The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
Swamps may be considered to include bogs, fens, and marshes. The bogs of Northern Europe were once repositories for sacrifices: treasures have since been uncovered and brought to the surface. Bodies of human sacrifices have been dredged up too.
Swamps are thresholds between land and water, spirits and humans, danger and safety. Mangrove swamps are uniquely powerful thresholds where salt water and fresh water meet and mingle.
Swamps, like forests, are wild territory; swamps can’t be cultivated or not at least without draining and destroying the swamp. In the days prior to modern technology, that was virtually an impossible task.
“Swamp” is an ominous word: when one is in trouble or overwhelmed, one is “swamped.” This is based on reality: swamps can be ominous, overwhelming places.
Venomous or dangerous creatures live in the swamp: alligators or cottonmouth snakes for instance. Mosquitoes breed in swamps: swamps were the cauldron where malaria brewed. Alders, bleeding trees, are swamp specialties, as are weeping willows and mangrove trees whose roots lie treacherously above ground ready to trip and catch the unwary. (See BOTANICALS: Alder, Willow.) Swamps sometimes feature will o’ the wisps, those glowing lights that lead travelers dangerously astray. Now it’s known that will o’ the wisps are phosphorus gas; once upon a time, they were understood as malevolent trickster specters.
Most people find swamps unfriendly, unwelcoming places: swamp witches are the exceptions. Legends say that swamp witches live in isolated shacks in the marshy depths of swamps. They are entirely self-sufficient, navigating the swamps by boat, gathering herbs, roots, and supplies as needed. Swamp animals (predatory birds, crocodilians, turtles, frogs, and snakes) are their allies and familiars.
Isis is the prototype of the swamp witch: her saga explains why witches appreciate the swamp. Isis and her beloved brother/husband Osiris were ancient Egypt’s sacred couple: while Osiris traveled Earth teaching the sacred arts of civilization (cultivation of grain and wine), Isis spent her time studying magic and becoming the most powerful sorceress on Earth. Her prime competition was her other brother Set, also a skilled master magician. (See DIVINE WITCH: Isis, Set.)
Isis and Osiris’ perfect life ended when Set murdered Osiris. Isis put her magic to practical use: temporarily resurrecting Osiris in order to conceive the son she was destined to bear, and who was destined to avenge his father. Her plan was not unbeknownst to Set: Lord of Miscarriage and Abortion, he pursued her, hoping to foil her plans. Isis took refuge in the Nile swamps, letting them protect her. The swamp offered her secrecy and privacy as it would for so many other witches.
The most famous swamp witches are those of the American South. When Voodooists were chased from New Orleans in the nineteenth century many found peace and refuge in the swamps of Louisiana. Here Marie Laveau led St John’s Eve rituals on the banks of the Bayou St John, where she danced with her snake.
In addition to Isis, swamp spirits include the following:
Abátàn, or Abàtá
Abátàn/Abàtá is the Yoruba orisha of marshlands. Abàtá literally means “swamp” and that is where offerings and petitions to this orisha are traditionally brought. Abàtá is identified with accumulation of wealth. Her colors are coral, gold, green, pink, and yellow. Santeria identified her as the female compatriot of the hunter orisha Erinle, who has dominion over regions where salt and fresh waters meet, as they do in mangrove swamps.
Bolotnyi is a Slavic female swamp or bog spirit. In Russia, swamps are considered the special abode of mischievous, troublesome spirits. Post-Christianity, they’ve been reclassified as demons who usually live in Hell, but should they ever feel like residing on Earth, they make their homes in deep forests, lakes, springs, and especially in swamps. As long as they stay in these places, they do no harm, unless of course someone approaches them…Should they venture out to raise Hell, these spirits must be charmed back to the swamps where they belong.
Yemaya and Oshun
The Yoruba orishas Yemaya and Oshun (mother and daughter respectively or, depending on legend, sisters) usually manifest as grand, beautiful, beneficent goddesses. Yemaya is orisha of the sea and Oshun is orisha of sweet water: streams, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and springs. They have other manifestations as well: in their guise as powerful witches, Oshun and Yemaya take to the swamps to become fierce, tough, haggard but still resplendent and magnificent swamp witches. (See DIVINE WITCH: Oshun, Yemaya.)
Magical energies radiate from everything (and everyone) that occurs naturally on Earth, although to varying degrees. Thresholds are border areas where one force, power or element encounters another. Thresholds are divisions and boundaries where two forces simultaneously meet, separate, and diverge. These meeting places are potentially the most magically charged areas of all.
Thresholds exist everywhere! The most obvious are seashores or riverbanks where water meets land, but there are many, many others.
“Thresholds” may be literal areas (the threshold of a door, for instance) but thresholds are also a crucial magical concept intrinsic to witchcraft. The most obvious thresholds are geographical locations but there are metaphoric thresholds too.
There are thresholds in time: midnight divides one date from the next. Midnight divides night from day. Twilight and dawn divide light from darkness.
There are architectural thresholds: doors and windows separate outside from within.
There are life-cycle thresholds: birth and death are thresholds between realms. Birth transforms someone into a parent. Before your first child, you were not a parent; at the moment of birth, you suddenly become one.
Transformative rituals are, by definition, thresholds. A magic spell is a threshold between unfulfilled need or desire and successful acquisition.
Witches have traditionally served as thresholds (mediums) between the general population and the world of spirits. This is an ancient metaphoric observation: the words hag and hex derive from a root word meaning “hedge”—the boundary between the wild and tame. (See HAG.)
The hedge is the threshold between wilderness and civilization.
The Indo-European cultures of Northern Europe, including Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic peoples, possessed a mythic concept of the Haga: the all-enclosing World Hedge, which separates the world under human dominion from wilderness. This Haga is a thorny boundary that keeps the wild forces of chaos at bay.
The hedge serves as the boundary but the hedge is also a force of nature: if not cut back periodically it expands. Hedges threaten order and civilization: left alone, hedges inevitably overtake cultivated vegetation. Without vigilant pruning and maintenance, the Earth Mother inevitably reclaims her land.
The hedge marked the threshold and boundary of human dominion. The shyest birds and animals live deep within the forest but others, curious threshold animals, those with less fear of people or who wish to interact with people, often make their home in the hedge. Predatory animals, those who might prey on humans or their livestock, linger in the hedge, too.
The hedge was the threshold where humans could commune with wild nature, with spirits, birds, animals, and other realms and planes of existence. Many shamanic plants (psychotropic plants) thrive in the hedge. The hedge is the birthplace of shamanism.
Perhaps because witches are concerned with magical energy, most of the locations closely associated with witchcraft are thresholds: forests, caves, mountains, grottoes, crossroads, and cemeteries.
La Hendaye Beach in the French Basque country exemplifies a geographical threshold associated with witchcraft: here land meets the ocean in the vicinity of mountain in this frontier, seaside town on the Spanish border. According to French witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, more than 12,000 witches once attended sabbats here; rumor has it it’s still a favored spot.
From a literal standpoint, wells are sources of fresh water. Once upon a time, unless a community was situated directly near a source of fresh water, wells were required to support the community. If a well went dry a community might be forced to relocate.
Jac Ffynnon Elian (John Evans), hereditary guardian of the well of Ffynnon, was imprisoned twice in the early nineteenth century for reopening the sacred well after it was sealed by a local Christian priest. The well at Llanelian yn Rhos, near Abergele, Denbigh, Wales, stood in a field, surrounded by a grove and was destroyed in January 1829.
From a magical standpoint, wells are portals to other realms and fonts of fertility. The inherent moisture as well as the shape of the well is reminiscent of the vaginal canal. Many fairy tales involve heroines and heroes forced to journey up and down wells: their adventures metaphorically reproduce the birth process.
Wells were sacred sites identified with healing, renewal, divination, good fortune, love, and fertility magic. The concept of “wishing wells” derives from these old magical traditions. Wells were either portals to spirits who heard your pleas or they were portals to the heart of the Earth Mother herself. Sometimes wells were understood as portals to the Realm of Death.
Wells are identified with sacred spirits like Brigid, Asherah, Hulda, and the Djinn. Lilith occasionally makes her home at the bottom of a well. Once upon a time, priestesses affiliated with these spirits sat in vigil beside wells, attending their spirits. If one wished advice, healing, magical information or assistance, one could find the priestess or prophetess seated by the well. The Norns, Nordic fate goddesses, live by the Well of Urd. (See DICTIONARY: Djinn; DIVINE WITCH: Hulda, Lilith; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning Goddesses: The Norns.)
Wells are also often associated with sacred tree traditions. Many ancient wells are located near trees that were once venerated or associated with spirits. Sometimes the well survives long after the demise of the tree.
The tradition of “dressing” wells derives from Pagan spiritual traditions. Those wishing to make a spiritual vow or petition travel to a sacred well. Rituals may be performed there, frequently including circumambulations (circling) of the well. The visit is marked by tying a rag or cloth around the well or sometimes around trees beside the well. This practice is common to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The rags are left to hang as testaments. Eventually the surfaces of some wells are entirely covered in fabric offerings.
Among the most famous sacred wells is the Chalice Well of Glastonbury in Somerset, England. The Chalice Well is among the oldest continuously used holy wells in Britain. Archeological evidence indicates the spring was used in prehistoric times; historical evidence for its use dates back two thousand years.
Sacred sites weren’t chosen arbitrarily; water from the Chalice Well is unique as it is red. The scientific explanation is that the color is caused by red iron oxide minerals in the local soil. This wouldn’t have been disputed by ancient Pagans: iron and iron oxides were once identified as the Earth Mother’s amazingly magical, powerful, solidified menstrual blood. Before it was known as the Chalice Well it was known as the Blood Well.
The red waters of Glastonbury were identified as sacred to the Earth Mother and/or to the Goddess. Sacred associations spread to Christianity: according to one tradition, Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail, the chalice that caught Christ’s blood during the crucifixion to England. Fearing thieves, he safeguarded the grail cup by burying it deep within the Glastonbury hillside. A miraculous healing spring welled up at this precise point: because it runs through the Grail before reaching the surface it is stained red with Christ’s eternal blood. (The story doesn’t take into account that Glastonbury was sacred much earlier than Christianity, however theoretically, if Joseph did have the grail-cup in his possession, what better place to secrete it than somewhere too sacred to search?) The area around Glastonbury has powerful associations with King Arthur and/or the Grail; water from the Chalice Well is prized by many from very different traditions.
See CALENDAR: Imbolc; FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Mother Holle; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers.