Posts Tagged ‘History of Witches in the Western World’
Fairy Tales should not be swiftly discounted for their seemingly fictional and innocent purposes as children’s stories. The tales thus preserved are, in fact, windows into other times, ancient peoples’ thoughts, and older magicks. They are just as valuable a tool in anthropological study as traditional religious mythology, and to a certain extent, observational science and archaeology. They provide insight into the psychology and perception of their contemporary societies by both the people living in those societies and those transmitting the stories since. Furthermore, their archetypal nature speaks to something deeper in all man and womankind; regardless of the story’s origins or original temporal setting. This archetypal voice is why these stories still resonate with audiences today. And it is research into understanding this archetypal psychology which has dominated the anthropology of the fairy tale and been the focus of work for famous names such as J.R.R. Tolkein, Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Frazer, and Carl Jung, etc.
The witches of the traditional canon of fairy tales, i.e. of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, and the rest of their late 17th through to early 19th century peers provide particularly remarkable insight into two periods of time: the time of the authors themselves; as well as the earlier pre-Industrial Revolution era their stories are typically set in.
Growing discontent with the pervading religious system and local government, coupled with rampant diseases (like the Black Plague), led to a rise in fear on the European continent. With the advent of writing and a stronger infrastructure of roads and trade, this fear was not an isolated incident, but was communicated between groups of people: between villages on a smaller level and between countries -for indeed, now we have come to the period where countries are starting to define themselves as separate states with distinct borders rather than cultural alliances and princely empires as before. Though this new, unprecedented opportunity would later prove to be the cure for the darkness of the period, it was at first but a promoter of the miasma of fear which hung over the late medieval world. In need of a scapegoat, the western world, and in particular the Catholic Church, looked around for something ‘other’ to blame all of their fears and woes upon. And they found what they sought in the form of the witch. A female with power, an outsider to the community, a link to the devil or the pagan communities that had ruled Europe prior to Christian domination ~ the figure of the witch was a multi-purpose target. An easy mark, the witch was vilified, both in person and in the resultant stories of her.
If you want to learn more about the witches of fairy tale and take a deeper look at the residual layers of fairy tale and symbolism of the new characters and archetypes attached to the myth of the witch, then join the Sacred Mists’ newest class: The History of Witches in the Western World ~ taught by yours truly. Using an anthropological perspective, this class explores the changing forms of magick and the evolution of the ‘Witch’ through the biographies of mythological witches of the antiquity through to the historical magickal figures.
Above image courtesy of fanpop
Have you ever walked into the other room and forgotten why you went in? Or been in the middle of a presentation for work or school and forgotten your next line? Though modern science has investigated and standardized the human information processing system that encompasses remembrance and recall, the concept of Memory and its importance was recognized very early on in human culture.
Without memory, much of everyday human interaction is meaningless. We operate within a system of recognized social queues and norms, and we cooperate best with those people and sub-systems which are most familiar to us. We all recognize that green means go and red means stop. And we know to trust our family and friends rather than the random stranger lurking on the street. We know these things, because they are embedded as part of our memories. We build up our knowledge base cumulatively utilizing memory. And thus, any new creations and inspirations can be tied into our ability to do this. The anthropologists of the past several decades have worked to formalize our understanding of this concept (Tomasello, etc). But it was recognized long ago, most famously by the ancient Greeks who cast memory into the personified form of the goddess Mnemosyne, and the bright ideas built off of memory became her inspirational daughters, the Muses.
Mnemosyne was a Titaness, one of the many deities representative of the earlier pantheon of the Indo-European Greek mainland which was supplanted by the more famous Olympians. Legend has it that for nine passionate nights, Zeus was allowed to forget about his troubles and stress as new divine ruler of the world by remaining in the arms of Mnemosyne. And from their union, nine months later, the nine Muses were born at the oracular springs of Pieria. These sacred waters were probably a prophetic pilgrimage site for those seeking to gain the favor of Mnemosyne and the ability to either remember or to forget. Mnemosyne holds sway over both of these qualities. She is said to control the River Lethe and subsidiary waters in the Underworld which grant forgetfulness of one’s previous life or continued remembrance of it into the next.
But she was not just honored for otherworldly role, but for the power she could imbue in her adherents in the mainstream world. Kings and politicians particularly sought her favor. And as the mother of the nine Muses, she was constantly evoked alongside her daughters. Indeed, it is likely that the Muses themselves were all initially aspects of Mnemosyne herself, which over time, became divisible and separated out as distinct deities of their own. When Homer so evocatively calls upon The Muse at the start of his Odyssey (“Sing to me of the man, Muse, that man of twists and turns drive time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy…Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will –sing for our time too”) it is likely early versions referenced Mnemosyne as a conglomeration of all the innnovative aspects which later became attributed out to her children. The oral nature of Homer’s work entails additions and alterations along the way. The singular general term ‘Muse’ as opposed to naming one of the specific deities, most likely Clio, Muse of History, implies higher levels of generalization or else a different entity than that which classical audiences would have assumed. The phrase ‘daughter of Zeus,’ though included in modern translations, is representative of a later alteration or addition to the text from periods whereby the relationship between Zeus and the Muses is more formalized. It may initially have said nothing of Zeus whatsoever, or else specified a different relationship to him.
The cosmology of Mnemosyne and her creative kiddies is most explicitly outlined in Hesoid’s Theogony or ‘Birth of the Gods:’
“(ll. 36-52) Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden
the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their
songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were
aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet
sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the
loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as
it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the
homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice,
celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from
the beginning, those whom Earth and wide Heaven begot, and the
gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the
goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin
and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the
gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men
and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus,
– the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.
(ll. 53-74) Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns
over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the
son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For
nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed
remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the
seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were
accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose
hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a
little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are
their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them
the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they,
uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all
and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely
voice. Then went they to Olympus, delighting in their sweet
voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about
them as they chanted, and a lovely sound rose up beneath their
feet as they went to their father. And he was reigning in
heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt,
when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he
distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared
(ll. 75-103) These things, then, the Muses sang who dwell on
Olympus, nine daughters begotten by great Zeus, Cleio and
Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene and Terpsichore, and Erato and
Polyhymnia and Urania and Calliope (3), who is the chiefest of
them all, for she attends on worshipful princes: whomsoever of
heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and
behold him at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and
from his lips flow gracious words. All the people look towards
him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he,
speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great
quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because
when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set
right the matter again with ease, persuading them with gentle
words. And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as
a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the
assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men. For it is
through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers
and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is
he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth. For
though a man have sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and
live in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a
singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of
men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he
forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but
the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
(ll. 104-115) Hail, children of Zeus! Grant lovely song and
celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever,
those that were born of Earth and starry Heaven and gloomy Night
and them that briny Sea did rear. Tell how at the first gods and
earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its
raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above,
and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things, and
how they divided their wealth, and how they shared their honours
amongst them, and also how at the first they took many-folded
Olympus. These things declare to me from the beginning, ye Muses
who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them
first came to be.”
Though Mnemosyne’s magickal powers were not preserved, her divinatory nature and her control over knowledge, remembrance, and the transitioning soul entitle her a role as a goddess for witches. Knowledge is power. And knowledge is created by Memory, which is ruled over by Mnemosyne.
As the United States collectively pauses to celebrate the memory of those we have lost in times of battle, it is fitting that we also celebrate our own ability to remember them. And perhaps wonder what lives they have moved on to now, and what memories they will retain of their former glory.
If you want to learn more about mythical and historical figures like Mnemosyne and delve into the deeper more fabulously magickal realms of the Witches of Antiquity, now is your chance! The Sacred Mists newest class, History of Witches in the Western World , is now open for enrollment. Created and taught by yours truly, the class utilizes the mythical, literary, and historical biographies of witch-figures to explore the history and anthropology of magick from prehistory through to the last century. I hope to see you around its digital hallowed halls!
Initial Image is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lamp of Memory or Mnemosyne. Completed in 1877, the canvas’ frame is inscribed with the phrase “Thou fill’st from the winged chalice of the soul/ Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1842 poem, The Lady of Shalott creatively manufactured one of the most influential witch figures of the second half of the last millennium. A combination of the witches of Avalon from the medieval Arthurian sagas and Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen, the unnamed Lady of Shalott is both and she is neither. She is a powerful seer separate from society, yet one who sorrows. She has seemingly sacrificed human interaction in exchange for her mystical powers, and yet she regrets this sacrifice: longing to love and be loved in return. And this is perhaps her most notable contribution to the witch-lore of the centuries that were to follow: the myth that the witch cannot or should not love a mortal without sacrificing her power or some other element of self or magickal community.
Obviously, this is not a true concept. A witch, like any other human or even mammal, is capable of love and of being loved. However, in casting the Lady of Shalott as a tragic victim of her own power, Tennyson unwittingly launched a pop culture campaign exploring this idea of love vs. magickal power, and the combination thereof. It was a particularly popular notion in witch-films and television of the middle twentieth century, notably the classic films So I Married a Witch and Bell, Book, and Candle as well as the magickal sitcom Betwitched.
The power disparity between the witch and her lover (and indeed Bell, Book, and Candle’s insistence that she sacrifice her power if she is to be in love) descends from The Lady of Shalott’s dark focus on the ethics of its witch-faerie star falling in love. It begs the question of whether she can love without magickally influencing the object of her love to love her back? It also debates whether a relationship between a magickal being and a non-magickal being is a balanced relationship. These related questions are vital to two anthropological discussions: the influence societal, or in this case, otherworldly power, has in any relationship (i.e. Does the Queen or the Royal Mistress really love the King or did she marry him for the throne?) and the modern magickal nix on the use of love magick for ethical reasons.
Where Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, the boat of the Lady of Shalott launched a series of ethical questions integral to both the anthropology of magick and the psychology of relationships.
For a more in-depth look at the Lady of Shalott, her fellow literary witches, and other historical and mythical witches: keep your eye out for the upcoming class: History of Witches in the Western World! NEW from yours truly and exclusively offered at the fabulous Sacred Mists!!
Pictured above is John William Waterhouse’s famous version of The Lady of Shalott.