Witches: The Ancient Beginnings

The Norse god Balder, the good and beautiful god, the son of the great god Odin, and himself the wisest, mildest and best beloved of all the immortals. Balder dreamed something which seemed to forebode his death. He told the other gods about this and, because he was so beloved, the gods held a council and resolved to secure him from any danger. So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creepy things that they would not hurt Balder.

The Death of Balder,  from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript “NKS 1867 4to”

It was Loki who was responsible for the death of the sun-god. He gave a twig of mistletoe to Balder’s blind twin brother, Hoder – mistletoe being the only thing in the world which had not sworn not to harm Balder. Hoder cast it at Balder and unwittingly slew him. Vali, a younger brother of Balder, avenged him by killing Hoder. Hoder represents darkness and Balder light. The light falls a victim to blind darkness, who reigns until a younger brother, the sun of the next day, rises to slay him in turn.

Balder’s death was already prophesied. The Norse Sibyl sees and describes it, “I behold, fate looming for Balder, Woden’s son, the bloody victim. There stands the Mistletoe slender and delicate, blooming high above the ground. Out of this shoot, so slender to look on, there shall grow a harmful fateful shaft. Hod shall shoot it, but Frigga in Fen-hall shall weep over the woe of Wal-hall.”

The shortness of summer and the length of winter so impressed the people that when they made a story about it, they told of a maiden (the Spring) being put to sleep and guarded, along with a hoard of treasure, by a ring of fire. Only one knight could break through the flames, awaken her and seize the treasure. This knight is the returning sun, and the treasure is the wealth of summer vegetation. So there is the story of Brynhild, pricked by the “sleep-thorn” of her father, Wotan, and sleeping until Sigurd wakens her. They marry, but soon Sigurd has to give her up to Gunnar, the relentless winter. Gunnar cannot rest until he has killed Sigurd and reigns undisturbed. Grimm’s story of Rapunzel, the princess who was shut up by a winter witch, and of Briar-Rose, pricked by a witch’s spindle, and sleeping inside a hedge which blooms with spring at the knight’s approach, also describes the struggle between summer and winter.

“Mímir and Baldr Consulting the Norns” (1821-1822) by H. E. Freund

The figure of the seer also survives. The flat disk of earth was believed to be supported by a great ash-tree, Yggdrasil, guarded by three fates, Was, Will, and Shall Be. The name of Was means the past, of Will, the power of which men have over present circumstances, and Shall Be, the future over which man has no control. Vurdh, the name of the latter, gives us the word “weird,” which means fate or fateful. Hundreds of years later, the three Weird Sister in Macbeth are also seers.

The belief in witches and sorcery seem to also have been widespread in the Ancient Near East and Nile Valley. It played a conspicuous role in the cultures of ancient Egypt and in Babylonia. The latter tradition included an Akkadian anti-witchcraft ritual, the Maqlû (“burning”) which includes the following:

Pure oven, great daughter of Anu, inside whom the fire of the grave is flaring, inside whom the valiant fire-god has taken up residence, [whose] flames have reached the sky […], burn, set alight, incinerate my witch! May my warlock’s and witch’s life swiftly, quickly come to an end! (Maqlû, Tablet II, 219–224)

A section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 BC.) says:

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.

Ornithomancy and Margaritomancy were practiced in ancient Greek. Ornithomancy is the practice of divination by observing the flight of songbirds. It appeared on Archaic vases, as well as in Hesiod and Homer. One notable example from the latter occurs in the Odyssey, when an eagle appears three times, flying to the right, with a dead dove in its talons, an augury interpreted as the coming of Odysseus, and the death of his wife’s suitors. Aeschylus has Prometheus claim to have introduced ornithomancy to mankind, by indicating among the birds “those by nature favourable, and those sinister”. Margaritomancy is a form of divination which uses a pearl covered with a vase which was utilized during trials. The vase was placed near a fire while names of subjects were read aloud. When the name of the guilty person was pronounced supposedly the pearl would bound up and pierce the bottom of the vase. Philtre, a potion that causes one to fall in love with another person, were popular in the Middle Ages, but lost favor to charms and spells in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Study for the three witches in Macbeth, Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825)

Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an otherworld. Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, and participation in battles against evil spirits to win fertility and prosperity for the community.

In Norse Mythology, Freya and Odin especially had had power over the souls of the dead. When Christianity rebranded the old gods into spirits of evil, they were accused especially of possessing unlawful learning, as having knowledge of the hidden matters of death. This unlawful wisdom is the first accusation that has always been brought against witches.

The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for misfortunes. In the 8th century, Saint Boniface declared that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne (c.742 – 814) decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. King Coloman of Hungary (c. 1070 – 1116) declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches do not exist.

It was not until 1198 that Pope Innocent III dispatched a monk named Rainier to visit France with the power to excommunicate heretics, and orders to local temporal authorities to confiscate the lands of heretics or to “as became Christians to deal with them more severely.” Then an incident occured in 1208. Pierre de Castelnau, the Pope’s legate, and a companion were travelling to to root out heretics. They were staying in a house in Avignonet, in the south of France when, in the middle of the night, a knight of Raymond of Tolouse, killed de Castelnau. After this murder, the Pope was determined to stamp out heretics at all costs. The Albigensian Crusade followed which led to the slaughter of approximately 20,000 men, women and children, Cathar and Catholic alike. In 1244, two hundred of them were burned on a gigantic bonfire at Montsegur. Those that survived were no longer accused of heresy. They were accused of a new crime –  conspiring with the devil or, as it came to be known, witchcraft.

“Hexenverbrennung”, Fedor Encke (1851 – 1926) 

The fifteenth century saw a dramatic rise in awareness and terror of witchcraft, culminating in the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of The Witches”), a witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. It outlines how to identify a witch, how to put a witch on trial and how to punish a witch. The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition which even cautioned against relying on the work. The book was later officially condemned by the Catholic Church in 1490. Throughout this time, it was increasingly believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil and his secret army of witches, who had entered into a diabolical pact. In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had their lands and possessions confiscated.

“Interrogation of the sorceress”, Т. Mattson (1853)

Women were especially vulnerable in this period because it has nearly always been women who were accused. Women for the most part were the priests in the old days. It was a woman to whom Apollo at Delphi breathed his oracles. Women have always been the ones who plucked herbs and concocted drinks of healing and refreshment. Therefore, it was very easy to imagine that they experimented with poisons and herbs of magic power under the guidance of the now evil gods. If they were so directed, they must go on occasions to consult with their masters. This led to the idea of a witches’ Sabbath, when women were enabled by evil means to fly away, and worship in secret the gods from whom the rest of the world had turned.

By the fifteenth century Satan, taking the place of the gods, assumed control of the evil creatures. Now that witches were the followers of the Devil, they wrote their names in his book and were carried away by him for the revels by night. A new witch was pricked with a needle to initiate her into his company. Dancing, a device of the pagans, and hence considered wholly wicked, was indulged in to unseemly lengths. In 1883 Sweden, it was believed that dances were held around the sanctuaries of the ancient gods, and that whoever stopped to watch were caught by the dancers and whirled away. At the witches’ Sabbath the Devil himself sometimes appeared as a goat, and the witches were attended by cats, owls, bats, and cuckoos – creatures which had once been sacred to Freya.

These vilifications and persecutions of witches continued to the eighteenth century. The beliefs about witches also became more incredible. It was believed that they were able to take the form of beasts. If a wolf or other animal is caught in a trap or shot, and disappears, the people would search for a wounded witch. Later, an old woman who lives alone in the woods is found suffering from a similar wound. She is then declared to be a witch.

“There was once an old castle in the middle

of a vast thick wood; in it lived an old woman

quite alone, and she was a witch. By day she

made herself into a cat or a screech-owl, but

regularly at night she bacame a human being


“Jorinda and Joringel”, Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863)


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