Witches in the past were widely persecuted. In 15 –17th Century, witches were hunted down and killed because they were considered evil and against the bible teachings.
However looking at witchcraft through the modern technology, we can conclude that it was not as bad as it was thought to be. The work of witches has greatly contributed to the modern medicine. In many societies, witches were the doctors. They cured diseases by appeasing the offended spirits. In fact, it is the role of the witches and magicians in different society that emerged to be the different modern medical professionals we know today.
Most of the plants witches used to cast away evil spirits are being used to today in modern medicine. For example Datura stramonium was used by the native Indians and it is currently used to treat motion sickness. It is now known as Scopolamine.
In some societies, witches performed minor surgery to help in their rituals. Some archaeological evidences have shown bones that were surgically repaired which may have been broken during wars or accidents. It is assumed that witches performed these surgeries. Witches also made incisions on their patients’ bodies to apply their herbs. When you look at what they did, the modern science is doing the same except that we don’t believe infections are evil spirits.
The mythology about witches have remained for a long time. These myths do have a grounding in reality (even though we can’t really settle on whether witches are real or not). This brings us to the question- why are witches always depicted with broomsticks? Of all the things they could fly away on, a broomstick seems to be a rather odd device.
This is quite a NSFW tale, but one that is extremely interesting. From a modern view point, it is believed that witches were essentially women who were considered too knowledgeable or too forward for that particular age (and in some cases, people who were too old, and could not defend themselves against accusations). At that point, women were supposed to be domesticated, and remain at home, so professional women were not found too often. In this situation, a broomstick became something associated with the women- for they were the gender that was supposed to do all the domestic work.
However, there is another side to broomsticks– they are rather phallic in stature. Add this to the fact that they were used widely by women, the idea of “riding away on a broomstick” became an image that described women that did not follow the rigid gender, and sexual morality of the day and period. This is the reason why witches are always depicted to fly on broomsticks.
The average person sees at least 3 witches a day, but remains clueless. Witches, on the other hand, tend to see only those who fit their own version of a “witch”. Some say that only caucasian people with red, curly hair can inherit witchy tendencies while others say that witchcraft is a European practice. Unfortunately, regardless of position all of these people are missing something important. Since you can’t point to a distinct ethnic group and label them “witches”, the only way to discover who today’s witches are by examining practices.
Witches use herbs to ease ailments, as has been common among African Tribes. African witches are considered healers and are persecuted, as they have been in other cultures. They observe nature, then use those observations to affect change. They provide comfort and create seasonal rituals. Obviously, these practices are not limited to Europe. In fact, you’ll find that every civilization thriving in today’s world, began with a cluster of primitives struggling to survive. In other words, there are witches in every culture, and anyone can claim their life is that of an hereditary witch. However, you also see these practices in scientific research.
That’s right, science. In fact, we may have had communities on the moon and Mars if human-kind had not suffered the plague, then the dark ages. Without the mass, forced conversions of that time the human race – as a whole- might be living in distant galaxies by now. Many of the lingering prejudices against women and different skin tones may have never developed without the inquisition’s aftermath that triggered all of the colonizing, and took monotheism out of Europe to other lands.
Who is a witch? Anyone you speak with, see or hear about might be casting a circle, and settling into meditation, at this very moment.
I enjoy fictional witches, but I try to remember that there are real people reconstructing and practicing many of these “old ways”. With Christmas approaching, I grew curious about the winter holidays celebrated by modern witches and Wiccan. Their holidays are based on the seasons, not famous people or infamous events.
Yule is the most popular winter holiday, and its festivities are often combined with winter solstice revelry. Some groups meet for potluck feasts where coven members exchange handmade gifts, give handmade ritual tools, or give fellow practitioner a prized book from the giver’s own bookshelves. Beverages can include home-brewed mead and traditional or non-alcoholic Wassail. A formal ritual often follows, at midnight. While the preferred ritual setting is outdoors, cold weather means casting the circle inside, where the chances for frostbite are much lower.
Apparently Wicca, like Christianity, is divided into different sects or traditions. Someone following a Celtic tradition will have different ritual tools and practices from someone following a Norse tradition. Each pantheon has different names for their gods and goddesses, with each deity having his or her own characteristics and skills, but the seasonal celebrations are common to all.
What is your image of a witch? Is she a crone with a big nose and warts or pretty and sparkly? The cinema has a lot to answer for in terms of how we visualize witches. Ok most are for children and clear definitions of good and evil are characterized by how they look or are dressed. Simplistic but true. It will be interesting next year to see how they are depicted in the new film for grown ups, The Last Witch Hunter – already know they are evil! Mind you books use the same interpretation! I have been reading a Roald Dahl classic to the library’s Saturday children’s club, no matter your age you can always enjoy a Roald Dahl book. I know I do The Witches is a tale, where a boy and his grandmother are attempting to find the Grand High Witch; now these witches look normal until they take off their masks and become the ugly warty stereotypes of an evil witch, which is what they are after all in the book. Thank goodness for Harry potter books and a slightly different perspective on witches. How do you imagine them? All said witches get a pretty raw deal, hunted and immolated from the first law passed in 1541 to 1951; the practice of witchcraft illegal in Britain. After the repeal of the law witches and wiccans became more open. What is the difference between the two? Simple, Wiccan is a belief system and witchcraft is a practice. I thought it might be interesting to know more about this so look out for my next post…
This posts book recommendation:, The Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchet another perspective on witches. Disc World books are a passion with me so watch for more recommendations from this excellent author
I love my job and have certainly enjoyed this placement in the Northwest of England, in Lancashire. There is quite a documented history here of the Pendle Witches in Lancashire. In 1612 ten people were executed as witches. Their story is one of politics, fear and how story telling could at that time change or even take someone’s life. There were actually laws at that time that accepted witches existed, so these poor people where put on trial at Lancaster. You can actually go and visit the castle where the trial was held.
This excellent BBC production can take you on the journey from your armchair. It is well worth watching Tells you all about this event, taking you along the paths walked by the witches and their accusers.
Lancashire has embraced its history and there are lots of activities surrounding the Pendle Witches, children are encouraged to learn their history in various ways. One of the competition entries wrote about how she was part of a project in 2012 discovering the story of the witches, and over Halloween attended a residential weekend where they all told spooky stories; hers was about the child of one of the witches who turned on her mother.
16 century England was not a place to be old or ugly and have a cat, apparently those are the most obvious signs of being a witch, I guess being old and cantankerous wouldn’t help either. If combined with the above you happened to have a wart or mole then it was obvious you had signed a pact with the devil.
Book suggestions: ‘Sweep ‘by Cate Tiernan. YA fantasy novel about a young witch and the adventures she has with her friends and you must try “ Mist over Pendle” by Robert Neill