The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
Once upon a time, vast primordial, dense forests covered much of Earth. Human settlements were but small clearings within forests; in order to reach another settlement, one had to pass through forests. The forest was not something rare, as it is today, but ever-present and familiar.
Many consider the forest to be witchcraft’s birthplace. It is certainly the place where the craft was nurtured. Dedicated solitary practitioners and spiritual seekers lived alone in the forest, discovering the powers of botanicals and mushrooms, learning to negotiate with animal powers and navigate the world of Spirits. These practitioners, among Earth’s first shamans, witches, and healers, shared their skills and knowledge with those who ventured into the forest. For these practitioners, the forest was home, shrine, and medicine cabinet all in one. But other visions of the forest exist, too.
In fact, there are various different visions of the forest. Here’s one: the forest is a wild place not under human control. This forest is a mysterious, uncontrollable realm where wild nature holds sway. Animals, trees, and spirits reign supreme, not people. The only way for people to control this forest is to destroy it.
That vision fills some with dread and others with awe. Many people, in the past and now at present, consider the forest a holy place, hallowed ground. Deep forests were and remain sacred shrines, places where people venture to pay obeisance to the Spirit World. Some consider the eradication of Europe’s forests to be a form of spiritual warfare, the equivalent of destroying temples, churches or shrines.
The hedge divides the forest from human settlements. The hedge is the realm of witches who mediate between domesticity and wilderness, the human realm and those others not under human control. (See HAG.)
Here’s another vision of the forest, one commonly found in fairy tales: the forest is a dangerous place filled with ravenous beasts, evil, malicious spirits, and wild, dangerous people. Murderers, thieves, and outlaws live in the forest; chief among these dangerous folk are witches.
Folktale forests are inhabited by ravenous, cannibal witches. Some initially seem innocuous and even helpful but that’s just part of their trap: the witch in the Brothers Grimm story Hansel and Gretel epitomizes this witch. (See FAIRYTALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Hansel and Gretel.) In addition to the potential dangers of getting hopelessly lost or being attacked by wild animals, you can’t even trust humans encountered in the wood. In fairy tales, benign little old ladies transform into evil killer witches lurking deep in the woods.
Here’s yet another vision of the forest: maybe Hansel and Gretel feared they’d wander lost in the woods for ever but historically people have valued the forest precisely because they could get lost in it. Sometimes “lost” is the safest place to be. Despite tales of Baba Yaga and other cannibal witches lurking in the woods, the forest has traditionally been a place of refuge. Many people have preferred taking their chances with the dangers in the forest rather than those dangers outside it.
Over the centuries many have entered the forest in hopes of evading human persecution. Sometimes they had no choice: in the Pagan Nordic legal tradition, those decreed “outlaws” were forbidden to live among people. Anyone was free to kill them.
Where else were they to go? Many found refuge in the woods, some living solitary lives, others creating outlaw communities, à la Robin Hood. Similarly, lepers once lived in colonies in European woods, forbidden to come out.
The forest is not under human control: laws, just or unjust, are often ignored
The forest is a great equalizer: inside the forest, rank matters less than survival skills
If the forest presents dangers to some, it has traditionally offered protection to others. Because after all, although living in the forest presents obvious challenges and dangers, sometimes so does living outside the forest. The most famous people to take refuge in a forest are Robin Hood and his band of merry men (merry women, too!) who found fun and safety in Sherwood Forest, but there are many others too, many much more recently:
The Maroons of the Caribbean and southern United States were escaped African slaves who established free communities in wild, remote, wooded places. (Maroon derives from the Spanish Cimarron and indicates “wild,” “unbroken,” “untamed.”)
The Netotsi (“Men of the Woods”) are escaped Romany slaves who found refuge and safety in a Carpathian maze of rocks and forests. (Romany were enslaved in Hungary and Transylvania as early as the fifteenth century, but the most brutal area of persecution was Moldavia and Walachia, now modern Romania, where two hundred thousand enslaved Romany were freed in 1855, just five years prior to the American Civil War.)
In 1941, when the Nazis began mass executions of Polish Jews, some fled to the Naliboki Forest to form combined refugee and resistance communities, eventually numbering over one thousand people including women and children. Other partisans of World War II also found safety and shelter in Europe’s forests.
While some suggest that the destruction of forests is akin to spiritual desecration, others suggest that it is a method of population control: without forests, where would people hide and resist persecution?
Going back several centuries, among those seeking refuge in forests were those who refused to accept the then-new Christian faith. Some rejected its spiritual precepts, preferring ancient ancestral traditions: priestesses, priests, and other devotees retreated into the woods. Others resisted new authority and rules: when Christianity banished spell-casting and magical traditions, some practitioners sought privacy and independence in the woods.
These people eventually came to be called witches and are among those dangerous people that fairy tales describe as populating the woods.
Forests have always been associated with witchcraft, whether witches live there or just visit. Forests were where botanical supplies were gathered and where one communed with wild forest spirits. Many spirits make their home in the forest, the most famous being witch-goddesses like Artemis, Diana, Faunus, Kybele, and Baba Yaga. (See DIVINE WITCH: Artemis, Baba Yaga, Diana, Kybele; HORNED ONE: Faunus.)
The forest is sometimes called the mother of witchcraft: according to one legend, the great goddess Kybele herself invented witchcraft in the forest. According to this myth, Kybele was born an unwanted female child, left abandoned and exposed to die in the Anatolian woods. Rather than kill her, the leopards that discovered the crying baby raised her and nurtured her, feeding her on their own milk. Kybele, the original Catwoman, grew up in the forest, away from all human contact, finally emerging as a strong, smart, competent, independent, magically empowered woman.
She discovered all the necessary components of witchcraft in the forest: botanicals, especially trees and roots, animals, and spirits. Kybele became a healer, a musician (inventing the flute and percussion instruments), a shaman, and the first witch. She was finally motivated to leave the forest (temporarily!) in order to teach other women her newfound skills.
Other spirits associated with forest include:
Arduinna, Mistress of the Forest, rides through the woods on a wild boar. The Romans equated this Gaulish (Celtic) lunar deity with Diana. The Ardennes, an extensively forested region primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg but also extending within France and Germany, is named in her honor. There is a powerful history of ironworking in the Ardennes region, and the Ardennes Forest was for a long time considered a bastion of Pagan tradition.
Meza Mate, Latvian “Mother of the Forest,” has dominion over wilderness and the animals that reside within. She also asserts dominion over those humans who make their living from the forest, presiding over the balance between the forest, animals, hunters, and woodcutters.
Ogun, West Africa’s sacred smith, is also Lord of the Forest where he maintains his forge. Ogun lives in a forest-compound together with a band of male spirits (collectively known as the “Warriors.”) These spirits include Elegba, Ochossi, and Osain, Lord of Botanicals. (See DIVINE WITCH: Ochossi; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers.)
Osain is a powerful sorcerer who knows all of Earth’s botanical secrets. He is described as having one eye and one arm. He hops around like a bird on his one leg. He does have two ears: one is huge but the other is tiny and shriveled up. The huge ear is deaf but the little one is so acute it can hear the sound of a single flower crying.
Osain sponsors botanists, herbalists, healers, pharmacists, and chemists. His sacred creatures include parrots, roosters, turtles, and goats. His sacred color is green. Osain expects offerings such as coins and tobacco from those who harvest forest botanicals.
Other forest spirits include Papa Bois, “Father Forest,” woodland guardian spirit from Trinidad and Tobago. See HORNED ONE: Papa Bois.
Osain, Ogun, and Arduinna are individual spirits; the forest is also home to various bands of roving spirits including Leshii, Rusalka, and Vila. Many of these wild nature spirits are among those classified as Fairies.
In general, these spirits are identified with the balance of nature and traditionally mediated between the needs of people and the needs of forest animals, trees, and other botanicals. They regulate hunters, woodcutters, and those who harvest wild plants. Once upon a time (and still today for some) these actions were not performed without accompanying spiritual ritual.
Perhaps it is understandable that those who no longer maintained those traditions perceived these spirits as threatening. Why would those spirits look upon them with favor?
However, those maintaining those old traditions, who respected the spirits and continued to venerate the forest as holy territory had no reason to fear. If some legends tell of people killed or pursued by Vila, other legends describe Vila dancing with devotees in moonlit glades, performing miracle cures, and offering shamanic lessons.
Similar spirits closely identified with forests include the Skogsfruar (Swedish: “forest wives”). These are described as manifesting in the form of beautiful, naked women who mysteriously appear in the forest, often joining men at campgrounds, luring them deeper into the woods, from whence they never return. (Because they’ve met with foul play or because they’re too happy to leave is unknown.) “Forest wife” is also sometimes a euphemism for “witch” and it is not entirely clear if all these Skogsfruar are spirits or whether some are human forest dwellers.
Yakshas also take the form of beautiful women but they are spirits inhabiting the forests of India. They protect hidden forest treasure, especially that concealed beneath tree roots. Yakshas distract treasure hunters as well as other intruders in the woods. Men pursue them deeper into the forest where the Yakshas suddenly transform into trees, leaving the men hopelessly—and fatally—lost.
Sometimes specific forests are identified with witchcraft:
The Iarnvid (Iron Wood) is the legendary forest of Teutonic mythology, a deep, dark forest of iron trees at the very edge of the world, home of a witch clan feared by deities and mortals alike presided over by their matriarch, witchgoddess Angerboda. Wolves and witches make their home in the Iron Wood. (Iron Wood may be meant literally and/or mythically. Iron has profound associations with witchcraft, and in Northern Europe, iron trees also indicate strong, powerful oaks.) See DIVINE WITCH: Angerboda; HAG: Angerboda.
The New Forest in Hampshire, England was created by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a royal deer-hunting preserve. His son, William Rufus, was killed in a suspicious accident while hunting there. Rufus is among those that witchcraft scholar Margaret Murray identifies as sacred, sacrificed kings. (See HALL OF FAME: Margaret Murray.)
The New Forest figures prominently in the history of modern witchcraft and Wicca. Similar to the tale of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest (also a royal preserve), the New Forest was a refuge for smugglers, outlaws, and especially witches. Various covens allegedly made their home in the woods. Gerald Gardner, father of modern Wicca, claimed to have been initiated into one of these New Forest covens in 1939 by Old Dorothy Clutterbuck.
The word “forest” now indicates a deeply wooded region. Forest in the medieval English sense of that word, however, originally indicated a hunting reserve: a legally defined area, subject to special laws, where “beasts of the chase” were protected and reserved for royal pleasure. (Beasts of the chase usually means deer and boar, both once present in the New Forest.) Although most of the New Forest is forested in the conventional sense of being a thickly wooded region, a substantial percentage also includes bogs and open heath.
In addition to witches, the New Forest was also home for various Romany bands; there had long been interaction between the two communities. The most famous witch associated with the New Forest is Sybil Leek, who lived within in the forest with the Romany, studying many of their traditions. Leek grew up in the area, became High Priestess of a New Forest coven, and claimed that the forest was home to four covens surviving since the days of William Rufus. (See also Grove; HALL OF FAME: Gerald Gardner, Sybil Leek; WITCHCRAZE!: England: Pendle Forest Witches.)