Halloween Witch Mythology
Title:The Myth of the Halloween Witch
Come Halloween time we start seeing depictions of the classic wicked witch. She wears a pointy hat, flies through the night sky at midnight on a full moon, riding a broom with her black cat. She is haggard and old, sometimes diseased and almost always cruel. She makes vile potions with strange and distasteful ingredients and does dastardly deeds.
So, what separates this stereotypical image from a real witch? Where did this myth come from and where do they get their pointy hats?
Let's start at the top. The pointy hat.
There are several theories as to how the pointy hat became part of the "Halloween Witch" (hereafter known as "HW") legend. One theory claims that it refers to the "cone of power" raised by a witch during a spell (this cone is invisible, surrounds the whole area around the witch, not just the head, and dissipates once the casting is over). Another theory, the hat refers to the wisdom of the witch (wizards are also depicted wearing pointy hats, the tip points upwards to the heavens, the source of their wisdom). A third theory suggests it was once a "dunce cap" like instrument marking a heretic... there are depictions of folks who were burned at the stake for heresy or witchcraft and they had cone hats placed on their heads during the interogation and execution... the reason escapes me right now, but that might explain how witches and pointy hats started appearing in the same images.
The truth: except when dressing up like an "HW" for fun, I'd wager the use of pointy hats among real witches is rare in the extreme. Real witches don't have much use for such a tool... besides, it makes people look like a tool.
On to flying.
The myth of the witches nighttime flight is a little less baseless. It's generally accepted that this physical flight is a representation or misinterpretation of a practice called "Astral projection." One need not be a witch to practice astral projection. What it is, is when a person goes to sleep or goes into a deep meditative state, they can allow their "soul" or astral body to leave their physical body and travel wherever they wish (this is based on the theory that there are several planes of existence including physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and beyond. The astral body would be the twin of the physical body that exists on the spiritual or "astral" plane). More often then not, they travel to realms other than the normal, physical realm (they can just walk down the street, no need to astral project to the butcher shop) though sometimes, it is said, a meeting can be conducted between two people who project to the same place who wouldn't be able to meet physically otherwise. Sometimes this astral body is visible to others, sometimes it cannot be seen. Sometimes it can only be seen by certain people.
Some real modern witches do practice astral projection, but it is hardly as scary or mysterious as the mainstream makes it look. A witch doing astral projection in the old days might have laid down by the fireplace to keep warm while in the meditative state, leading to the assumption that she could just zip right up the chimney and out over the moonlight night sky. Observers might even have seen a broom in her hand, leading to my next bit of lore.
The witches broom.
Now here's a bit of lore that isn't so far-fetched at all... if someone asked "So where do witches get their brooms from?" I wouldn't bat an eyelash. Some modern witches have practices and tools that are holdovers from times when their craft was persecuted and shunned... in those days, practitioners of witchcraft had to adapt their practices to avoid detection or suspicion. A broom was an ordinary household object, but for a witch, it could also fill the function of what others might call a "magick wand"... these magickal brooms (sometimes called a "besom") not only represented masculine energies (the pole) but also a union with feminine energies (the brush, often made with a feminine herb). That union is considered sacred to many witches and so the broom, with it's cleansing symbolism, became a perfect tool for the old-fashioned witch.
Modern witches often still use brooms for magick and even non-witches recognize the power of the broom. It was a Scottish tradition for a newlywed couple to jump over a broom at the end of their wedding ceremony (symbolizing their leap into a combined household and shared duties... this practice is echoed in the modern tradition of carrying the bride over the threshold), you'll see the broom jump is also a common practice of African American couples who are paying homage to ceremonies performed by their enslaved ancestors.
The Full Moon.
You usually see the HW flying high across or near a big, bright round full moon. This, too, isn't so far-fetched (well, maybe the flying part is)... many modern witches revere the moon for several reasons. The moons cycles reflect the menstrual cycles of women, therefore, it is a fertility symbol containing the fertile powers of womankind and can even be connected to the "womb of nature" or the "womb of the Goddess" who is said to create all life. It's also a beacon in the night, representing enlightenment in the darkness of human existence. The moon, to many witches, is a representation of the Goddess, the primary generative feminine principle that is revered and often worshiped (I'll get to worship in a minute, don't run off...)
The Black Cat.
Sometimes the HW is depicted with a black cat perched daintily on the brush of her broom. That, I believe, is a reference to the witches "familiar." The concept of the familiar seems to be rooted in the inquisition when church leaders were trying to dig up all sorts of scum about people they didn't like. One bit of lore that came from this is that a witch could have an animal partner (they claimed this was demonic) that would go around doing things on behalf of the witch. This could take the form of any number of unpopular pets at the time, including lizards and bats, with the black cat leading the list. The cat's independent spirit confused and frightened people who believed in loyalty to the church and black was seen as an unlucky color.
Modern practitioners have found that they can, indeed, work with "familiar spirits." Many witches have a special companion (not always a black cat, though common household pets like dogs and especially cats seem to be the most popular), that keeps them company during worship and spellwork and with whom they have a very special spiritual connection. Sometimes the spirit of these special friends lends aid to the witches working.
The HW is often depicted as old and decrepit. This is mostly from our modern fear of old age, decline and death. To a witch, such things are not so scary. In the old days, people respected their elders, for they knew that the older members of their community held wisdom and experience the younger members couldn't ever dream of or understand at their young age. These people were valued and cared for and in return, taught and shared their knowledge with the younger folks. The word "hag" itself once meant "wise woman" and was said with respect, not degradation. Modern witches are reclaiming that attitude of respect for the aged and revitalizing respect for the old Crone Goddesses of European and Celtic pantheons.
The evil cackle.
The evil cackle might represent the assumption that the witch gains pleasure from acts of torment and evil. Giving her such an laugh is simply a way of demonizing the witch, but real witches generally arn't sociopathic and cruel. Most witches I know are, for the most part, caring, loving and gentle people who are very concerned that their actions be helpful rather than harmful. There is a saying among certain witches that goes something like "as long as it harms no one, do whatever you will." Not every witch goes by that same dictum, but often there is a similar guideline to help a modern witch discern whether their actions are necissary and helpful or if they are instead unbalanced actions that will result in negative consequences.
Yes, witches do spells. It's kind of what we do. But they don't involve potions that will give you an extra foot or raise the dead. We don't have that sort of power and honestly, what would we do with it if we had it? I have no interest in an extra foot or bringing back Grandma (she suffered enough, let her Rest In Peace). The spells we do are more like prayers with special tools to help send the energy of the prayer to the right place. We might do a working for healing or to help protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm or to enhance our communication with God (or whatever deity or spirit the witch worships or reveres).
The potions with the eyes of newt and armadillo scales.
Okie dokie... here's where we start getting into herbalism. Herbalism, herb lore and herbal magick are rather common among modern witches. Many witches enjoy reclaiming the knowledge of using helpful herbs (as opposed to modern medicine, although most witches take no issue with modern medicine and see herbs as helpful suppliments in assistance with medicine, to heal the whole person, not just the body). This may mean making a sachet/scent-bag, a tea or brew or some other method of employment.
The "Dead Mens Fingers" and "Wing of Bat" of HW legend are probably references to the quaint, colloquial nicknames for special herbs, named so to remind the witch of their appearance, shape, color, smell or application and to teach others their craft. Sorry, armadillo scales might make a good soup, but not so much a useful witches potion.
So, yes, some of us do make potions, but not with newts (that's gross)...
So, let's get to the bottom of this and define what, exactly, a witch is.
A witch is any person who practices witchcraft.
Well, that's great, but what's witchcraft? It's a craft, obviously, done by witches...
Oh heck, that doesn't explain much!!
OK, witchcraft is a form of magick and magick is the use of natural energies to cause change in the universe in accordance with ones will.
Witchcraft can be practiced by anyone, Christian, Jew, Pagan... anyone. However, witchcraft is most often associated with paganism.
OK then, what is paganism?
It is any religion that is not centered around the God that revealed Himself to Abraham (anyone not Jewish, Not Christian, Not Muslim etc). That means that Buddhism, Hinduism and Vodoun can all be considered, technically, pagan religions. Paganism is an umbrella term that describes any number of religions, some of them are vastly different from others.
One popular pagan religion is Wicca. You might have even heard of it. Wicca centers around a dual deity made up of The God (the masculine principal of divinity) and The Goddess (the feminine principle of divinity).
Wiccans will occasionally (and confusingly) refer to their religion as "Witchcraft" leading some people to say "Witchcraft if a religion that reveres the God and Goddess" or "a Witch is someone who worships the Goddess"... That's confusing because for most other pagans, "witchcraft" is a craft, not a religion, and one need not be Wiccan to practice it.
So to summarize, you don't need to be a pagan to be a witch and you don't need to be a witch to be a pagan though the two go together like peanut-butter and jelly. Every Wiccan is a pagan, but not every pagan is a Wiccan. Every Wiccan is a witch, but not every witch is a Wiccan or even a pagan.
And I got my broom at a second-hand shop.
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