We have examined the witch as depicted through the schemes of those who benefited from the image of the diabolical witch. While this invention is certainly the best-known portrayal, there are other less prejudicial perspectives to consider. Many of them can be found in a variety of sources that are secondary to the writings specifically targeting witchcraft.
Now we will look at themes appearing in various accounts, tales, and legends related to witches and witchcraft. One of the goals is to separate the impossible from the possible, which will give us a clearer image of the witch in the past (and the present).
In doing so, we will focus on the witch as a real person capable of performing feasible activities. This will help us separate out the contrived witch and arrive at something more useful to our discernment.
Throughout this chapter, we will highlight the reappearing components that surface in witchcraft trial accusations (excluding such things as the fantastic elements of flight and physical transformation).
The idea is to look at folkloric elements and bits of witch lore that can exist on their own without a connection to witchcraft as evil or as defined by a pact with the Devil. We will also take a brief look at things that are too often ignored or dismissed in order to perpetuate the notion of witchcraft as a form of Devil worship or a Christian heresy.
There is one very important thing missing in our understanding of the witch figure of the past. This is the word used by witches themselves for identification. If we knew this name, then it could provide us with vital insights, particularly in terms of etymology.
Unfortunately, we know only the names used by non-witches to refer to people believed to be witches. One possible exception appears in the field studies of nineteenth-century folklorists investigating witchcraft in Italy.
To my knowledge, these are the first reports taken directly from people identifying themselves as witches and who were willing to talk about their practices without coercion. In Italian, the word commonly translated into “witch” is strega (female witch) and stregone (male witch).
Many scholars dismiss these field studies because the data do not comply with the stereotypes that define witchcraft in the academic community. Another reason for dismissal is that the accepted academic methodology of contemporary scholars was not refined in the nineteenth-century.
Therefore, most modern scholars consider the data collected directly from interviewed witches of this period to be unreliable. Scholars prefer instead to stand by the official “history” of witchcraft, which depicts a sect of witches who we can be reasonably certain never existed at all.
In another article, we looked at the etymology of the earliest word for the witch in Western culture. As we discovered, the word is pharmakis (a word related to the knowledge of plant substances). Other words were to follow, and one such word became the foundation of the invented witch figure we have today.
This word is strix, a Latin word indicating a screech owl. This suggests that people living in the era of this word’s usage believed in a connection between the witch and the screech owl. The connection may stem from ritual cries once made by witches in the night, or the association may be more mythical in nature.
Could it be that some witches referred to themselves as the owl people? The precedent of taking on tribal animal names does exist in pre-Roman Italy. Some examples include tribes that took the names Piceni (woodpecker), Lucani (wolf), and Ursenti (bear). This practice is tied to the myth of the animal guide, or ancestor, feeder, and protector (a widespread belief in prehistoric Italy).
In another article, we noted ancient writings depicting a supernatural creature called a striga that was a type of vampire owl. According to old lore, this creature was able to transform itself into the figure of an old woman.
In the lore of the period, the striga preyed on newborn babies, small children, and women. Over the course of time, both strix and striga became terms for a witch. Some scholars make a distinction between the supernatural, or “night-witch,” and the human witch that people may actually have encountered in real day-to-day life. Historian Richard Gordon notes such a distinction in ancient times. He goes on to say that the depiction of the witch as one who poisons is a created blending of the wise-woman and root-cutter figures, and not an ethnological account.
According to most scholars, the words striga or strix evolved into the word strega. Its contemporary usage in mainstream Italian culture is always negative, just as it was in the past. If striga and strix are the roots of the modern word strega, then it is reasonable to assume that the notion of the creature indicated by these terms has long contaminated ideas about the actual witch figure over the centuries.
Some people believe that the presence of a supernatural creature in ancient cultural beliefs about witches negates the idea that a human witch also existed in the minds of the populace. But this erroneous assessment is contrary to the academic view as noted in the comments by Gordon.
From time to time, the argument surfaces that people would not use a name for themselves that is regarded as negative in the culture in which they are raised. People with this view reject the idea that anyone in the past self-identified as a witch (or in the case of Italians, as a strega or stregone). However, we do know that some people today embrace the name “witch” in the United States and Britain despite its negative meaning in mainstream culture.
We also know that minorities will call each other by names that other people use as derogatory remarks (I refer to racist slurs). So the argument is weak when we look at the example of people in our own time. Modern witches face many of the same social perils today as did those in past ages.
Granted, it is no longer legal to imprison, torture, and execute people accused of witchcraft (at least in most countries), but significant consequences still remain. Despite this, we do find people openly identifying themselves as witches. We also find people privately referring to themselves as witches. This strongly suggests that mainstream definitions and attitudes are not necessarily a deterrent.
Throughout the course of this chapter, we will look at various themes related to witches depicted as real people. We will also examine references to witchcraft that are meant to indicate a feasible practice as opposed to impossible supernatural events. My intent is not to claim them as proof of anything per se. I use them instead to present beliefs held by various people in different eras. The question becomes why these beliefs persist through the ages despite contrary ones that form the official accepted views about witches and witchcraft.
Among the most persistent references are mentions of a goddess in witchcraft trials and in commentaries by various Church officials and other so-called authorities on the subject. The names of these goddesses are naturally those of the region in which they appear, at least for the most part. However, the Roman goddess Diana is frequently found outside of Italy and particularly in the German records.
Other types of goddesses are mentioned in Eastern Europe. For example, scholar Éva Pócs reports thirty-six documented cases in Hungarian witchcraft trial transcripts that involve a “fate goddess.” The fact that these trials span three centuries is a remarkable testimony to the persistence of goddess themes in witchcraft accusations.