by the local resources of the Church.'
The individual motives which persuaded a person to become a witch, other than those to whom witchcraft was an old religion, must have been fairly complicated. As other cults have found, although the practices gave rest, peace, and joy to many, some of their recruits were rather an embarrassment, and as legions of spies may have tried to gain entrance to betray them, from an early date recruits were admitted only from people who were of the blood; that is, from a witch family. The various rituals of worship, secrets of herbal lore, and the Great Secret of what they call magic, have been handed down to what has become more or less a family secret society.
In Palestine and other countries there are two kinds of witches: the ignorant herbalist and charm-seller, and the witch who is a descendant of a line of priests and priestesses of an old and probably Stone Age religion, who have been initiated in a certain way (received into the circle) and become the recipients of certain ancient learning.
At times the Church ignored the witch; but when the Papacy became firmly established the priests treated the cult as a hated rival and tried to persecute it out of existence. The Puritans also took up the work with glee, and between them they practically succeeded.
From the eleventh century onwards the Church had a number of dangerous rivals. The Manichean doctrines were widespread in southern Europe; these had many different sects but they lived peacefully side by side. They were largely synonymous with the Catharists. They had their own bishops and deacons, and had great reverence for their 'Perfects' - initiated persons who were regarded as almost divine.
They prostrated themselves before them, saying: 'Benedicite.' The Perfects also adored each other, though this adoration was not directed towards themselves but towards the Holy Spirit who had descended upon them. The Church charged the Catharists with believing and teaching that they could freely indulge in all kinds of pleasures or debaucheries until they entered the circle of Perfects; that their souls wandered about from one creature to another (reincarnation) until they became Perfects, and then ascended to heaven at death. They were also charged with persuading people not to give money to the Church.
There were similar sects known as Waldenses and Albigenses. We know practically only what the Church tells us about them and she makes identical charges against them all, with witchcraft thrown in for good measure. Crusades were organised, very large numbers of people were massacred, the sects disappeared underground, and the persecution was switched to the heathens, the People of the Heaths, who carried on the old religion. Seemingly it was taken for granted that all heathens were heretics and witches, and that all witches were automatically heretics.
As part of this campaign all sorts of false ideas were spread until the popular notion of a witch became that of the common definition: 'a witch is an old woman who flies through the air on a broomstick'. Now no witch ever flew through the air on a broomstick or on anything else, at least not until aeroplanes came in. There is indeed a fertility charm to bring good crops which is performed by riding on a pole, or broom, as a hobby-horse. Doubtless ancient witches practised this rite, leaping high to make the crops grow.
In early trials witnesses speak of seeing the accused riding on poles, or brooms, across the fields (not through the air), and this was often accepted as the evidence that they were practising fertility magic, which became a penal offence. In the Castletown Museum there is one of these poles for riding, the head being carved in the shape of a phallus to bring fertility.
In the Isle of Man in 1617 a woman was seen trying to obtain a good harvest in this way. She was tried, convicted and burnt to death in the market place. There was plenty of evidence that she was alone in her fertility-making attempt, but her young son was burnt with her, for it was well known that children were usually initiated when they were quite young. This just shows what a myth the old witch story is. The children were made witches when they were young, therefore witches were of all ages. Indeed, reports of the trials often include such items as these: 'Convicted and burned, two witches, girls of 16, both young and damnably pretty.'
When practically all the witches were driven underground it is estimated that nine million people were tortured to death during the persecution in Europe; any old woman who then lived by herself, and who was a nuisance or unpopular, was liable to be accused, especially if she kept a pet and talked to it, or talked to herself, as so many lonely old women are apt to do. Such an accusation meant fun for the mob, stripping, pricking, ducking and so on, as well as good pay for the professional witch-finder.
In England, Mathew Hopkins made a very good thing out of this. He went about finding out who was unpopular with the Puritan regime and tortured them to get confessions; he also picked up any unpopular old women on the way and had them executed. He was paid a pound a head for all convictions; and this represents considerably more nowadays. There were many others who did the same. Pricking and swimming ensured a charge and the offenders could be tortured at will.
Often they confessed, for hanging, or even half an hour's burning, was better than weeks of continual torture. In this way the old witch notion became generally believed. It is unlikely that any of these old women were real witches, that is, that they had been initiated into the circle; but doubtless some of them knew many old wives' cures.
To go back to a much earlier time, Arne Runeberg tells us of the grave of a witch of the Bronze Age found in Denmark. Among costly swords and gold jewellery this female magician had a bronze bowl containing the following. We add their uses in modern days:
1. The claw of a lynx. Used today as medicine and as an amulet.
2. Bones of a weasel. Weasel's skin is still used as a remedy against all sorts of diseases in animals.
3. Vertebrae of snakes. Pulverised snake-skin and snake joints are still used as medicine for sick animals.
4. Horses' teeth, torn out and broken in pieces. These are used today, hung round children's necks to make their teeth grow strong.
5. Twig of rowan. Rowan twigs are used today as charms, etc.
6. Charcoal of aspen. Charcoal of an aspen tree set on fire by lightning is still a medicine of special force.
7. An iron knife blade and a bronze thread. Steel has a great force, especially if it has an edge.
8. Two pieces of iron pyrites. Every sort of ill-willing is cured by striking fire with pyrites over the patient.
9. A number of pieces of small bone, pebbles and clay.
Thus it would seem that old ideas continued for a long time. This Bronze Age witch was evidently an important person, and the cures she used are practically the same as Danish folk charms today, so it is at least conceivable that other knowledge might also survive.
The Scandinavian Sagas show striking resemblances to the European witch beliefs of today, riding on staffs, wild waving hair, sending the soul out of the body, changing of shapes and many other things. The religion of the ancient Celts was quite different from the Scandinavian, but the Druids were, priests, doctors and teachers causing good or bad harvests, making women and cattle fruitful, and causing a magic (hypnotic) sleep.
The accounts of both Latin and Gaelic writers give us a fair idea of the high estimation the natives had for their Druids, and both in Gaul and in Ireland it was believed that the cult originated in Britain. So they sent their 'theological students' there to learn its doctrines from the purest source. Pliny the Elder tells us that Britain 'might have taught magic to Persia'. We know little of their teachings but they believed in reincarnation.
Caesar tells us they held the following belief: 'Souls are not annihilated, but pass after death from one body to another ... by this teaching men are much encouraged to valour, through disregarding the fear of death.' This was the usual belief, as the hero Cuchulain was urged by the men of Ulster to marry, because they did not wish to lose so great a warrior to the tribe, and knew that he would be reborn again among his descendants. The Book of the Dun Cow tells us that the famous Fin mac Coul was reborn in Ulster in the person of King Mongan, two hundred years after his death.
There was also a class of diviners called Druidesses and mentioned by Caesar in his De Bella Gallica, who were looked on as even more ancient than the Druids; they were shape-changers and seem to have had all the characteristics of witches. They made rain by sprinkling water over or beside nude virgins. Christians accused them of 'baptising' children into heathenism. Their association could only be entered by initiation, and learning and practising their secret lore. Their magic power was much feared by early Christians, who ascribed it to the Devil.
If we only knew really what the Druids believed and taught, whether there was only one form of belief and whether they had various sects among them, it would be easier to say whether there was any connection or not with witchcraft. The latter may have been purely orthodox, thought of as extremely high or ultra low in type, the fanciful religion of a lot of women, a vile heresy, or simply the religion of the natives that no decent person might have anything to do with. It is quite possible that it was several of these things at different times and in different parts of the country.
My own impression is that it was thought of as the religion of the pre-Celtic peoples with their own gods, and the Druids thought it good and right that people should have and worship their own gods. But slowly Celtic ideas crept in. I think the myth of the goddess is clearly such. That is, a minor Celtic goddess crept in and by her beauty and sweetness wrought great changes in a primitive hunters' cult.
This is simply a wild guess on my part, and I give these personal opinions because I am not permitted to detail the rites and prayers on which I base them. And, of course, the reverse may have happened; it may have been an orthodox Celtic cult into which more primitive beliefs and practices infiltrated during the crash following the Roman invasion and the introduction of Christianity, and we must take into account the effects of the Greek and Roman mystery religions.
After the Saxon invasion there probably was an influx of Roman-British nominal Christians, who entered the witch-cult thinking that the invasion was a punishment for deserting the old gods, and that the witches' gods were the true ancient gods with other names.
It may only be a coincidence that in Mexico there was a witch cult much resembling that in Europe, which existed from pre-Columbian times. They had a goddess, or witch queen, always represented as naked and carrying or riding a broom. (This represented cleanliness or ritual purity in Mexico.) The European witch laid great stress on cleanliness and purity.
At their meetings the women were always naked, but wore either a necklace or a short cape (women witches in Europe lay great stress on necklaces). In Mexico the men wore a skin flap fore and aft, like the Irish witches, but removed this for certain ceremonies. Indians did not kiss, but gave a caress of welcome. They usually worked within small chambers, with wall paintings, which confined the power raised, just as witches use a circle for the same purpose.
Though it is not impossible that there was some intercourse across the Atlantic before Columbus, I think it is more likely that similar causes produced similar effects on both sides of the world.
It may seem impossible to some that any cult could have preserved its identity and teachings for so long; yet you must remember that it is not merely the religious legend which is preserved but also the rite, the conditioning and the effect that it produces. The religion may change, the race may change, the language may change, but the cause and effect remain, and it is this which tends to keep the legend unchanged.
As Christianity came in witchcraft had to be concealed. Under the Saxons it continued in out-of-the-way communities, or was driven to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Many of the cult members, together with remnants of the earlier inhabitants, would live in places to which the conquering race did not go. After a few generations of scanty food a naturally small race, probably intermarrying with Picts and pygmy tribes, would become even smaller in comparison with the big well-fed Saxons, so they became the 'Little People', the Pixies - a word surely derived from Picts. This wild race - hunters who had to practise concealment, known to practise some sort of magic rites, using poisoned arrows -would naturally become rather hated and dreaded. A well-known verse describes the situation:
Up the rocky mountain, Down the mossy glen, We dare not go a-hunting For fear of little men.
They were uncanny people, but though they disliked others trespassing on their domains, they could be good friends if you were kind to them and would help you in time of need. In the Isle of Man there is the Fairies' Bridge which no 'South-sider' ever passes without saluting the fairies. This comes from the time when the North side was a separate kingdom often at war with the South.
Once the Northerners suddenly invaded the South, driving the Southerners back; the latter were making a last desperate stand at this bridge, when suddenly clouds of long reed arrows, tipped with flints, smeared with some black substance, came at the invaders' rear. The Northerners recognised them; a scratch from them meant death. The cry was raised: 'Fly, the little men are attacking us!' and the invaders fled. This was later made into a fairy story to amuse children, or because of people's love of the marvellous; but doubtless it did happen.
In Borneo about fifty years ago I saw the terror raised by a similar flight of arrows from blowpipes. They were about the size and length of thin knitting needles. A scratch caused paralysis in about thirty seconds; death followed in a few minutes. I never ran so fast before or after; but I couldn't catch up with the others of the party.
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