The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Devil’s Grandmother
Powerful goddesses frequently had male consorts. Sometimes the consort is a horned male spirit, such as Diana and Virbius. Sometimes the goddess is envisioned as a beautiful, mature woman with a significantly younger male consort whom she initiates and tutors and, sometimes, ultimately kills. The goddess is eternal; her youthful consort can be replaced. Such myths are told of Kybele and Attis, Aphrodite and Adonis, Inanna-Ishtar and Tammuz. The story of Artemis and Actaeon, the hunter who is transformed into a deer and killed by his hunting hounds, may actually incorporate both motifs.
Diana lived with Virbius, a horned stag spirit, in the sacred grove of Nemi, near Rome. He is clearly identified as her consort; he is subordinate to her. This image of the witch-goddess living in the forest with a horned man eventually emerged as the Christian prototype for the witch and devil, respectively—with one extremely significant difference. In the Christian version, the male devil is dominant; the female witches adore him. This is the opposite of the original Pagan perspective. The devil allegedly initiates and tutors women.
The Christian devil was popularly envisioned as a horned spirit, however, people may have remembered that once upon a time, the female half of this dyad was dominant and she did the initiating and tutoring. Throughout Russia, Northern, and Central Europe, the Devil’s Grandmother emerged as a formidable force: she taught him everything he knows. Allegedly she retained some secrets and still knows a trick or two more than he does.
No longer the goddess in the form of a beautiful woman in her prime, the devil’s grandmother corresponds instead to the once sacred image of the Hag. On the one hand, this old legend was intended to further diabolize old women; on the other, it recalls a time when women’s wisdom was respected.
The devil’s grandmother was frequently utilized as a bogie-woman to frighten children (“be good or the devil’s grandmother will get you!”). She is also perceived as scarier and more dangerous than her son; if you can survive an encounter with the devil, you’ll still have his mother to deal with, or so goes the theme of many folktales, similar perhaps to the monster Grendel and his even fiercer mother from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
However, sometimes the goddess’ essential benevolence shines through. In various somewhat subversive fairy tales, the devil’s grandmother assists the hero to accomplish his goals.
See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs; HORNED ONE: The Devil.