Witches Lore

by Tala Bar


A witch is a woman – that is an axiom. A man can be a magician, a sorcerer, a wizard or a warlock, but he cannot be a witch, which is the appellation of a certain kind of woman. When the Old Testament says the well known phrase, "You shall not let a witch live!" it uses the feminine gender for the word - mekhashefa. Although, as all nouns do in Semitic languages, the masculine form of "witch" appears in the plural in a general way among other titles of magic makers, the particular command to eliminate witches refers to that noun in the feminine.

Two connected questions are raised concerning witches: Why did ancient people resort to the help of magic makers of all kinds; and why did the Old Testament, the source of all teaching about the transcendental Father god that initiated the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – so strongly object particularly to the feminine witch? The present article is endeavoring to answer these questions.

Ancient people, without a compass or a map, clock, thermometer, barometer, calendars or drug prescriptions, needed all kinds of oracles as guides for their everyday lives. In place of our use of technology, which is based on logical science, the ancients used techniques based on the power of observation and experience, as well as on their emotional regard for their environment. Magic makers, witches and shamans of all kinds, paralleled the scientists, technicians and specialists of today in telling humans what is what, how and why in their world.

The driving forces of the ancient world were pagan deities, to whom all magic makers referred as their guides in their actions and their ideologies. The poet and writer Robert Graves presents his idea about witches' ideology in his book The White Goddess, in the chapter describing the Tree-Alphabet (p. 173): "The fifth tree is the willow, or osier, which in Greece was sacred to Hecate, Circe, Hera and Persephone, all Death aspects of the Triple Moon-goddess, and much worshipped by witches… The connection with witches is so strong in Northern Europe that the words 'witch' and 'wicked' are derived from the same ancient word for willow, which also yields 'wicker'… The Druidical human sacrifices were offered at the full of the moon in wicker-baskets, and funerary flints were knapped in willow-leaf shape… The willow (helice in Greek…) gave its name to Helicon, the abode of the Nine Muses, orgiastic priestesses of the Moon-goddess." The witch here, then, is connected with femininity, with the divine, and with Nature.

Hecate and Circe are two Witch Goddesses known from Greek mythology; both were connected with animals, but also with the Sun – Circe by being Helios' daughter, and Hecate by having one of her heads that of a horse (s. my article Horses in Myth and History). They are related, both having a parent by the name of Perse (Circe's mother) or Perses (Hecate's father), a word meaning "destruction", which is an appellation for Death.

Circe (s. link) is basically seen as an enchantress, mentioned in two main sources. One is the Odyssey, where she turns Odysseus' men into beasts and then she becomes his lover – this last act shows her in the additional aspect of a Love goddess. In the other source, though, the story of the Argonauts, she must be more than a witch but appears also as a Death priestess, when she purifies Medea from killing her brother. Circe lived on the island of Aeaea, an onomatopoeia expressing yelling or howling, which Graves translated as "wailing" – plainly connected with the mourning for the dead.

Hecate's figure (s. link and ref.) is both more complex and obscure, appearing in a triple figure with the heads of a horse, a snake and a dog. She is mentioned in many stories from Greek mythology, and was shown as a Death goddess in her connection to the underworld, to snakes, and particularly to dogs. In the Greek Myths, Graves assigns her membership in the Moon triad in her aspect of Death, which includes also Hera as the Mother and Artemis as the Maiden. In her statue of triple figures she expresses the three aspects of the ancient, triple Great Goddess who rules the world: the horse as the sun in the sky; the dog as an earthly creature; and the snake in his holes leading to the underworld, in charge of riches and wisdom. In her later, lesser figure, she is known as ruler of the night and is said to haunt a three-way crossroad, each of her heads facing in a certain direction. Hecate was considered a very powerful magic maker, and Shakespeare knew that the hemlock and the yew tree were sacred to her. In Macbeth, "slips of yew sliver'd in the Moon's eclipse" were contained in the witches' cauldron. The yew, sacred to the goddess of the underworld, still grows in cemeteries. She continues to live on today as a deity to pagans and Wiccans, who had resumed her ancient function as the Great Mother.

Hecate gave birth to the Empusae, "daughters of Hecate", who were considered evil demons preying on people at night. They had a Semitic parallel in the figures of the Lilim, considered "daughters of Lilit", who was an ancient Babylonian Underworld goddess of Wisdom and Judgment; in later days, the character of Lilit turned into that of a witch or even a demon. She is portrayed as a beautiful, young, naked woman with claws in her feet, standing among lions (Ishtar's beast) and owls (Athena's symbol of wisdom). The World Mythology (p. 122) explains the character of Lilit as the darker, stormy side of the Queen of Heaven, the goddess Inanna-Ishtar. In the site of Sacred Texts (s. link), there is a quote from The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker: "Lilith, (also known as Lilit), was a relic of an early rabbinical attempt to assimilate the Sumero-Babylonian Goddess Belit-ili, or Belili, into Jewish mythology. To the Canaanites, Lilith was Baalat, the "Divine Lady". Hebraic tradition said Adam married Lilith because he grew tired of mating with animals… but she disagreed with Adam about the super position and flew away to the Red Sea, where she supposedly spent her time mating with "demons" and gave birth to "a hundred children a day", later called Lilim. There may have been a connection between Lilith and the Etruscan divinity Leinth, who had no face and who waited at the gate of the underworld to receive the souls of the dead." According to the writer, the admission into the Underworld was sometimes symbolized as a sexual union, with its gate as the yoni, or the lily flower, with no face; the lily or lilu, (lotus) was the Great Mother's flower. The Lilim, (female in gender in spite of their masculine grammatical form), were thought responsible for nocturnal emissions, and throughout the Middle Ages the Jews still made amulets to keep the Lilim away. Their character was also adopted by the Christians, who called them harlots of hell or succubae. These Daughters of Lilith were supposedly very beautiful and presumed to be so expert at lovemaking that after an experience with one, a man couldn't be content with a mere mortal woman.

Seeing the importance of females as deities of the Underworld, the oracles speaking in their name must also have been females. The characters of Circe, Hecate and Lilit, however, are examples of the way ancient figures of the Goddess, in particular the ones connected with Death and the Underworld, have turned in later years, under masculine rule, into the degraded personalities of demons and witches.

In an article called Witches in the Bible and Talmud (s. Link), Meir Bar-Ilan explains that, in Biblical times, women had social power that was expressed in their functioning in important positions as prophets and leaders and had great influence in society. The female oracle, marvelously portrayed in the figure of the Witch of Ein Dor (the English translation of baalat ov as "woman who has a familiar spirit" is pathetically wrong, as it should be "necromancer"), is an example in kind. Under masculine rule, but as long as people still believed in the gods of Nature, female deities fell from their supreme position to become minor characters in mythology. However, with the advent of the new religion of a male supreme god that was, in particular, a "god of life" as happened in Judaism, female deities and their followers completed their degradation to become a negative, evil power. Female oracles, then, whose usual source was the Underworld, the natural place of wisdom, were banished in favor of male priests and prophets, deriving their power of knowledge from the new, transcendental god who dwelled in heaven. People were now directed to “ask God” instead of resorting to Mother Nature with her signs and signals; in this context, as Bar-Ilan explains, women's former social power vanished, and they resorted to witchcraft for their own personal power. Death, as the antagonist of the God of Life, became evil, while before it was an integral part of the circle of life, death and resurrection. In English, this evil is expressed in the word "wicked", carelessly connecting that word with "witches".


In European lore of the Middle Ages, remnants of the old multiple character of Goddess of Nature still lived, as can be seen in some of the Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales. There, witches sometimes reverted to the character of the Great Goddess or her emissary; thus, using the power of Nature, or her power over Nature, the witch here can change the appearance of people; she can turn humans into animals; she can create storms, mountains or rivers; and she can order different events to take place, either good or evil. In spite of her great power, in the way the ancients viewed life and in complete contrast to Christian ideas, the witch in these stories is not a moral person, but acts according to her will, which is neither good nor evil.

Such a powerful person appears in the tale called The Goose Girl by the Well. She lives in a “remote place among mountains surrounded by a great forest” – a place that indicates her as belonging to Nature; she is old and ugly, bent and limping, and she is described by people as very cunning and “perhaps a witch." This old woman – as many witches are described – seems to make mischief to a pair of young people, but in the end is revealed as doing them both a great favor. The moral of the story, if any, is that people should listen to the love in their heart and not to any inclination to vanity – a moral which is well fitting to a long gone Goddess of Love.

A lovely story is told by Chaucer in the Wife of Bath story of his Canterbury Tales, about a lecher knight who was commanded by his Queen, wife to King Arthur, to find out what women want most; otherwise, he was in danger of being put to death for his crimes against women. In a forest, the usual realm of Nature, he meets an old, ugly woman, who reveals to him that secret – which is the supremacy over men – and thus saves his life, and demands in return that he marries her. Wanting to stay alive, the knight does it in spite of his revulsion, only to discover how wise his old and ugly wife is. In the end, he is persuaded to kiss her, where upon she turns into a young, lovely woman. Chaucer, though not directly calling the "wife" a witch, plainly ascribes to her, or the story teller in the figure of the Wife of Bath, beauty, wisdom and love which properly belong to the ancient figure of the Goddess.

In Christianity, however, female witches as former worshipers of the Goddess of Death, were supposed to have taken the part of Satan in his continuous fight against God, as representatives of Evil against Good in the world.  

In his Medieval tale of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott tells of a Jewish girl, Rabecca, accused of being a witch, both because she is such a highly skilled healer that she must have acquired her ability from the Devil; and because she is so beautiful that she has bewitched a Templar knight to fall in love with her. For these crimes, Rebecca is on the point of being burnt on the stake. This story reflects the historical fact that thousands of women were considered witches and were burnt to death in Medieval Europe, because they were skilled in healing, basing their knowledge on recognizing various natural items. Medicine in those days was in a very primitive state as used by professional men called doctors, who were not only prejudiced against those wise women, but also full of all kinds of superstitions. Scott’s sympathy is certainly given to the beautiful girl, whom he is far from thinking a witch, which had become a term of abuse.

It can be seen, then, that the overwhelming hate for witches was actually promoted by the Christian church and its inquisition, on the old premises that a witch has connection with Nature, Death and Sex. Christianity turned the idea of "love" into the sexless feeling of the sexless god to his creatures, rather than the love that must exist between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. The American trial of the Witches of Salem is a case in point, a throwback to Medieval Europe by a devout Christian community.


In the middle of the 20th century, witches' culture was revived in England, together with a movement that advocated the return to Nature, as it is said in the Wikipedia (s. link) about the newly formed Wiccan religion: “It was first popularized in 1954 by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner after the British Witchcraft Act was repealed. He claimed that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witchcraft religion, which had existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe.”

Since then, witches have appeared in modern literature, particularly in fantasy and science fiction, not as wicked or evil, nor as divine figures or goddesses, but as ordinary human beings with some extraordinary powers, who use them either for good or for evil, as the person's inclination is. Modern literature keeps away from mythological symbolism, and modern witches can be either men or women. The Wiccan dogma (the word "wicca" goes back to the base forming the words "witch", "wicker" and "willow") recognizes a joint, equal power of male-female deities; so, while depriving females of their traditional singular power, they allow males into their circles.

One of the best books based solely on such powers is Diana Wynne Jones’ book A Sudden Wild Magic; in it, most witches on Earth are females who work for the good of the planet; the one male witch taking part in their work is actually from a parallel universe, where there are both male and female magic makers. Marion Zimmer Bradley is another author who took great interest in witches. They appear as a central force in her futuristic Darkover series, sorcerers and sorceresses, known also by the invented term Leroni; they function in her Medieval Avalon series as relics from ancient times; and they feature widely in the series she created and edited Sword and Sorceress.

In the light of past ideas, modern witches have needed great courage when they resumed, not only their ancient skills but also the appellation of the word “witch," in disregard for the old contemptuous and degrading usage. So, although traditionally a witch is a woman, in the modern times of equality, this idea has also been through that equalizing force. Nevertheless, in the mind of people who accept the witch's natural standing without kowtowing to Wiccan dictating, the word "witch," in whatever language, must be thought of as a woman, one among all the other terms of magic craft.


Lilit - http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos244.htm

Hecate - http://thanasis.com/hecate.htm

Circe - http://thanasis.com/circe.htm 

Wicca in Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca 

Bar-Ilan - http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/witches.html

Practical Almanac - http://www.witches.org.uk/

Witches persecution - http://witches.monstrous.com/

Women, goddesses, witches - http://womenshistory.about.com/od/goddesses/Goddesses_Legends_and_Mythical_Women.htm



World Encyclopedia of Mythology

Robert Graves – The White Goddess; The Greek Myths

Grimm Brothers – Fairy Tales

Sir Walter Scott - Ivanhoe

Diana Wynne Jones - A Sudden Wild Magic 



Witches Lore,  nonfiction, Issue 3, June 1, 2008

Mythological Giants and Their Wars,  nonfiction, Issue 12, September 1, 2010

King David in the Cave, nonfiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012

Human Sacrifice, nonfiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014

The Loss and Search for a Loved One, Issue 28, September 1, 2014

The Mythology of Water, Issue 32, September 1, 2015

Mazes and Spirals, Issue 33, December 1, 2015

Tala Bar, I am a writer and an artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found in this address:   


Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address:                                                        


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