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Where Do Witches Come From, and What Do They Believe?

By Tigger
(Used with permission)

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
~~Macbeth


Everyone knows that witches cook up concoctions of newt's tails and bat's wings to put love or death spells on innocent people, right? They use babies' blood in satanic rituals, dance naked under the full moon, and have ritual orgies with animals. Everyone knows THAT, right? Unfortunately, and partially due to the esteemed Mr. Shakespeare, the word "witch" conjures up the image of one or more ugly hags stooped over a bubbling cauldron in a musty cave, cooking a potion of poison'd entrails (sic), lizard's legs, eye of newt, and baboon's blood. Or maybe they just give out poisoned apples carrying a hundred-year sleeping spell. Perhaps one of the most well known images of witchcraft to this generation is the green-faced hag riding a broom and smoke-writing "Surrender Dorothy" across the sky.

Is this an accurate portrayal of witches? What do they truly believe? Do they worship the devil? Where and when did they originate? Do they really practice magic and put spells on people? These are questions that must be answered if someone is to make an informed opinion, and not simply believe the propaganda of dominant religious leaders and Hollywood.

In the last few years there have been movies and television shows that include marginally (note: marginally) accurate information, like the use of the word 'warlock ' in the WB show Charmed for example, and the notion of cleaning up your own mess in Practical Magic. However, most movies and TV shows have almost no basis in fact at all, like the witch levitating and causing someone's hair to fall out in The Craft. Rather than believe what Hollywood has to say as fact, people need to realize that even though some things may be accurate most of the really exciting or "cool" stuff never happens. No one is brought back from the dead, no one can freeze time, and there are no supernatural beings, no matter how good looking, popping in and out of the physical realm rescuing people from evil forces. (Sorry, folks!) It is important to explain that witches do not worship the devil. Glenda, a local Witch and fellow Cypress student indignantly asked, "Why should I worship a Christian god of evil?" Starhawk, a famous modern-day witch, elaborates eloquently:

The image of the Horned God was deliberately perverted by the medieval Church into the image of the Christian Devil. Witches do not believe in or worship the Devil-they consider it a concept peculiar to Christianity…Our God wears horns-but they are the waxing and waning crescents of the Goddess Moon, and the symbol of animal vitality. In some aspects, He is black, not because He is dreadful or fearful, but because darkness and the night are times of power, and part of the cycles of time. (108)

Witchcraft began many thousands of years ago, before civilization as we know it, when most people belonged to nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers. The only medicine available was what the earth naturally provided. Many became skilled in the art of healing, and their status was raised as a result. There was a great amount of mystery associated with the ability to heal. Today we don't think much of taking an aspirin for a headache, but if you were in the wilderness with no RiteAid available, could you cure a headache? Would you know to make a tea from the inner bark of a willow tree as a mild analgesic?…Or to use slippery elm bark for a sore throat?…Or a combination of Echinacea and golden seal flowers to cure an infection?…Aloe Vera as a mild laxative?…Peppermint for a stomach ache?… Pumpkin seeds as a diuretic?…and the list goes on and on (Dunwich 173-182). These healers, usually women, were highly regarded for their skills and knowledge. What they were able to do was seen as something other than natural; it was seen as magick.

The healers of the tribes were often also the spiritual leaders, and their knowledge of herbs and plants easily fit into the magickal aspect of their lives as well. It is well known that Native Americans used various plants including cannabis and peyote to induce a state of hallucination during many of their rituals, including the infamous rites of passage into manhood. The popular myth that witches fly is probably related to an ancient ointment that, when rubbed on the skin, produces a sense of euphoria and mild hallucination causing the sensation of leaving your body, or flying. The ingredients are toxic and the only 'recipes' available today are for information only, with stern warnings to not ever consider using. The warnings are well founded, since the recipes contain things like belladonna and hemlock, both well known to be extremely deadly (Cunningham 128).

The only truly fair way to assess what witches are, do, and believe, is to ask them. In her book Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler asked Witches from several traditions the question "what is a witch?" Here are some of the answers:

"A Witch above all worships the Triple Goddess and her Consort, The Horned God, in one form or another. A Witch works Magick within a definite code of ethics. A Witch acknowledges and uses the male-female polarity in his/her rites. A Witch takes total responsibility for her actions, herself, and her future."

"Witchcraft is an initiatory mystery religion whose adherents seek, through self-discipline, to live a life dedicated to the pursuit and practice of knowledge, wisdom and compassion under the guidance of the Gods."

"Wicca can be defined as a pagan mystery religion with a polarized deity and no personification of evil." (100)

Adler continues, "The groups were closest on ethics. All agreed with the basic Wiccan Creed-"An ye harm none, do what ye will"(101). This Creed, also called the Wiccan Rede, is the basis of everything the witch stands for and believes. It means that no one and nothing is to be harmed, and that includes the witch him/herself. This puts a tremendous responsibility on the witch to thoroughly examine the motives and all possible outcomes of his/her actions. Most, if not all, Witches believe they should never affect anyone's life or karma without that person's permission. This is directly in opposition to the popular notion of Witches putting secret spells or curses on unsuspecting people.

Starhawk continued about the subject:

Witchcraft is a word that frightens many people and confuses many others. In the popular imagination, Witches are ugly, old hags riding broomsticks, or evil Satanists performing obscene rites. Modern Witches are thought to be members of a kooky cult, primarily concerned with cursing enemies by jabbing wax images with pins, and lacking the depth, the dignity and seriousness of purpose of a true religion.

But Witchcraft is a religion, perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West. Its origins go back before Christianity, Judaism, Islam-before Buddhism and Hinduism, as well, and it is very different from all the so-called great religions. The Old Religion, as we call it, is closer in spirit to Native American traditions or to the shamanism of the Arctic. It is not based on dogma or a set of beliefs, nor on scriptures or a sacred book revealed by a great man. Witchcraft takes its teachings from nature, and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, the flight of birds, the slow growth of trees, and the cycles of the seasons. (16-17)

Goddess Worship / Witchcraft is probably the oldest religion in the history of the world. Evidence of Goddess worship dates back more than 35,000 years. During the Paleolithic period societies were matriarchal tribes of hunter-gatherers with women as leaders, healers, and priestesses. These matriarchal societies were not simply carbon copies of later patriarchal societies with women in the lead instead of men; rather, their form and structure were different with an emphasis on inter-dependence rather than dominance. As the ice sheets covered the Earth, religion was an integral part of daily life; it was centered on the earth's rhythms and seasons. The fertile, abundant Earth was seen as the nurturing, life-giving Mother. People's lives, their very survival, were intimately tied to the earth's abundance. They saw their own life in Her offerings and harvests, and their own death in Her wintertime sleep.

All things are divine, are manifestations of the Goddess. The death of the grain in the harvest, or the death of a deer in the hunt, was considered a divine sacrifice, freely made out of love…It is vitally important not to confuse this conception of sacrifice with the masochistic self-sacrifice that is so often preached as the ideal by patriarchal religions…There is no conflict between the spiritual and the material; we do not have to give up one to gain the other. The spirit manifests in matter: The Goddess is seen as giving us abundance. But the most abundant summer is followed by winter, as the longest day ends in night. Only when one gives way to the other can life go on. (Starhawk 44)

The natural forces of the Mother Earth were life giving and self-renewing. Volcanoes were seen as Her life-giving breasts. Rivers were seen as her birth-waters, gushing forth with vitality as She gave birth to all creation. In accordance to the reverence and veneration felt toward the fertile Mother Earth, women were also held in high esteem. Women were seen as the givers of life, since the connection between sexual relations and birth were not known at the time.

That these ancient cultures worshipped Goddess is evidenced by the many figurines that have been discovered. These figurines are almost all well-endowed, possibly pregnant females, carved or shaped of bone, stone, and/or clay. These small figures have been found throughout Europe, and as Far East as Russia. "Evidence for the worship of the Goddess in Europe and the Near East is accumulating. Just cataloging the finds of female figures and other archaeological records-tools, weapons, eating utensils, ritual objects, burial sites, and dwelling places-would fill several volumes" (Gadon 24).

Probably the most famous of these figurines is the so-called Venus of Willendorf, so-named because it was found near Willendorf, Austria. Carved of limestone, it has been dated to 30,000-25,000 B.C.E. According to MoonRaven's article, of the artifacts known to exist female figures outnumber male figures by more than 10:1. The male figures were poorly made, strongly suggesting the relative importance of the finely carved female figures. MoonRaven goes on to quote Johannes Maringer: "It appears highly probable then that the female figurines were idols of a Great Mother [Religion], practiced by the non-nomadic mammoth hunters who inhabited the immense Eurasian territories that extended from Southern France to Lake Baikal in Siberia."

Further evidence is found in the burial places of ancient peoples. Many crypts have been found, shaped roughly like a womb. The entrance to these burial sites were often shaped like a vulva, signifying the passing, or 'birth' from this life to the next. Many of the dead were covered in red clay (iron ore) to symbolize the blood of birth, with their tools and implements of daily life buried alongside them, for use in the next life. One indigenous tribe near Juneau, Alaska continues this practice and even the modern cemeteries are littered with coffee pots and other implements. They believe that the next life is the opposite of this one; when these tools are placed near the grave they are placed upside-down so they will be right-side-up in the next world.

The Goddess was (and still is) worshipped in Her three-fold aspect: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. As Maiden She is virgin, seen as the new growth in spring, the waxing Moon. "The archetype of the virgin represents that part of woman which is "untouched" by worldly bonds, which has remained pure and uncorrupted…She speaks and lives only her own truth and is straightforward in her actions, following only her own instincts" (Mascetti 65). One of the most famous Maiden deities is Persephone from the Greek Pantheon . According to legend, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, Goddess of fertility upon the Earth. Persephone was gathering flowers one day when Pluto, Lord of the Dead, appeared to her and seduced (some say tricked) her into accompanying him to visit his underworld. While she was there Demeter searched for her daughter; unable to find her, Demeter began to mourn. She neglected the earth and nothing sprouted or grew; the land became barren. When Zeus, King of the Gods, discovered the reason for Demeter's sorrow, he ordered Pluto to release Persephone; Pluto released her, but not before offering her a pomegranate to eat. Innocently she ate three seeds of the pomegranate. She didn't know she was thus assuring her return to the Lord of the Underworld. When she returned to the upperworld and was reunited with her mother, Demeter was so filled with joy that she covered the earth with flowers of all kinds for her daughter. Pluto pressed his claim that she was his wife since she had eaten of the food of the underworld, and Zeus ruled that Persephone was to spend three months of every year in the underworld, but could then return to the upperworld and her mother (Mascetti 162-3). This myth explains why the land is barren in winter; Demeter is mourning until her daughter returns in the spring.

The second aspect of The Goddess is The Mother. Nurturer and protector of all, She is seen in the Full Moon, the bountiful harvests of summer, as the giver of life. Hers is the realm of Home, Love, Protection, and perhaps most of all, Fertility. Another Greek Goddess, more ancient than the Pantheon including Zeus, Apollo, and Demeter, was Gaia. In her book Goddesses and Heroines, Patricia Monaghan writes, "In the beginning…there was only formless chaos; light and dark, sea and land, blended in a shapeless pudding. Then chaos settled into form, and that form was the huge Gaia, the deep-breasted one, the earth. She existed before time began, for Time was one of her children. In the timeless spans before creation, she existed, to herself and of herself alone." (131) The legend goes on to tell how she fashioned a son for herself, mated with him, and gave birth to all things. Monaghan continues, "even after the earth mother had been supplanted as the primary divinity by invading Olympians, the Greeks worshiped Gaia's power with barley and honey cakes placed at sacred openings in her surface….And it was to Gaia-even in the days when Zeus ruled the pantheon-that the Greeks swore their most sacred oaths, thus recognizing her ancient theological sovereignty." (131)

The waning and hidden face of the new Moon, barrenness of winter, and death of living things are under the guidance of the third aspect, the Crone. She has many titles: Keeper of the Karmic Keys, Mistress of Darkness, Bringer of Death, Keeper of Justice, just to name a few. She is Wisdom, Protection, Strength, and Change. One of the most fearsome Crone-Goddesses is the Russian Baba Yaga, who was simply Baba to the Slavic people. Baba Yaga lived in the last sheaf of grain harvested in the autumn, and the woman who bound it would bear a child that year. Her death in the harvest led to a new birth in the spring.

The Hindu Goddess Kali is Mother and Crone together. Kali dances with uncontrollable energy, according to several myths. She once danced with Shiva, Lord of the Dance, and as the two became more competitive, their dancing became wilder, until it seemed the world would shake to pieces. Another time, she fought and killed two demons, dancing in wild celebration in the blood drained from their lifeless bodies. In most, perhaps all, the myths of Kali, she will eventually resume the dance that will end the world. "So terrifying do these bloody rites seem that few understand Kali's spiritual significance. As a symbol of the worst we can imagine, as the most extreme picture of our fears, she offers us a chance to face down our own terror of annihilation…Once faced and understood…Kali frees her worshipers of all fear and becomes the greatest of mothers, the most comforting of all goddesses" (Monaghan 178). Even though the Crone may seem fearful in her destructiveness, hers is a very necessary part of the spiral of life, death, and rebirth. Life can only come from death, from destruction. "…In all cases, one must sacrifice original form (thereby implying its metaphoric or literal death) in order to witness the rebirth of something new and different." (Morrison 9)

With the information presented here, the reader is faced with a dilemma of old thought and new knowledge. One has no choice but to ask the question: Is it accurate to continue thinking of Witches as evil hags putting spells on their unsuspecting victims? That they have made deals with the devil, or that they worship him? The more one learns of Witchcraft the more one realizes that in fact Witches are peaceful, knowledgeable, and ethical. They have had a reverence for Nature and women for many thousands of years, and wish only to live in harmony with Nature, the Goddess, and others.

WORKS CITED:

CUNNINGHAM, SCOTT. THE COMPLETE BOOK OF INCENSE, OILS & BREWS. 1989. ST PAUL, MN: LLEWELLYN, 2000.

DUNWICH, GERINA. THE WICCA GARDEN: A MODERN WITCH'S BOOK OF MAGICKAL AND ENCHANTED HERBS AND PLANTS. CAROL PUBLISHING GROUP: 1997.

GADON, ELINOR W. THE ONCE AND FUTURE GODDESS. HARPERSANFRANSISCO: 1989.

GLENDA. PERSONAL INTERVIEW. 3 NOV. 2001.

MASCETTI, MANUELA DUNN. GODDESSES MYTHOLOGY AND SYMBOLS OF THE GODDESS. NEW YORK: BARNES & NOBLE, 1998.

MONAGHAN, PATRICIA. THE NEW BOOK OF GODDESSES & HEROINES. 3RD ED. ST.PAUL MN: LLEWELLYN, 1998.

MOONRAVEN. HISTORIC ROOTS OF WICCA AND GODDESS RELIGIONS MOONRAVEN'S NEST. 30 APR. 2001 03 OCT. 2001.

MORRISON, DOROTHY. IN PRAISE OF THE CRONE. ST.PAUL MN: LLEWELLYN, 1999.

SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. MACBETH SHAKESPEARE.COM . 7 NOV. 2001.

STARHAWK. THE SPIRAL DANCE: A REBIRTH OF THE ANCIENT RELIGION OF THE GREAT GODDESS. HARPERSANFRANSISCO: 1989.

 

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This page last updated March 10, 2004