A to Z Challenge Folklore

Wondrous Witches #AtoZChallenge #folklore

W is for Witch.

Learn more here.

Witches and magic have equally enthralled and repelled over the millennia. They’ve been part of the stories we tell, the movies and TV shows we watch and the novels we read (and write).

Folklore

English Fairy and Other Folk Tales by Edwin Sidney Hartland [1890]

WITCH AND HARE

AN old witch, in days of yore, lived in this neighbourhood; and whenever she wanted money she would assume the shape of a hare, and would send out her grandson to tell a certain huntsman who lived hard by that he had seen a hare sitting at such a particular spot, for which he always received the reward of sixpence. After this deception had many times been practised, the dogs turned out, the hare pursued, often seen but never caught, a sportsman of the party began to suspect, in the language of the tradition, “that the devil was in the dance,” and there would be no end to it. The matter was discussed, a justice consulted, and a clergyman to boot; and it was thought that, however clever the devil might be, law and church combined would be more than a match for him. It was therefore agreed that, as the boy was singularly regular in the hour at which he came to announce the sight of the hare, all should be in readiness for a start the instant such information was given: and a neighbour of the witch, nothing friendly to her, promised to let the parties know directly the old woman and her grandson left the cottage and went off together; the one to be hunted, and the other to set on the hunt. The news came, the hounds were unkennelled, and huntsmen and sportsmen set off with surprising speed. The witch, now a hare, and her little colleague in iniquity, did not expect so very speedy a turn out; so that the game was pursued at a desperate rate, and the boy, forgetting himself in a moment of alarm, was heard to exclaim: “Run, Granny, run; run for your life!” At last the pursuers lost the hare, and she once more got safe into the cottage by a little hole in the door; not large enough to admit a hound in chase. The huntsman and all the squires with their train lent a hand to break open the door, yet could not do it till the parson and the justice came up; but as law and church were certainly designed to break through iniquity, even so did they now succeed in bursting the magic bonds that opposed them. Upstairs they all went. There they found the old hag bleeding, and covered with wounds, and still out of breath. She denied she was a hare, and railed at the whole party. “Call up the hounds,” said the huntsman, “and let us see what they take her to be; maybe we may yet have another hunt.”

On hearing this the old woman cried quarter. The boy dropped on his knees, and begged hard for mercy, which was granted on condition of its being received together with a good whipping; and the huntsman, having long practised amongst the hounds, now tried his hand on other game. Thus the old woman escaped a worse fate for the time present; but on being afterwards put on her trial for bewitching a young woman and making her spit pins, the tale just told was given as evidence against her, before a particularly learned judge, and a remarkably sagacious jury, and the old woman finished her days, like a martyr, at the stake.

A witch burning at the stake. Image credit.

Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson [1929]

THE WITCH OF LOK ISLAND

IN olden times when miracles were common in Brittany there lived in Lannilis a youth called Houarn Pogam and a maiden whose name was Bella Postik. They had grown up together and loved each other with all their hearts. When their parents had died, leaving them next to nothing, they were obliged to go into service in the same house.

They ought to have been happy, but lovers are like the ever moaning sea.

“If only we had the means to buy a little cow and a lean pig,” said Houarn, “I would hire a bit of land from our master. Then the priest would marry us and we could live together.”

“Yes,” replied Bella with a heavy sigh, “times are so hard. Cows and pigs were dearer than ever last week at the fair. It is certain that Providence does not care how the world goes round nowadays.”

They complained thus every day until at last Houarn became impatient. One morning he went to the threshing-floor where Bella was winnowing grain and told her he was going to set out to seek his fortune.

Bella was very sad on hearing the news and tried to persuade him not to go. But he would not listen.

“Birds fly straight to the corn field,” said he, “and bees to the flowers for their honey. A man ought to have as much sense as winged creatures. I am going to find what I want, the price of a little cow and a lean pig. If you love me Bella you will not stand in the way of a plan that will bring about our marriage.”

The girl realized that she must consent and said: “Go with Heaven’s help, if you must, but before you go I want to give you the most precious treasures my parents left to me.”

She led Houarn to her linen press and from it took a little bell, a knife, and a stick.

“These relics have never gone out of our family,” she said. “The sound of this bell can be heard at any distance. It warns our friends of any danger we may be in. Whatever this knife touches will escape from the spell of magician or of witch. And lastly this staff will guide the bearer to wherever he may wish to go. I give you the knife to defend you from evil spells, the bell so that it may warn me when you are in danger, but I shall keep the staff and then I shall be able to reach you if you need me.”

Houarn thanked his sweetheart. They shed a few tears together, as in duty bound when one says good-bye, and he started off toward the mountains. Then he decided to turn south and after several days reached the town of Pont-Aven.

One morning he was sitting at the door of the inn and saw two salt dealers pass, leading their mules. Houarn overheard their words, and discovered that they were talking about the witch of Lok Island. Houarn went to them and asked what they meant, and they answered that the witch of Lok Island was a fairy who lived in a lake in the biggest of the Glénan Islands. They told Houarn that this witch was richer than all the wealth of the kings of the world. Many a rash lad in search of fortune had gone to the island to find her treasure but not one of them had ever returned.

When Houarn heard this he at once became eager to go to the island to seek adventure. The mule-drivers tried to dissuade him, saying that good Christians like themselves could not see a man go to certain rack and ruin, and they threatened to keep him back by force.

Houarn thanked them for the interest they showed in him and said he was ready to give up the plan if they would pass the hat around and collect enough money for him to buy a little cow and a lean pig. Whereupon they all changed their tune saying that Houarn was a stubborn-headed chap and that they could not stop him anyhow.

So Houarn went down to the seashore and hailed a ferryman who took him over to Lok Island.

He soon found the pool in the middle of the island. It was surrounded with sea-drift covered with pale pink blossoms. Houarn noticed at the far end of the lake in the shade of a clump of flowering broom a sea-green boat floating on the still water. The boat looked like a sleeping swan with its head under its wing.

As Houarn had never seen anything like this he drew near out of curiosity. Then he stepped into the boat to examine it more closely. Hardly had he put his foot in it than the swan awoke. Its head came out from under its feathers, its web feet spread out in the water, and suddenly it left the shore.

The youth uttered a cry of dismay but the swan only floated more quickly toward the middle of the lake. Then the bird put its bill in the water and plunged, carrying Houarn into the depths. In a moment they had reached the witch’s home.

It was a palace made of sea-shells, lovelier than anything you can imagine. A crystal stairway led up to the door, and it was built in such a curious way that at each step you took the stair sang like a forest bird. All around the palace were immense gardens and lawns of seaweed set with diamonds instead of flowers, and surrounding the gardens was a forest of sea trees.

Houarn stood in the doorway of the palace, and there in the first room he saw the witch lying on a golden bed. She was dressed in sea-green silk as fine and soft as a wave. Coral ornaments were in her black hair which fell down to her feet. Her pink and white face was as delicately tinted as the inside of a shell.

Houarn drew back at the sight of so delightful a being. But the fairy rose up smiling and went toward him. Her walk was as lithesome as the sweep of the waves on the rolling sea.

“Welcome,” she said, motioning him to come in. “There is always a place here for strangers and handsome youths like you.”

Houarn felt bolder and entered the room.

“Who are you? Where do you come from? And what do you want?” asked the witch.

“My name is Houarn,” said the boy, “I come from Lannilis, and I am looking for enough money to buy a little cow and a lean pig.”

“Very well,” answered the witch, “your search shall be rewarded,–you shall have your heart’s desire.”

She then ushered him into a second room the walls of which were hung with threaded pearls. She gave him eight kinds of wine in eight goblets of chased gold. Houarn began by drinking the eight kinds of wine and, as he found them very nice, he drank eight times of each, and always he imagined the witch was more and still more beautiful. Had the world ever seen so enchanting a being?

She told him that the pool of Lok Island was connected by an underground passage with the sea, and that all the wealth of wrecked ships was drawn thither by a magic current.

“On my honor!” cried Houarn whom the wine had made jolly, “I am not surprised that landlubbers speak so badly of you. People as rich as you are always making others envious. As far as I am concerned half your fortune would do for me.”

“You shall have it, Houarn,” said the witch.

“But how can you manage that?” asked Houarn surprised.

“I have lost my husband who was an elf,” she answered; “and so if I am to your taste I will be your wife.”

The young man was quite breathless at what he heard. Was it possible that he was to marry the beautiful fairy whose palace was rich enough to contain eight barrels of marvelous wine? To be sure he had promised to marry Bella but memories of Bella were fast becoming clouded by fumes from the witch’s brews.

Houarn told the fairy very politely that he could not refuse her offer, and that he was overcome with joy at the prospect of becoming her husband.

The witch then said she would prepare the feast for the betrothal at once. She set a table and spread it with the nicest dishes Houarn had ever set eyes upon, as well as many he had never tasted before. Then she went out into the garden to a fish pond and, taking a net in her hand, leaned out over the water.

“Come hither, come hither, attorney general,” she cried. “Come hither, come hither, O, miller! O, tailor! O, beadle!”

Each time she spoke Houarn could see a fish leap into her net.

When the net was full she went back into the palace to the room next to the one where the table was set, and taking a golden frying pan she threw all the fishes into it.

It seemed to Houarn that amidst the sputter of the frying he could hear whispers.

“Who is whispering in your golden frying pan, fairy?” he asked.

“It is just the sparks that the wood is throwing out,” she said, blowing up the fire.

But in a moment little voices began to mutter.

“Who is muttering?” asked the young man.

“It is the fat that is melting,” she replied, tossing up the fish in the pan.

Soon the voices began to shout.

“Who is shouting so, fairy?” asked Houarn.

“It is only the cricket on the hearthstone,” answered the witch, singing so loudly that Houarn could hear nothing else.

Now all that was happening began to clear Houarn’s wits. And as he was beginning to be frightened he felt pangs also of remorse.

Mercy on us!” he said to himself, “is it possible that I could forget Bella so soon for a witch who must be the daughter of Old Nick himself? With a wife like that I shall never dare to say my prayers at night. And I shall lose my soul as surely as a pigs’ doctor.”

Whilst he was thinking thus the witch brought in the fried fish and begged him to sit down to dinner. Then she said she would fetch yet twelve new kinds of wine for him to taste.

Houarn sat down and taking from his pocket the knife Bella had given him, he sighed. Then he tried to eat. But hardly had the spell-destroying knife touched the golden dish than all the fishes stood up and became little men. Each one wore the garb of his profession or trade. There was an attorney general with his white bib, a tailor in violet stockings, a miller all covered with flour, and a beadle in his surplice. And they all shouted out together as they swam in the-hot fat: “Houarn, save us if you wish to be saved yourself.”

“Holy saints! Who are all these little men singing in the melted butter?” cried Houarn dumfounded.

“We are Christians like yourself,” they shouted back. “We too came to Lok Island to seek our fortune. We agreed to marry the witch, and the day after the wedding she treated us just as she had treated those who came before us, and who are now in the big fish pond.”

“Really!” exclaimed Houarn. “Can a woman who seems so young be the widow of all these fishes!”

“And soon you will be in the same state, perhaps fried and eaten by the new comers!” they cried back in a chorus of shrill prophesying voices.

Houarn leaped up as though already he felt himself in the golden frying pan. He rushed toward the door hoping to escape before the witch came back. But she had just slipped in and heard everything. Before Houarn could reach the door she had thrown her steel net over him, and immediately poor Houarn was turned into a frog. Then the witch threw him into the fish pond with her other enchanted husbands.

At that very moment the little bell that Houarn wore, around his neck gave forth a silvery note which Bella heard at far-away Lannilis, where she was busy skimming yesterday’s milk.

She uttered a cry, “Houarn is in danger!” And with no more ado, without asking anyone’s advice she hurried to her room and put on her Sunday dress, her shoes, and her silver cross. Then, taking the magic staff she left the farm. When she reached the crossroad she stuck her staff in the ground and murmured:

“O, staff of apple wood so fair,
Lead me on land and through the air,
Above the cliffs and o’er the sea,
For with my lover I must be.”

The staff changed at once into a chestnut steed, completely saddled and bridled. He had a ribbon above each ear and a blue tassel on his forehead.

Bella mounted and off they started, first at a pace, then at a trot, and then at a gallop. At last they were traveling so swiftly that the trees and the ditches and the church steeples flew past the girl’s eyes very much as fly the shuttles of a wool winder.

Yet longed she ever for more speed, and she urged her horse onward, whispering in his ear:

“The horse is less swift than the swallow, the swallow less swift than the wind, the wind is less swift than the lightning, but, steed of mine, you must be swifter than all, for part of my heart is suffering, the dearest half of my heart is in danger.”

The horse understood her, and flew like chaff blown before the gale. At last they reached the foot of that rock in the mountains that people call Hart’s Leap Rock.

There the swift steed came to a halt for neither man nor beast has eve r climbed that cloud-capped rock. Bella then repeated:

“O, staff of apple wood so fair,
Lead me on land and through the air,
Above the cliffs and o’er the sea,
For with my lover I must be.”

Hardly had she finished the last line when wings grew out of the horse’s flanks, and he became a mighty bird that bore her on the winds to the very summit of the cliff .

Here Bella found a nest made of potter’s clay, lined with dry moss. On it was sitting a hobgoblin, withered and bearded and dark. He shouted out when he saw Bella:

“Here is the fair maid who has come to save me!”

“To save you!” cried Bella. “Who are you?”

“I am Jennik, the husband of the witch of Lok Island. She it is who with her spells confines me here.”

“But what are you doing on that nest?” asked Bella.

“I am trying to hatch six stone eggs, and I shall not get my freedom until they are hatched,” answered the hobgoblin.

“Alas, poor little cockerel!” exclaimed the maiden. “How can I deliver you?”

“Just as you will deliver Houarn who is in the witch’s power,” the elf replied.

“Ah, tell me what I must do!” cried Bella. “Even if I have to go round the four bishoprics, on my bended knees, I shall begin at once.”

“Then attend to what I say,” continued the goblin.

You must go to the witch of Lok Island and introduce yourself as a young lad. Then you will be on the lookout for your chance to snatch the steel net she carries in her belt. Shut her in it and she will remain there till the judgment Day.”

“Where can I get boys’ clothes to fit me, little pixie? asked Bella.

“You will soon see, pretty maid.”

As he spoke the dwarf pulled out four of his red hairs, blew upon them and muttered beneath his breath. Instantly the four hairs became four tailors. The first tailor held a cabbage in his hand, the second a pair of scissors, the third a needle, and the fourth a flatiron.

Without more ado they sat themselves around the nest with their legs crossed and began to make a young lad’s suit for Bella. With the first cabbage leaf they made a fine laced coat. Another leaf soon became the waistcoat, and it took two leaves to make the baggy knickerbockers. Finally a hat was cut out of the heart of the cabbage and the stalk was used to make the shoes.

When Bella had put on these clothes she looked like a young nobleman for her garments were of green velvet, lined with white satin.

“Haste! haste!” cried the pixie when he saw her ready for her adventure. “Away to rescue Houarn!” Bella quickly mounted her great bird and in one flight he transported her to Lok Island. Safely there she ordered him to become again the staff of apple wood. Then getting into the swan boat she plunged downward to the witch’s palace just as Houarn had done.

At the sight of the velvet-clad youth the witch was delighted.

“By Old Nick, my first cousin!” she said to herself, “this is the handsomest lad that ever I saw, and I think I shall love him for some time.”

So she was all graciousness at once, calling Bella her beloved. Then they went to a table beautifully set with all manner of good things. And there before her Bella saw the magic knife that she had given Houarn and that he had left behind him as he had leaped toward the door.

Bella quickly took the knife and hid it in her pocket. Then, after having partaken of the good things, she followed the witch into the garden. The enchantress showed her the lawns set with diamonds, the fountains with their lavender-scented sprays, and last of all the fish pond where thousands of many-colored fish were swimming. Bella appeared delighted and gazed with rapture upon the gaily colored scales and tails.

The witch seeing her so pleased at once asked her if she would not be glad to live always in the palace.

“Will you consent to marry me?” asked the wicked fairy.

“Oh, yes indeed!” replied Bella, “but first let me try to catch one of those pretty fishes with the steel net you have at your belt.”

The witch who suspected nothing thought the request a mere whim of boyish fancy and giving Bella the net said smiling:

“Now, fair fisherman, let us see what may be your luck. A rich catch may await you.”

“I will catch Old Nick’s cousin!” cried Bella, quickly throwing the net over the witch’s head. Then she added, “Accursed witch, become in body what you are in heart!”

The witch uttered one terrifying shriek that ended in a moan, for the girl’s wish had instantly come true: the beautiful water pixie had become the hideous Queen of the Toadstools.

Bella hastily rolled up the net and threw it into the well, over which she put a stone sealed with the sign of the cross. And this cannot be lifted until the judgment Day.

Then she ran back to the fish pond, but the fish had already left it and were moving toward her like a procession of many-colored monks. They piped out in their tiny voices:

“Here is our lord and master who has delivered us from the steel net and the golden frying pan!”

“And who will give you back your human form,” said Bella, taking out the magic knife.

But just as she was about to touch the first fish with the knife, she noticed at her feet a large green frog. It was on its knees sobbing bitterly with its forepaws crossed upon its breast, and on a cord around its neck there hung the magic bell. Bella felt her heart give a sudden bound and she cried:

“Is that you, my little Houarn? Is that you, king of my joys and of my cares?”

“It is I,” groaned the frog.

Then Bella touched him with the knife, and immediately Houarn stood before her in his own true form. They kissed each other, laughing and crying alternately.

Bella then touched each of the fish in turn with the magic knife and all of them became what they had been before the witch had changed them.

As Bella was touching the last fish who should arrive but the hobgoblin of Hart’s Leap Rock. He was sitting in his nest which now looked like a chariot while six black beetles were pulling it. These had just been hatched out of the stone eggs.

Here I am, fair maid!” the hobgoblin called to Bella. The spell is broken. May heaven shower blessings on thee! You have made a man of a fowl!”

He jumped out of his chariot, and led the lovers to the witch’s treasure chest. When they opened it they found that it was full of precious stones!

“Take as many as you like,” said the hobgoblin.

So both Bella and Houarn filled their pockets, their hats, their belts, and even their wide knickerbockers. When they had as many gems as they could carry, Bella ordered her staff of apple wood to become a coach large enough to hold all the people she had set free.

And thus they went to Lannilis.

At last their banns were published, and Houarn and Bella were married. But instead of buying a little cow and a lean pig they bought all the fields in the parish and settled down as farmers. And all the people they had brought from Lok Island settled down there, too.

Witch house. Image credit.

MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE BANTU by ALICE WERNER [1933]

A famous seer in Mashonaland was Chaminuka, of Chitungwiza, in the Hartley district. He is called a ‘wizard’ by Mr Posselt, [2] but he seems really to have been a man of high character and unusual, perhaps abnormal, gifts. Lobengula used frequently to consult him, and for many years treated him with great consideration. He had remarkable power over animals, not necessarily of an occult nature: he kept tame pythons and other snakes; antelopes gambolled fearlessly about his hut, and his celebrated bull, Minduzapasi, would lie down and rise up, march and halt, at the word of command. He was believed to be the medium of the spirit called Chaminuka; his real name was Tsuro. He was credited with the power to bring rain and to control the movements of game; Frederick Courteney Selous, when hunting in that part of the country, was told by his followers that they would never succeed in killing an elephant unless they first asked Chaminuka’s permission. When this was done he gave the messenger a reed which was supposed “to bring the elephants back on their tracks by first pointing the way they had gone and then drawing it towards him.”

Witches and ‘Voodoo’

As to the activities of the witch proper, which it is the business of the mganga to check, very strange things are related. Some level-headed missionaries have witnessed occurrences which they could attribute only to unseen agencies. Bishop Weston, at Weti, in the island of Pemba) saw and felt lumps of clay thrown by invisible hands, one falling through the iron roof of the hut in which he stood, another thrown upward from outside. Pemba is a well known centre of witchcraft; anyone curious about such matters can find a detailed account of the witch-guilds and their horrible sacrifices in Captain Craster’s book Pemba, the Spice Island of Zanzibar.

The doings of the wachawi (or wanga) there related are not unlike those we hear of in the island of Hayti-and we may be sure they lose nothing in the hands of romancers under the names of Obeah and Voodoo (or Vaudoux). The subject hardly comes within the scope of this book, but one thing may be pointed out: it is too commonly assumed that these doings are typical of African mentality in general, and constitute an essential part of African religion. But it is a very suggestive fact that the Pemba witch-guilds and those described by Dr Nassau in West Africa are recruited from the slaves, and the same is obviously the case in the West Indies. It should be remembered that many, if not most, of these people had been sold into slavery for their crimes, perhaps for this very crime of witchcraft. Dr Nassau says, in fact, that the Benga and neighbouring tribes credited the slaves as a body with addiction to unlawful arts, and if a free man died suspicion almost always located itself on the slave community, for the reason that it was known that slaves did practise the Black Art, and partly because it was safer to make an accusation against a defenceless slave than against a free man. It resulted, therefore, that, just because they were defenceless, the slaves actually did practise arts in their supposed self-defence that gave justification for the charge that they were witches and wizards.

I have been assured, quite seriously, by more than one person in the coastal region of Kenya Colony, that certain sorcerers, whom they called wanga, were in the habit of coming to your door in the night and calling the occupant of the house. If you came out and followed them into the forest it was implied, rather than stated, that it was all up with you. It also seemed to be implied that once the intended victim had answered the call he had no choice but to go and, presumably, be killed and eaten.

Stereotypical witch. Image credit.

WOMAN, CHURCH AND STATE by Matilda Joslyn Gage [1893]

WITCHCRAFT

Although toward the beginning of the IV. century, people began to speak of the nocturnal meeting of witches and sorcerers, under the name of “Assembly of Diana,” or “Herodia,” it was not until canon or church law, had become quite engrafted upon the civil law, that the full persecution for witchcraft arose. A witch was held to be a woman who had deliberately sold herself to the evil one; who delighted in injuring others, and who, for the purpose of enhancing the enormity of her evil acts, choose the Sabbath day for the performance of her most impious rites, and to whom ‘all black animals had special relationship; the black cat in many countries being held as her principal familiar. “To go to the Sabbath” signified taking part in witch orgies. The possession of a pet of any kind at this period was dangerous to woman. One who had tamed a frog, was condemned to be burned in consequence, the harmless amphibian being looked upon as a familiar of Satan. The devil ever being depicted in sermon or story as black, all black animals by an easy transition of ideas, became associated with evil and witches.

This period was the age of supreme despair for woman,2 death by fire being the common form of witch punishment. Black cats were frequently burned with a witch at the stake;3 during the reign of Louis XV. of France, sacks of condemned cats were burned upon the public square devoted to witch torture. Cats and witches are found depicted together in a curious cut on the title page of a book printed in 1621. The proverbial ‘nine lives’ of a cat were associated in the minds of people with the universally believed possible metamorphosis of a witch into a cat. In the minds of many people, black seems ineradicably connected with sorcery.

Witchcraft was regarded as a sin almost confined to women. The Witch Hammer declared the very word femina meant one wanting in faith. A wizard was rare; one writer declaring that to every hundred witches but one wizard was found. In time of Louis XV. this difference was greatly increased; “To one wizard 10,000 witches;” another writer asserted there were 100,000 witches in France alone. The great inquisitor Sprenger, author of the “Witch Hammer” and through whose instrumentality many countries were filled with victims, largely promoted this belief. “Heresy of witches, not of wizards must we call it, for these latter are of very small account.” No class or condition of women escaped him; we read of young children, old people, infants, witches of fifteen years, and two “infernally beautiful” of seventeen years. Although the ordeal of the red hot iron fell into disuse in the secular courts early in the fourteenth century, (1329), ecclesiasticism preserved it in case of women accused of witchcraft for one hundred and fifty years longer. One of the peculiarities of witchcraft accusations, was that protestations of innocence, and a submission to ordeals such as had always vindicated those taking part in them if passing through unharmed, did not clear a woman charged with witchcraft, who was then accused with having received direct help from Satan. The maxim of secular law that the torture which did not produce confession entitled the accused to full acquittal was not in force under ecclesiastical indictments, and the person accused of witchcraft was always liable to be tried again for the same crime. Every safeguard of law was violated in case of woman, even Magna Charta forbidding appeal to her except in case of her husband.

The Parliament of Toulouse burned 400 witches at one time. Four hundred women at one hour on the public square, dying the horrid death of fire for a crime which never existed save in the imagination of those persecutors and which grew in their imagination from a false belief in woman’s extraordinary wickedness, based upon a false theory as to original sin. Whatever the pretext made for witchcraft persecution we have abundant proof that the so-called “witch” was among the most profoundly scientific persons of the age.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Originally from Hungarian lore Baba Yaga was a kind and benevolent fairy; over time her stories changed and she became a cannibalistic old crone or witch.

Befana (Italian folklore) fills children’s shoes with sweets and small presents.

Biddy Early (1798-1874) was one of Ireland’s most popular fairy doctor and herbalist; by the number of documented cases she was accredited of having worked on, she seems to have been an actual person who bore the title of Fairy. All who knew of her said she lived in a cottage located between Feakle and Tulla. Reputed to have been charitable and kind, it was said she could cure any ailment except for the debilitating touch of the Sìdhe, Amadán. She could interpret dreams and visions and foretell events by gazing into a glass bottle, as she could not afford a proper crystal ball.

In Manx lore, Caillagh ny Groamagh (hag of the sulks) was an Irish witch who was thrown into the sea and floated over and landed on the Isle of Man. She is associated with the weather. It is believed at the beginning of spring she intends to leave her house to collect twigs for her woodpile. If the weather is unpleasant and keeps her indoors she burns through her stores and winter ends early. If the weather is pleasant and she is able to collect what she needs winter will linger on.

In the Scottish Highlands it is a popular belief that the cait sith (fairy cat) is not a fairy animal at all but a transformed witch.

In the fairy-tale The Dragon of the North the hollenmadchen (witch-maiden) was a fairy who had possession of King Solomon’s lost ring. The hollenmadchen had no permanent dwelling but rather moved about as the wind took her. Once a month the fairy needed to go to a particular spring and wash her face in the light of the full moon; if she did not do so the hollenmadchen would lose her bloom of youth and instantly grow old and wrinkled.

Gwrach Y Rhibyn

Variations: Cunnere Noe, Gwrach-y’r-oerboen, Gwrachyribin, Gwrarch Er Hreebin, Hag of Warning, Witch Rhibyn.

A vampiric fairy from Wales… hunchbacked being beneath a green cloak. Under the hood is a being so hideous and ugly it causes madness to anyone who looks at it. A constant string of drool, either saliva or blood, hangs from the corners of its mouth. It has one tusklike tooth, a hooked nose with one nostril, webbed (or clawed) feet and hands…. Gwarch Y Rhibyn attacks sleeping people, especially the bedridden, children, and the old. It drains blood from them, but not so much the victim dies. Rather, it returns to the person several times, only taking a little more than they can fully recover from, until the person eventually dies.

Living in secluded forest glades or along water ways, Gwarch Y Rhibyn can tell when someone of pure Welsh descent is about to die. It will turn invisible, find the person, and travel alongside them waiting until they reach a crossroads. There, Gwarch Y Rhibyn cries out a warning to the person. Usually, upon being so suddenly surprised, the person Gwarch Y Rhibyn was trying to warn of imminent death drops over dead or goes insane with the shock of the experience.

The idea of a hag, an elderly, immortal, ugly, witch-like woman dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, as Hecate, as well as in ancient Celtic lore. The term is used in both fairy lore and in reference to witches, although the latter is considered to be a derogatory term.

Many cultures have the mythology of the sea witch, being who are widely described as supernatural beings who have sway over the fate of men at sea.

Szepasszony

Variations: Fair Lady, White Maiden of the Storm, Winter Witch

Szepasszony is a taboo word in Hungarian folklore as it is the name of an injurious and malicious nature spirit who dances in hailshowers and storms and seduces young men. Described as being stunningly beautiful with long, silvery-white hair, and wearing a white dress this fairy-woman appears at noon when she is most powerful.

*More can be read in the book.

Baba Yaga. Image credit.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

The folkloric belief in witches’ ability to take on animal form, however, is not clearly Celtic and may as well derive from pre- or post-Celtic beliefs. Like the haggish Cailleach, human witches were thought to disguise themselves as hares in order to be about their nefarious deeds; if a suspected witch were found with a bad wound in her thigh the morning after a night-roving hare was shot in its back leg, it was clear to all that the hare had been the shape-shifted witch.

Buitch: Manx witch. The craft was considered generally harmful among residents of the Isle of Man, although some practitioners could use their skills for good.

Prowling the night with glowing eyes, showing extraordinary physical flexibility and agility, cats were believed to seek the companionship of old women who practiced magic as witches. In Scotland, black cats were believed to be shape-shifting witches.

Fox (symbolic animal): in the Cotswolds, the wily fox was connected with a similarly canny human – the witch, who could assume the fox’s shape in order to steal butter from her neighbours and otherwise wreak havoc on the region. As foxes are known in farming communities for their nighttime raids on valuable chicken flocks, the connection of evil witch and thieving fox seemed easy to those searching for a target for their anger.

Mady Figgy (Cornish heroine): this renowned witch of Cornwal lived near Raftra, where she made her living scrounging debris from wrecked ships. Some believed she magically called up storms to cause such wrecks, sitting on a huge basalt rock off Land’s End that has a level space on its top where she could invoke the weather spirits.

Trewa (Cornish folkloric site): at this region near the town of Zennor, witches were said to meet for their Midsummer festival, lighting fires on Burn Downs and dancing around, casting spells and otherwise concocting magic and mischief.

Witch (folkloric motif): folktales and legends are filled with stories of people – usually old women, although occasionally men – who have magical powers to enchant and bewitch. At times the powers attributed to these witches resemble the Cailleach and other weather divinities, for they could raise storms with their curses. Witches travelled easily: they could fly across the land, and if they needed to cross the ocean, any vessel would serve, including sieves and eggshells. They were shape-shifters who assumed animal form to work mischief in the area, often stealing he neighbour’s butter rather than making their own, taking milk from the udders of cows, and bringing fish up onto the shore so they could pick them up. They preferred to disguise themselves as hares or cats but could also be ravens or mice, gulls or sheep.

*More can be read in the book.

The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous

In a sacred grove on the mountains it was alleged that witches used to assemble on a certain day to attend to the boiling of salt, as at one time this process was under the care of special priestesses. It afterwards became associated with witchcraft, because witches were believed to hold their assemblies beside salt springs.

In the days when witchcraft was firmly believed in, it was said that anyone who accidentally found himself beneath an Elder tree was at once overcome by a great horror and became delirious.

The Rowan tree was held in the utmost dread by witches on account of the mystic properties which were believed to encompass it. No one could be hag-ridden at night who had a branch of it in bed, and old people used to place it on their pillows to keep evil spirits and witches away, while a small piece of it carried on the person was a protection against enchantment. A very ancient song called the “Laidley Worm of Spindleton’s Heuglis”, alluding to its power over witches, says: “Their spells were vain, the boys returned to the Queen in sorrowful mood; crying that ‘Witches have no power where there is Rowan-tree wood’.”

In Sweden, old women who dwelt in the forest were credited with powers of sorcery, and were believed to have the wolves under their control.

The wizards or conjurors, called “Keebet”, of the Abipones, a South American tribe of Argentina, were believed to have unparalleled powers over the forces of Nature, as well as over all animals, and even over the spirits of the dead.

In Croatia witches were formerly buried under old trees in the forest, and it was believed that their souls passed into these trees.

*More can be read in the book.

Further Reading:

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

Different types of witches exist all over the world, known by different names and have different abilities. Depending on what they’re called, they are viewed as either good or evil.

In South Africa, the Sangoma practices natural medicine (using herbs, etc.) and use their psychic abilities to communicate with the ancestors and to protect against evil spirits. They are consulted by their community for health and spiritual guidance.

Wizards, witches and all the other types of magic-users practice magic that they harness from occult, supernatural or other sources. Magicians, wizards, sorcerers and mages are viewed far more kindly than witches. Wizards often appear as wise old men. In folklore and fantasy, he usually acts as a mentor (Merlin and Dumbledore respectively). Witches are stereotypically portrayed as wicked old women, warts and all, while an enchantress is a young, attractive woman who uses her magic to seduce men and make them do her bidding – usually enchantresses are youthful by magical means.

There’s a violent history of witch persecution where hundreds of thousands of people were tried for witchcraft and executed (either by being hanged or burned at the stake). Most were women. A simple thing like a birthmark or mole could get a person convicted of witchcraft. The Salem witch trials is the most infamous of these persecutions.

Witches are thought to have power over the elements, have superior skills with herbs – for good or evil – and to be able to travel through the skies and over the seas (even in eggshells). They are connected to special sites – hilltops, groves of trees, etc. – where they assemble to do whatever the local folk believe they are up to (dancing around bonfires to enhance their magic, calling up spirits, making mischief, etc.).

In many cultures around the world, black cats are believed to either be witches transformed into cats or to be a witch’s familiar. Old women living alone in forests were also suspected of being witches.

I mentioned in a previous post about magic that Witches can use grimoires (spell books) to enhance their powers and that they can also bond with a Familiar to become stronger. Familiars are supernatural entities who appear in the guise of an animal to assist Witches in their practice of magic.

Grimoire, book of shadows or spell book – whatever you call it, this is where a witch writes down rituals, recipes and whatever else she needs to remember or pass down. “The Magus” by Francis Barrett (1801) is one of the most infamous of its kind.

Witches in Modern Culture

Merlin

Of course, in the BBC TV series Merlin, the title character doesn’t fit the stereotype of a warlock. Merlin is actually younger than Arthur. Merlin and Arthur become best friends, despite the fact that Merlin has to hide the fact that he can use magic (on pain of death). Though, before Arthur dies, Merlin shares this secret with his best friend. And Arthur forgives him for keeping this secret from him…

Morgana started out as a kind soul. The half-sister of Arthur, she was always up to any challenge. But her visions of the future, disguised as nightmares, and her magic’s subsequent awakening made her fearful of Uther who utterly despised all who uses magic. Her fear turned to hatred and she became the witch Kilgharrah had warned Merlin she would become: “She is the darkness to your light, the hatred to your love”.

Hotel Transylvania

Witches, green skin and all, are the housekeeping staff in Adam Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania.

The Vampire Diaries

The Italians call them Strega. The Yoruba of West Africa call them Aje, meaning mother. Where my mother was from, they called them Häxa. And here, we call them witch. Over the centuries, vampires have fought them and fought beside them, bedded them and burned them. Whether adversary or ally, they have been a force to be reckoned with.

Elijah about witches in Après Moi, Le Déluge

Bonnie (a witch from a long line of powerful witches) has several grimoires.

The one she used most was one from her ancestor Emily (who even possessed poor Bonnie so she could right a wrong she’d committed in her own lifetime). Though we should remember that witches are the servants of nature (that’s how they get their magic) and aren’t really the bad guys (except, well, the Original Witch AKA Klaus’s mother…).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

While everyone had the ability to cast spells and perform other feats of magic, witches generally had more knowledge and understanding of the mystical energies and supernatural forces that charged the entire universe.

Depending on their level of skill, witches possessed a number of magical abilities. While most witches focused their powers through the use of incantations and rituals, more advanced witches were known to use magic by sheer force of will. From telekinesis to teleportation, witches were virtually unlimited in their magical conquest. 

Sometimes, witches may manifest other powers not mystical in nature but psychic. Tara Maclay portrayed the ability to perceive the energy fields (“aura”) around a person.

Tara brewing a potion. Image credit.

With the aid of magic, witches were capable of achieving telepathy, projecting their thoughts and reading the minds of others. Many witches also possessed psychic intuition, capable of sensing powerful mystical phenomena and imbuing them with general awareness of their environment.

By joining together, witches could double their magical strength. Witches also gained their magic powers by invoking the names of deities (such as Hecate or Osiris), or summoning other supernatural entities such as demons. Highly skilled and experienced witches (and warlocks) who drew much of their power from dark forces were sometimes, if not always, identified by their black eyes.

Willow, dark with magic. Image credit.

Harry Potter

Wizardkind are humans that are born with the ability to perform magic. An individual male human with magical ability is known as a wizard (plural: wizards), and an individual female human with magical ability is known as a witch (plural: witches), though “wizard” is sometimes used as a gender-neutral singular noun like “man”.

The Lord of the Rings

The Wizards, initially known as the Istari, were five Maiar spirits sent to Middle-earth as human forms to aid the Free Peoples against the threat of Sauron. The wizards bore the forms of old Men; they were ancient and seemed to age very slowly. They possessed the great skill of body and mind; Most of their power as Maiar resided in their staffs. Each of the Istari had his color and grade within the Order. Saruman the White, who dwelt in Orthanc, was the eldest and most powerful. Preceding him was Gandalf the Grey, who roamed Middle-earth, never remaining in one location for an extended period of time. The third Istari was Radagast the Brown, who resided in Mirkwood. The remaining Istari were Pallando and Alatar the Blue, who dwelt far in the east.

The five wizards. Image credit.

Witches in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Witches

Familiars are usually Caìt Sìth who enjoy spending time in the mortal realm in the company of witches. Other familiars from Faerie include various faery-hybrids: monkeys, bats, rats, ravens, roosters, etc.
As with the Fae, human magic-users are classified under their own gifts as well. Some control fire, some water, some air (wind), some earth, and some even control soul (powers of the mind, powers of others, the dead, etc.). Some even have power over that which dwells within their element of control. Rarely, a witch will have equal power over all elements.
Witches use grimoires to extend their knowledge and power. Some have bonded with Familiars (see the types of Fae above) who advise them. They are also big on rituals, schooling and belonging to groups. Though they view individual witches to be suspicious, that is in no way an indicator of villainy.
Just like any other type of being, witches can be good or evil, old or young, etc.
Only Druids seem to naturally have power over everything.
Certain bloodlines of witches and warlocks have found the power of Runes and thus power like Druids through branding their skin with various Runes; a dangerous and possibly fatal endeavour.

witch English Afrikaans
grimoires sketch
fae realm book extract
Get it here.

I hope you’re equal parts terrified and intrigued. Anything to add about witches or Grimoires? Do you use witches in your own writing? Did you watch any of the TV shows or movies mentioned? Do you have tales about witches in folklore you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to witches.

Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free ebook. I won’t share your information and I’ll only email you once a month with updates on new releases, special offers, and a bit of news.

6 thoughts on “Wondrous Witches #AtoZChallenge #folklore”

  1. I have been reading about witch trials and witch belief lately. It is both amusing and terrifying how easily people labeled someone as a witch, and how horribly they treated them for it. In one case they saw a blue butterfly, and they concluded the neighbor must be a witch, so they killed the butterfly with a wet towel.
    Sometimes I think about how all “witches” ever executed in history were innocent. It’s sad.

    The Multicolored Diary

  2. Hey, you have forgotten the witches in Terry Pratchett’s books! 🙂 They are born with magical abilities, but mostly don’t use them, spending most of their time as wise women, doing healing and caring in villages, and being paid with food and clothing(black for preference). They can, however, ride broomsticks, but don’t actually make them – the dwarfs do that for them.

    And of course, if you shoot a hare and see a crone limping next day, she is likely to give you a big wallop!

    1. If I had to mention every witch that features in a book or movie or TV series I like, this post would’ve turned into a book all on its own! (Not to mention all the research I didn’t add for that reason.)

      Besides getting a wallop for shooting a hare that could’ve been a witch, one should be shot just for maiming animals in general!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *