What Does the Word Witch Mean

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"Who were the witches?

Where did they come from? Maybe your Great-great-grandmother was one..."

F^ll^ll;^ his is one of those "easy" ques-Wn^Jsj^M tions that require complex an-rHi swers, since during the 1,200+ years that the word has been known, hardly anyone seems to have agreed with anyone else on a proper definition. Even those who call themselves "witches" today, or who point to others as being such, differ widely as to their interpretation of the term.

Is a "witch" someone who does magic, or who reads fortunes? Is a witch someone who worships the Christian Devil? Is a Witch (capital letter this time) a member of a specific faith called "Wicca?" Is a witch someone who practices Voodoo, or Macum-ba, or Candomble? Are anthropologists correct, when they define a witch as anyone outside of an approved social structure who is suspected of doing evil magic and/or of being a monster who can curse people with the "evil eye?" Were the first witches originally shamans, munching on psychedelic herbs and mushrooms?

All these definitions have been claimed as accurate in the past and are used to this day by both friends and foes of (whatever they consider to be) witchcraft. Most people discussing the topic seem to have their own pet definition and are outraged at those with different ideas.

Is there a way out of this quagmire? Is it possible to distinguish between "real" and "fake" witches? Much of the evidence that would enable us to give positive answers to the relevant questions has been deliberately suppressed or destroyed, centuries ago, by those with religious, economic and/or political axes to grind. However, some aspects of the problem can be cleared up with the help of a little linguistic and historical investigation.

As some people may already know, the word "witch" in Modern English comes, via the Middle English wycche, from the Old English/Anglo-Saxon wicce (feminine) and wicca (masculine). The plural noun was wiccan (now used with a capital letter as an adjective for followers of Neopagan Witchcraft, see Chapters 8 and 9).

All these words referred to agents or performers of wiccian,, apparently meaning "sorcery or magic," and they all came from the Germanic root wic-, one of a cluster of similar-sounding roots that all referred to bending, changing, turning, waking, and possibly shouting.

(I know that many people are bugged by etymology, so before people get antsy, I have put most of the formicable details into Appendix 1.)

The Indo-European cultures, like most, clearly associated concepts of speech, intention and the performance of magic, and at least some of the time expressed these ideas in terms of bending, twisting, and weaving. Those are extremely common concepts worldwide for magic and divination (see Real Magic). The references to twisting may have been negative, while those to weaving tie in with hints from other sources that the Western Indo-Europeans may have had their own version of what later developed into the Hindu and Buddhist magical systems known as tantra (based on Sanskrit tan,, "to weave").

There is little here to indicate an ancient religious role for witches except as assumed representatives of the energies of chaos (the "Outsiders" in Proto-Indo-European myths — see Druidism: A Concise Guide and the works of Dumézil in Appendix 5). All Indo-European cultures had specific words for "priest," "priestess," "healer," "midwife," "diviner," "matchmaker," "advisor," "wise one," etc. — few of which appear to have been linguistically related, except in the most meta phorical sense, to the various words which became wicce/wicca in Old English, and eventually "witch" in Modern English.

Despite the modern Wiccan belief that wicca originally meant "wise one," it looks like what it really meant was: (1) someone who bent things to his or her will, (2) someone who could turn aside evil or good, and/or (3) someone who could cast spells — all with a neutral-to-negative connotation even among the "Paleopagans" (see Appendix 2). The "wise one" derivation may have been suggested to Gerald Gardner, the inventor of Wicca as a religion (see Chapter 8), by the word wica, which may have meant "wise." Or he might have been thinking of the word wysard (or "wizard") which does mean "wise one" and which was used in the Middle Ages as a term for a male witch after the masculine form of wicca had been forgotten.

Whatever else they may have been, for good or ill, Paleopagan witches were not the priests and priestesses of "The" Old Religion (as if there had ever been only one) of Ancient Europe, despite the claims of many Neopagan Witches. We know quite a bit about the Paleopagan priests and priestesses in pre-Christian Europe, but their exact relationships, if any, to local witches is unclear.

A hint can be gleaned from the fact that the Celtic clergy were called "druids." That word goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *dru-, the source of other words with such meanings as "oak," "firm," "strong," and "true." There is no doubt that the druids were involved in tree worship (which was indeed common throughout Europe) and that oaks were among the favorite trees in northern climes for this worship. It could be that the druids were called such because they represented the "firm" and "strong" principles of their faith — they were, after all, the highest religious authorities among the Celts.

By contrast, the tree most associated in myth and history with witchcraft seems to have been the willow (PIE *wy-). Perhaps the willow-like "bending" and "chaos" of wicce-craeft and the oak-like "firmness" and "order" of draiocht ("druidism") may point to an ancient distinction between the social functions played by each (see Proto-Indo-European Trees, by Paul Freidrich; The New Comparative Mythology, by C. Scott Littleton; and The Plight of a Sorcerer, by Georges Dumézil).

We do know that, even at the height of the witch-hunting hysteria in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the terms used to refer to the victims (such as bacularia, fascinatrix, herbaria, Hexen, Wettermacherinnen, etc.) all meant people (usually women) with real or assumed herbal, magical, and prophetic knowledge or powers, who were believed to be able to control people, raise storms, and kill or cure humans and animals.

Almost all tribes had full or part time healers, who used both herbs and magic. Frequently they also had seers and weather predictors/controllers. Midwives, almost always female, were also common, and there was frequently a priest and or priestess working at least part time. What causes confusion, especially when dealing with extinct cultures, is that many tribes combined these various offices into different people. Sometimes the healers were the midwives, sometimes the healers weren't midwives but were seers, etc.

As will always be true, in this as in every other area of human activity, all sweeping statements are completely wrong.

Chapter 2: Classic Witches and Wizards hat jobs did the people I call lijisLO/i Classic Witches originally perform? We know their later functions, after the Christian conquest, included healing (with medicines and/or magic), inducing fertility and abortions, providing love potions and poisons, predicting and/or controlling the weather, blessing and cursing, fortune telling, etc. So, for our purposes here, we shall define a Classic Witch as follows: a person (usually an older female) who is adept in the uses of herbs, roots, barks, etc., for the purposes of both healing and hurting (including the making of poisons, aphrodisiacs, hallucinogens, etc.) and who is familiar with the basic principles of both passive and active magic (see my book Real Magic), and can use them for good or ill — as she chooses.

A typical Classic Witch, being an old peasant, might also be a font of country wisdom and superstitions, as well as a shrewd judge of character. Such a person would be of great value to local peasants, but would also be somewhat frightening and resented.

But what did the Classic Witches do when there were still Pagan priests and priestesses around? Remembering that almost everyone in a Paleopagan culture will do simple folk magic for him- or herself, did the Classic Witches exist side-by-side with the clergy, handling simple or private matters while the clergy handled complicated or public ones? Did the Classic Witches merge with the remaining Pagan clergy after the Christian conquest, or replace them entirely? Did the Classic Witches only begin to exist after the clergy had been overthrown, because they were the remnants of that clergy and their descendants, now looked upon with distrust? Nobody really knows, though lots of people have theories.

There do seem to have been religious communities of both genders in Celtic territories, patterned perhaps in a similar way to the ones in India formed in the woods by retired householders who have left their previous castes and duties behind. The ones for Celtic women have been described as being situated on islands surrounded by willow trees which, as mentioned above, were the trees most associated with witchcraft. There were also individual mystics living solitary lives in the woods, perhaps similar to the arhats (saints) of India.

Some Priestesses of Freya in parts of Scandinavia, for example, lived as solitary mystics, minding small temples and riding from village to village with statues of Freya for rituals at various times of the year. Could the Classic Witches have been descended from such communities or individuals?

And where do the "wizards" fit in? The term "wise one" could have been merely a compliment, applied to anyone showing extraordinary wisdom about a topic (even today it is used that way in British slang). Contrary to the beliefs of many occultists and theologians, wisdom never has been perceived as limited strictly to people involved in magic and religion.

The folkloric figure of the wizard is just as late a development as is our knowledge of witchcraft, in the early Middle Ages, yet he too may point to an earlier truth. A wizard is usually described as a loner, a stranger who wanders about performing wondrous deeds with little equipment save a staff or sword. In fact, the description is very similar to that of the Scandinavian god Odin as He walks about the earth. Odin is associated with the dark/dangerous half of the Indo-European "first function" caste of magicians and priests (see Littleton and Dumézil). Could it be that the term wysard became attached to various Pagan priests who had gone into hiding, and who traveled from village to village, providing some of the old priestly services to people now no longer able to get them? Or were wizards really just medieval equivalents to the "cunning folk," much of whose business was undoing the supposed curses of witches, and whom folklorists recorded in England as recently as the early twentieth century?

Classic Witchcraft itself was not a crime during the first ten centuries of the Christian era. Only if a witch caused actual physical damages could he or she be prosecuted, and then for causing harm, not for practicing witchcraft. Indeed, it was official Church policy that all the magic produced by nonChristians was "illusionary" or "demonic," and that belief in the ability of anyone to fly through the air, cast spells, etc., was a Pagan, and "therefore" heretical belief. The official Church document on this was the Canon Episcopi, purporting to be from the fourth century, but actually forged around 906, which (in Rossell Hope Robbins' translation in his Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology) read in part:

It is also not to be admitted that certain abandoned women perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of night fly over vast tracts of country, and obey her commands as their mistress, while they are summoned to her service on other nights.

But it were well if they alone perished in their infidelity and did not draw so many others along with them into the pit of their faithlessness. For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true and, so believing, wander from the right faith and that relapse into pagan errors when they think that there be any divinity or power except the one God...

„.It is therefore to be publicly proclaimed to all, that whoever believes such things or similar things loses the faith...

This Churchly arrogance was the official party line for several centuries and caused theological trouble later when the Inquisition wanted to persecute people for doing what Church doctrine had earlier said was impossible. This indication, coming as late as 906, that the Church was aware of Pagan survivals in its heartland of Italy (assuming that they meant the ancient Roman Diana, and not another goddess of similar nature)

was taken by some writers in the mid-twentieth century as evidence for theories that the great witch hunts (see Chapter 4) were aimed at an underground Pagan cult of Diana worshipers. However, it proves nothing except that there were at least a few Paleopagan survivals connected with women's religious practices in Christendom — something we know from other sources as well.

When the Canon Episcopi was announced, there were still unconverted Paleopa-gans in northern and eastern Europe building temples, carving statues of their gods, giving sacrifices to trees and streams, and so on. There may well have been similar survivals throughout western Europe, for an Anglo-Saxon law of about the same time condemns supposed witches for worshiping wells, trees, stones, etc. This seems to indicate that for several centuries after the Christian conquest of Europe, at least some people called "witches" were only mildly Christianized. This law isn't evidence of an organized cult of witches, however, nor are the worship activities mentioned in it part of the usual modern theories of how a postulated cult of witches worshiped.

Chapter 3:

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