"Who were the witches?
Where did they come from?
Maybe your great, great,
Great grandma was one…"Oak
Samhain in particular is the witches' holiday--particularly the black, tall-hatted old woman with her cat and broom. How entrenched this is! It is such a loaded image, full of converging history. How do we as modern pagans relate to this stereotype? What do we do with this iconic image? Let's pull apart some of the various historic threads going into it.
This is a very renaissance age image, but some of her roots go way back. The green/blue hag is definitely Cally Berry-an ancient, powerful, greatly loved and revered goddess, so loved that we find remnants of her reverencing all over when we know what to look for. She's wearing a conical hat-which declares her to be a Celtic deity (in this form-she's much larger than one people group). Celts all over, from ancient times through the 1800's in some Welsh districts, wore these tall hats. They're as much a give away as plaids-excuse me, tartans. She has a cat and broom-and that broom in the early prints of "witches" was always a gander, more like a shepherd's staff or crook really. (This helps us to recognize Old Mother Goose wandering on her gander as another image of this same goddess, but carried through the Teutonic memories as Mother Hulda). She's flying, meaning she's connecting with the other worlds, or is in/from the other worlds.
And of course there's what we "know" about the image: that she probably flew up the chimney. This again speaks to the centralness of the domestic hearth, and its ancient tie-in to true magic--and that the witch was probably a local woman taking care of her own. We assume she has a spell book. My bet's that she didn't, but probably had a lot memorized. She may have-but having such a book would have been very dangerous, and seems far more to be a confounding with the culture of ceremonial magic. Remember, she was the inheritor of an oral tradition. This did not mean that they did not have the ability to write. But they did not see it as the path to gaining a store of knowledge or true learning. (Early on, writing and reading were seen as threatening true education and knowledge. There was concern that it would lead to people not really knowing their subjects, but just relying on being able to look things up and parroting. Similar to later charges laid against the oral tradition by the new literates.)
Ah, ceremonial magic-a great confounder, and this is when it happened. Not to get side-tracked into the history of ceremonialism, but it helps greatly to know what parts of our "witchy" ideas really came from here. Much of what we think of as magic was only from ceremonial practice. Because "real" witches just had this body of lore that included everything from vegetable soups to charms. These witches were the remnants of pagan culture-a rather mixed lot in many places with all the cultural mixing and upheavals--a great stirring of the Indo-European pot. But they were mostly just trying to hold onto "their ways"--some more consciously, some less. As time progressed, there was also a cultural exchange of sorts that went on between ceremonial magic and these "witches". The ceremonialists were mostly interested in herbal lore and the witches adapted some of the ceremonialist's trappings for safety. Enter the shadow laws, and spell books and protection ceremonies being tacked onto everything.
Poor witches, they rightly feared the witch-finders and their ilk, but the real danger lay in the age of reason itself. Somehow, suddenly it seems, everything you hold sacred isn't "evil", just superstition. And this means that the over-culture you're embedded in will poke fun at you and your kind and all you stand for. And your chance of being able to successfully pass on your beliefs to your children plummets. Fear of death turned out to be less of a threat to paganism than the threat of ridicule. A great dying off of the remaining family traditions takes place, and suddenly initiation as an adoption into those traditions becomes newly important. And what makes it through is a very mixed lot. A mix of "genuine" pagan beliefs, anti-Christian sentiment, shadow laws, ceremonial magic, and what not. And here we are in modern times.
We don't have to meet in the dark anymore-we can reclaim the Sun. With good light we can see more what's been happening, clean things up, sort things out and do some serious cultural reclamation and rebuilding. Any pagan should be able to proudly bear the name witch at this point if they choose; it doesn't belong to just one group. It stands for far too much. It means holding on and not letting go no matter how dark things get. And we should be proud of that old lady on the broom-she did.
Cally Berry through the Indo-European people groups
It helps to know that the initial sound of her name started out as the kh sound. In some people groups it softened just to the h and in some it streamlined more to the k. Portraying deities as blue was an ancient practice from one end of the Indo-European spread to the other. However, I have pictures from tombs of Egyptian deities also portrayed with blue skin.
One of the constants in her iconography is the split between an old woman and a young woman. That switch, by the way, takes place at Samhain for the Celts. She is always a protectress, canny and not to be tricked. She is frequently associated with mountains, and animals.
There are places named for her still in Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland, the Kelly family takes its name from her.
Probably Baba Yaga
©2007 Oak Hedge