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Fantastic Bestiary 5: Witches

Andreas_Helixfinger at 12:00AM, April 24, 2022
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As Easter has come by to melt away the final vestiges of a long, cold winter (at least up in these parts where I live) it feels like a good time to bring up the mythology of witches. Witches have a central role in the Easter that we celebrate here in Sweden. Children will dress up as påskkärringar, which in english translates to Easter witches, which according to Swedish folklore are witches that flies on their magical brooms to Blockula, on the Thursday before Easter, to participate in all sorts of crazy, magical debauchery with the devil himself.

The kids however will just dress up like em’ and get lots of free candy treats, the greedy, little posers that they are:P But for this article I’m not gonna talk about the Easter witches any further, I’m instead gonna make a quick rundown on eight witches, well-known or otherwise in no particular order, from myth and folklore. So without further ado here they are:

THE WITCH OF ENDOR

No, not the Endor you’re thinking about Star Wars fans. Though I guess it would be kind of cool if that planet had a witch, as a well as a forest moon full of Ewokes, orbiting around. Let’s just say that the Christian bible’s distaste for the practice of witchcraft or any other kind of occult practice has a lot to do with the witch of Endor and her bussiness with King Saul of Israel. You see King Saul and his sons were preparing to march into a battle with their enemies, the Philistines (Not mearely for disrespecting art I assume^^).

Now Saul wanted the advantage of supernatural insight on how the battle was going to play out, the cheating bastard. So he first asked God to see into the future for him, but he wouldn’t answer his prayers. So Saul then decided to summon the witch of Endor to do it. Who exactly was the witch of Endor? No one really knows that much about her other then that she was a well-known medium in the region. He disguised himself so she wouldn’t know she was in the presence of a king.

He then asked the witch to summon the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel so that he could reveal before Saul what was gonna transpire. She refused at first, fearing punishment for breaking King Saul’s edict against sorcery, but Saul assures her that she won’t be punished. And so it is done. The spirit of Samuel is raised only to berate Saul for disobeying God and then predicts his downfall. Saul would perish in the battle along with his whole army. The spirit vanishes and Saul collapses in terror. The witch of Endor comforts him and prepares him a meal of a fatted calf to restore his strenght.

The spirit’s prediction would come true during the day of the battle. The Israelite army is defeated by the Philistine army, Saul is fatally wounded in battle and commits suecide by falling on his sword. Tragic. But is the witch of Endor really to blame? She just did what Saul asked her to do. I guess it would be interpreted that Saul’s death was a punishment from God for turning to sorcery for insight, which became a strong incentive to have an injunction against the use of sorcery. God don’t like it so we don’t like it kind of thing. Amen.

CIRCE

Aaah, you knew she’d come up, didn’t ya’? Circe is probably one of the most, if not THE most, infamous witch of old myth and ancient legend. For those who aren’t familiar with Circe though, she is the witch that appears in the Odyssey. After escaping the Laestrygonians - having many of his scouts eaten and his ship nearly sunken in the process – Oddyseus and his crew ends up on the shore of Aeaea, the island of the witch-godess Circe.

Circe was well-known for her magical powers as well as her knowledge of plants and potions. In some accounts she’s said to be the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and of one of the Oceanids, sea nymphs. Other times she is referred to as the daughter of Hecate, the godess of magic. She transforms Odysseus crewmen into pigs and so Oddyseus goes off to face her and have them changed back to normal. Before getting to her he is visited upon by Hermes who reveals to Odysseus how to defeat the seductive sorceress.

He follows Hermes advice, Circe is defeated and she turns Oddyseus men back into humans, becoming his lover in the process. A whole year of luxury and pillow talk later Odysseus realized he probably should head home to his wife on Ithaca (No rush there:P). The greatful, loving Circe, who may or may not have given birth to a kid or two at this point, gives Odysseus some helping directions – that sends him and his crew all over the place, including on a side quest into the Underworld.

Also, after Odysseus death, Circe uses her magic potions to bring her ex-lover back to life and Odysseus is so greatful for this that he forces his son Telemachus and Circe's daughter Penelope to marry, which down the line will result in Telemachus killing his mother-in-law Circe in a heated argument, his wife Penelope killing him to avenge her mother and Odysseus dying off again out of grief. Greek tradegy ending at its finest^^

THE BELL WITCH

From ancient mythology to a folklore legend that is not too old actually. The urban legend of the Bell Witch originates in the 1800’s Tennessee, USA. Settler John Bell and his family relocates to Tennessee from North Carolina in the early 1800’s, purchasing a a large homestead. And it’s not long before strange things starts to happen, such as sightings of a bizarre animal with the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit out in the cornfields.

Then young Betsy Bell starts to experience physical encounters with a ghost, claiming it had slapped her and pulled her hair. Bell had at first told his family to keep things quite, but eventually he turned to a neighbour who brought in a group of people led by none other then local general Andrew Jackson. Another in the group claimed to be a ”witch tamer” and brought with him a pistol and a silver bullet.

And it seems like the entity wasn’t too freightened by this guy because he was forcefully ejected from the house. Jackson’s men begged to leave the house and, altough Jackson insisted on investigating further, left the farm the next morning. The spirit had identified itself as the witch of Kate Batts, a neighbour of the Bells, with whom John had experienced bad bussiness dealings over some purchased slaves.

Kate, as the spirit would be called by the locals thenceforth, would keep making daily appearances in the Bell home wreaking havoc on everyone in the household. Once John Bell died Kate would continue to haunt Betsy well into adulthood. Friggin’ ghosts, eh?

MORGAN LE FAY

For those familiar with Arthurian legend this witch should pop up in your memory. Appearing first in Geoffrey the Monmouth’s ”The life of Merlin” written in the first half of the twelth century, Morgan has become known as a classic seductive witch luring men with her charms and going wild with supernatural shenanigans. According to the collection of arthurian tales called Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate cycle, Morgan fell in love with Arthur’s nephew, Giomar.

Unfortunately, the Queen Guinevere found out about it and ended the affair, so Morgan exacted revenge on Guinvere by busting her love affair with Sir Lancelot. Morgan le Fay, who’s name means ”Morgan of the fairies” in French, appears again in Thomas Malory’s ”Le Morte d’Arthur” in which she was unhappily married to King Urien. At the same time she became a sexually agressive woman who had many lovers, including Merlin, though her love of Lancelot remained unanswered. Curse you chivalry!

MEDEA

Greek mythology has quite a lot of witches actually. When Jason and his Argonauts went on their quest for the Golden Fleece they decided to steal it from King Aeetes of Colchis. What the king didn’t know was that his daughter Medea had gotten attracted to Jason and after seducing and eventually marrying him, this enchantress helped her husband steal the Golden Fleece from her father. Medea was said to be of godly descent, not to mention, a niece of Circe (go figure:P).

Possessing the power of prophecy, Medea was able to warn Jason on what lied ahead on his journey. After he obtained the Golden Fleece he and Medea took of on the Argo and they lived happily ten years after. After that Jason got hooked up with another woman named Glauce who was the daughter of the Corinthian king. Not taking rejection kindly Medea sent Glauce a poisonous golden gown that ended up killing both her and her father.

In revenge the Corinthians killed two of Jason's and Medea’s children. And, I guess to show Jason just how pissed she was about this, Medea killed two of the others herself leaving only one son, Thessalus, to survive. Then she had a golden chariot sent to her by her grandfather, the sun god Helios, and she took off. And I assume she left no Dear John letter behind.

BABA YAGA

Baba Yaga is a witch who’s been depicted sometimes as fearsome and scary, sometimes the heroine of the story, sometimes both, in the Slavic folklore she orginates from. She’s described to have a long nose and teeth of iron. She lives in a hut at the edge of the forest, which can move around on its own being said to have the legs of a chicken. But Baba Yaga does not ride around on a flying broomstick. Instead she rides around in a giant mortar which she pushes around with an equally large pestle, rowing it around like a floating boat on land.

And she always sweeps the tracks left behind away with a broom made of silver birch. One never quite knows if Baba Yaga will help or trouble those who seek her out. Bad people will often get their comeuppances, but its not like she does it to help the good ones. It’s rather just that the natural order of things recquire that bad actions bring bad consequences, and she’s just there to make what goes around come around. Makes sense to me.

LA BEFANA

The Epiphany is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus. In Italy, around the time of this holiday, the legend of the witch La Befana is popularly told. According to the folklore, on the night before the feast of the Epiphany in early January, Befana flies around on her broom delivering gifts. Much like Santa Claus she leaves candy, fruit and small gifts in stockings of children who are well-behaved throughout the year.

If a child is being naughty however he or she can expect a lump of coal left behind by La Befana. Besides flying her broom she will also use it to tidy up a messy house and sweep the floor before she departs to her next stop. I’d say she she’s more considerate then Santa this way because you gotta get a bit sooty coming down through someone’s chimney. She may wrap up her visit by indulging in a glass of wine or a plate of food left out by parents as thanks.

Some scholars believe that the story of La Befana has pre-christian origins, as the tradition of leaving or exchanging gifts may relate to an early Roman custom that takes place in midwinter. Today many italians celebrate a festival in La Befana’s honor. Merry La Befana day?

GRIMHILDR

Grimhildr is a norse witch who’s story appears in the Völsunga Saga where she is described as a fierce-hearted woman, married to Gyuki, one of the Burgundian kings. She was easily bored and amused herself by enchanting various people - including the hero Sigurdr, who she wanted to see marry her daughter Gudrun. The spell worked and Sigurdr left his wife Brynhild. As if that wasn’t enough mischief on her part, Grimhildr decided her son Gunnar should marry the spurned Brynhild, but Brynhild wasn’t cool with that.

She said she would only marry a man who was willing to cross a ring of fire for her. So Brynhild lit a circle of fire around her and dared any willing suitor to cross it. Sigurdr who knew he would cross the flames safely, thinking he’d be out of trouble if he could see his ex-wife happily remarried, and so he offered to make a body swap with Gunnar and get across. Grimhildr agreed to this and used her magic to have him and Gunnar magically swap bodies. So Brynhild was fooled to marry Gunnar, but she figured out about how she’d been tricked later on and ended up killing both Sigurdr and herself.

Grimhildr then married her daughter Gudrun off to Brynhild’s brother Atli, because—why not:P Life just can't be a bore when you’re a wicked witch.

And that was my quick little rundown of witches in myth and folklore. A little bit different then earlier articles, but it was no less a fun little research.

So what did you think of it? Have you ever had any of these or any other mythic witch as characters in you story? What fantastical creature or entity of fiction or myth, any fiction or myth, would you like to suggest that I bring up in the next installment of this series?

Let me know in the comments below and for those who are celebrating this weekend I wish you all a happy, witch-filled Easter.

Helixfinger out!

comment

anonymous?

marcorossi at 2:45AM, April 25, 2022

Years ago I read this book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/652335.The_Witch_Hunt_in_Early_Modern_Europe by Levack, and as far as I know it is still considered the main book about witch hunts. @bravo1102: according to said book the only really big witch hunt that happened in Italy happened at the same time of the crusade against the Cathars, and it was also the first historical witch hunt, so I think it is fair to say that the witch craze was contemporary to the wars against heresy, but only if we count the Cathars together with the Protestants.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:18AM, April 25, 2022

A lot of eye-opening discorse going on here. I love it:) @PaulEberhardt - We celebrated Easter the weekend before last weekend, but Glad Påsk to you too non the less:)

bravo1102 at 4:49PM, April 24, 2022

The "wise woman" hypothesis is no longer generally accepted because of comprehensive study of existing trial records. The witch craze postdates the crusades against heresy but the Hammer of the Witches borrowed a lot of its lore from those trials. More recent scholarship indicates that the actual basis of most of thd devil worshipping hag as witch is from baby killing "terror by night" "old hag" folklore and antisemitism. Antisemitism is never far away from the image of witches. It's also amazing how much push back and how soon there was against the Malleus Maleficarium. There are a lot of revisions to be made to popular images of witchcraft and the witch craze being made based on in depth examination of the surviving records as opposed to broad brushing the phenomenon based on political agendas.

marcorossi at 10:10AM, April 24, 2022

Finally I'll note that, in the early theory of the devil that can only lie but has no powers, the two main ways the devil had to lie to mortals was by influencing dreams (incubi and succubae) and by influencing divination, so reading horoscopes and expecially speaking to the dead to have vision of the future (the original meaning of the word necromancy) was super forbidden.

marcorossi at 10:06AM, April 24, 2022

Both catholics and protestants believed this stuff, and this lead to the very brutal witch hunts, that were more common in those parts where there was a mix of catholics and protestants at war with each other, so everybody was in fear that their neighbour was secretly following the wrong religion (mostly the zone between France and Germany).

marcorossi at 10:02AM, April 24, 2022

This happened in the period of the great religious wars against the heretics (first the catars, later the protestants) and witches were perceived as a sort of satanist heresy, so the same anti-heretic strategies were used against witches, and torture was used to force them to cough out the names of their co-witches, as they were now supposed to act in groups (earlier witches were supposed to act alone).

marcorossi at 9:57AM, April 24, 2022

This was a theory from saint Augustine. So while common people believed in witches and from time ro time blamed some woman for random things and executed them, the church mostly was against this practice. However this changed around 1200 and stuff like the Malleus Maleficarum (hammer of the witches, an official manual for witch hunting) were accepted by the church. Basically the theories of the church about the devil changed and they believed it had actual powers, so they started to believe in witches too.

marcorossi at 9:51AM, April 24, 2022

My understanding of the concept of witchcraft in christianity is this: there were many pre Christian beliefs in magic women, that passed into folklore during the Christian period. However the official church theory on these things was that witches were actually powerless because the devil has no actual power on the world, it only lied to people to make them believe they had powers and thus make them sin and take their souls to hell.

bravo1102 at 6:09AM, April 24, 2022

We had a period debate on witchcraft in college in magic and witchcraft class. Lot of fun. I even wrote a report on the figure of Friar Roger Bacon who is often depicted as a sorcerer in addition to being an important figure in the development of the scientific method. In Jamestown they do a "You the Jury" dramatization of an actual witch trial from Virginia in the 17th century. Problem is the record of verdict in the trial is musding(Virginia records were seriously damaged in the Civil War) And if you wonder where were the Renaissance rationalist and early scientists about the witch craze many spoke out against them. Many respected religious leaders spoke out against them whereas Issac Newton believed in witchcraft.

bravo1102 at 6:00AM, April 24, 2022

Textual analysis of the story of the witch of Endor indicates that she cast a horoscope. The word translated as "witch" is actually fortune teller, soothsayer and astrologer not sorcerer. Magic was a big part of Brinze Age Near Eastern traditions that ancient Judaism arose from. See all those Babylonian curses and charms we still have preserved in cuneiform. Medea is supposed to be from a culture influenced by Mesopotamia IIRC as the fleece was in Asia Minor. Hecete is Astarte/Ishtar who may also have been the model for the witch of Endor.

bravo1102 at 5:49AM, April 24, 2022

Many transcripts of the witch trials still exist and can be accessed in various archives. Studying them has shown that far fewer witches were actually executed than originally thought because magistrates often saw through the flimsy spectral evidence and that it was really about taking property from well off widows or revenge on a bothersome neighbor. The Catholic church Inquisition actually tried to stop witch trials because they were interested in heresy. But heresy trials often included elements that later became part of the witch character like the devil worshipping. Interestingly in many instances writers chose to use terms and practices from Hebrew worship to describe witchcraft and fueled antisemitism. Some research indicates that areas with a large Jewish population had fewer witch trials because they just persecuted Jews.

PaulEberhardt at 4:11AM, April 24, 2022

The idea that witches were originally pagan priestesses is relatively recent, by the way, postulated in 1921 in Margaret Murray's seminal work "Witch Cults of Western Europe", which some years later prompted SS-leader Heinrich Himmler to fund extensive witch research in the hope of finding out about pagan rituals. If you research about witches you'll sooner or later stumble upon something from his vast collection sooner or later - only you won't necessarily notice, because it's not exactly something people advertise. Something that definitely existed, however, were village women who knew a lot about herbal medicines and also how to use them for abortions, which is why this kind of thing tended to be hushed up, in turn raising suspicions among fanatics. Which reminds me: when my region was under Swedish rule in the early to mid-17th century it was one of the first to abolish witch trials, along with the Hanseatic towns. Guess they wanted to celebrate Easter in peace. ;)

PaulEberhardt at 4:02AM, April 24, 2022

One thing I learned doing a comic with a witch as one of its main characters was that you basically have to settle on your own version, simply because there are too many ideas about witches around that would make it all complicated and confused. So I've never talked of the old Germanic idea of female spirits sitting in hedges waiting for adolescent boys to come by to drag them in - but these hedgewomen are the etymological root of the German word for witch (Hexe), as well as the English words hag and hex. I toyed with the ideas of incorporating this concept somehow, but my comic isn't THAT kind of comic. ;)

PaulEberhardt at 3:54AM, April 24, 2022

With my own witch, I draw a lot (but not exclusively) on regional folklore. Similar to the way Terry Pratchett portrays them (by coincidence - I created her before I read my first Discworld book), witchcraft seems to be a pastime of crazy women of all kinds of ages and status, who use a lot of improvisation with pretty mundane items. Now, my witch has made it a profession, but I like this idea of an origin in magical backyard tinkering. To emphasise that, I wanted to give her magic a distinct, roots-like feel, so instead of looking up Graeco-Roman-Babylonic-Cabbalistic sources that were popularised during the renaissance and that most fantasy uses to depict magic, I tried to make it as Nordic as possible, copying a lot from those Icelandic ideas that survived in writing. People from Scandinavia might recognise typical runestone motifs, too, but I mingled the runic part with Anglo-Saxon sources because I had to study those anyway and know them better.

PaulEberhardt at 3:43AM, April 24, 2022

Glad påsk, then! That's a cool concise treatment of witches through the ages here. I'll bet it was pretty tough to decide which witches had to go in there, what with all the countless regional varieties, associated legends, and of course the way they're treated in fantasy... I know what a huge amount of information I've sifted through when researching for my own witch character - even trying to nail down what a witch actually is can prove troublesome. That's why I think it's a good idea that you narrowed it down to mythological witches here; they're more or less consistent throughout the cultures.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 3:16AM, April 24, 2022

Then later came the witch burnings and the Malleus Maleficarum which was a book written purely as an excuse for torturing people and all this sickness that could have been dealt with had knowledge and usage of herbs and potions not been forbidden because of its ties to sorcery. Seems like the castigation of witchcraft and sorcery in later revisions did more harm then good all around from where I see it.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 3:12AM, April 24, 2022

@hushicho - That is an important thing pointing out. Its easy to forget that the bible have gone through, many, many revisions over the centuries. And like you mentioned King Solomon was a sorcerer who once summoned and tamed a Jinn/Demon to build the temple of Jerusalem on his command. Myself reading about the history of occultism - and considering myself somewhat of an occultist, though more passively now then like before, when I used to perform magic rituals in the forest at night and such - I know that the practice of magic rituals and witchcraft used to be a common part of Christianity back in its earliest days before the Vatican and other institutions and agents got into their heads that magic was a no-no.

hushicho at 12:10AM, April 24, 2022

I always have liked witches, and in fact I have a few series that involve them. There was some interesting stuff here! I would point out that the Witch of Endor and Solomon -- who was very much a sorceror and used magic regularly -- weren't really often judged for their sorcery. That came much later, and it was largely due to Christian dogma. Most lines specifically castigating witches are questionable, thanks to the popularization of the King James Version of their bible and its many permutations.


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