The Witches’ Alphabets

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

The Witches’ Alphabets

Writing has always been a magical art. In Egypt Thoth, the god of esoteric wisdom, was regarded as the inventor of letters, the scribe of the gods. There was one writing in which sacred inscriptions were recorded, the hieroglyphic script, while another and simpler form of letters was used for more commonplace purposes. Similar conventions ruled in many other parts of the ancient world also.

Moreover, a number of ancient alphabets, as Robert Graves has shown in his book The White Goddess, contained various religious secrets. For instance, there might be a twenty-two lettered alphabet of which seven letters were vowels. This commemorates the fact that twenty-two divided by seven gives approximately the value of the mathematical term Pi, being the relationship of the diameter of a circle to its circumference.

The circle is the sign of infinity and eternity, while the diameter is emblematic of the finite and mortal. Hence this concept involved the relations between earth and the cosmos, between the macrocosm and the microcosm, or between the human and the divine.

The idea that letters are holy things and that written inscriptions hold sacred power survived into the present day in Tibet. Tibetan refugees have complained that the Communist Chinese invaders strewed the writings from pillaged shrines and monasteries upon the roads, so that the people could not come out of their houses, because in so doing they would have had to walk upon the sacred writings.

The Hebrew Cabbala is full of allusions to the mystic power of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Cabbalistic treatise called the Sepher Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, says that God created the universe by means of the three forms of expression: numbers, letters and words. This treatise was first introduced to the non-Jewish world in 1552, in a Latin translation by William Postel. It divides the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet into three ’Mother’ letters, corresponding to the elements of Fire, Air and Water; seven ’Double’ letters, corresponding to the seven planets; and twelve ’Simple’ letters, corresponding to the signs of the Zodiac.

In addition to this classification of the Hebrew letters, each letter also corresponds to a number. The first ten letters correspond to the numbers one to ten, the next eight letters correspond to the succeeding numbers, twenty to ninety, while the last four letters continue to count in hundreds, from 100 to 400. Five final forms of the letters bring the correspondences up through 500 to 900. By this means every word written in Hebrew has a numerical equivalent. Thus the sacred four-lettered name of God, IHVH, translated as ’Jehovah’ in the English Bible though its actual pronunciation is unknown, has the numerical equivalent of twenty-six. I = ten, H = five, V = six, H = five.

The same system of equating letters with numbers applies to the Greek alphabet also, and to Arabic. Hence there are said to be a Hebrew Cabbala, a Greek Cabbala and an Arabic Cabbala. (This word is sometimes spelt Kabbalah or Qabalah). A good deal of Cabbalistic lore appears in the Apocalypse, or Biblical Book of Revelations. For instance, it is probably the reason why Christ is described as ’the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’, Alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega the last.

It is also the explanation of the famous text which refers to ’the number of the Beast … Six hundred, threescore and six’. The Apocalypse was written in Greek, so the reader who was initiated into the Gnosis, or secret occult wisdom, could compute the value of the number of a man’s name or some other combination of words and find what ideas were associated with this number.

666 is a solar number, being the sum of the numbers one to thirty-six, which are arranged in the figure known as the Magical Square of the Sun. A magical square is a mathematical device whereby figures are arranged in a square in such a way that each column or row when added up gives the same number, in this case 111. There are seven such squares associated with the seven planets. The knowledge of them is an important part of talismanic magic. Hence 666 is not really either an ’evil’ number or a ’good’ number. It can be either, just as the number thirteen, much dreaded by some superstitious folk, may be either fortunate or otherwise. Numbers, like the planets and signs of astrology, denote natural forces, each of which has a positive and a negative side. A good astrologer will tell his clients that there is really no such thing as a ’lucky’ or ’unlucky’ sign to be born under; each has its qualities and also its defects which are characteristic of it.

The knowledge of the correspondences between letters of the various alphabets and the numbers to which they correspond is known as gematria. The foregoing remarks have necessarily been a very brief sketch of a profound subject, one that is still intensely studied by occultists who work in the western tradition of magic, most of which is founded upon the Hebrew and Greek Cabbala. However, it may well be asked, what has this to do with the simple pagan and rural traditions of the old religion of witchcraft? We have already seen that countryside witches were often quite illiterate, like most of the common folk of olden days.

This is quite true; but, nevertheless, the old religion of witchcraft has its roots deep in the same soil as the rest of the western magical tradition. Indeed, in basic ideas, the magical traditions of the whole world are interrelated at their deepest levels. Moreover, at the deepest levels magic and religion are also closely entwined about each other and are concerned with the same great theme: the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of macrocosm and microcosm, the Great Work.

The cabbalistic theology, representing the endless reasoning of countless generations of ingenious men, is the epitome of man’s first efforts to grasp the problems connected with the cause and continuance of life, the inscrutable mystery which has baffled the understanding of all inquirers alike. They reasoned concerning all the phenomena of existence by their analogy to human creation, and it was supposed that the universal creation took place after the manner of human creation, and that the generative attributes of a man and a woman were those of God and the universe, and finally that all the bodily functions of a human being had their counterpart in the macrocosm or greater world.

The foregoing quotation is taken from a remarkable work entitled The Canon: An Exposition of the Pagan Mystery Perpetuated in the Cabbala as the Rule of all the Arts. It was first published in 1897. Nothing is known of its author, William Stirling, save that he was a Freemason, and that, unfortunately, he died by his own hand, perhaps as the result of the indifference with which this learned book, his life’s work, was received. The Canon is an abstruse work, needing a certain amount of mathematical knowledge to appreciate it. In the days when it was first published, the idea that the peoples of ancient lands, including our own, possessed real mathematical and astronomical knowledge as well as mystical insight beyond that commonly possessed today, was laughed to scorn.

However, nowadays we are no longer quite so sure of anything as we were in 1897. When Professor Gerald S. Hawkins published his discovery that Stonehenge was not only a temple but an astronomical observatory and a means of computing eclipses, his ideas were at first called everything from ’meretricious persuasion’ to ’moonshine’; but, as he has written in his later book Beyond Stonehenge, the ’acceptance gap’ has closed or is closing. One of the most influential of Professor Hawkins’s supporters has been the eminent astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle; whereas one of the chief arguments advanced against Professor Hawkins was simply that the Ancient Britons just couldn’t possibly have built such a structure as he describes.

The time has been ripe, therefore, for William Stirling’s work to be republished for the benefit of a new generation of students. It has duly appeared with the assistance of the Research Into Lost Knowledge Organization and with a foreword by John Michell. It will be recognized from the quotation above that once again we are confronted with the very old idea of the universal principle of polarity, the Chinese Yang and Yin, the Great Father and Great Mother of the Cabbalists, or the God and the Goddess of the old religion of witchcraft.

In this way, I believe, and in no other should these or any other deities be conceived; but because people need to invoke and worship, and because they cannot invoke or worship an abstraction, all the pageantry of the imagination clothes the gods with the forms that have come to be associated with them in the human mind. As William Blake said: ’All deities reside in the human breast’.

William Blake himself, although a mystical Christian, was deeply interested in the ancient faith of these islands, which he associated, according to the ideas of his day, with Druidism. I remember the late Ross Nichols, Chosen Chief of a present-day Druidic Order, telling me how he had discovered a recorded fact relating to this. Apparently on one occasion, I believe when William Blake was resident at Felpham in Sussex, he was called upon to be witness in a court of law. Blake declined to take the usual oath, on the grounds that he was a Druid. The essential theme of The Canon could be summed up in another quotation from William Blake: ’The antiquities of every Nation under Heaven is no less sacred than that of the Jews. They are the same thing, as Jacob Bryant and all antiquaries have proved.’

Traditions claiming to be Bardic and Druidic were handed down in Wales, to emerge in the eighteenth century in the form of various neo-Druidic societies. It was with these that William Blake was associated, and present-day Druids claim him as a former leading member of the order from which their various associations have sprung. Our knowledge of the actual Druids of Celtic Britain is unfortunately very limited, as they left no written records and all we know of them is contained in references from Greek and Roman writers. One of these references, however, is very pertinent to the present theme, because it tells us that the Druids of Britain and Gaul were acquainted with the Greek letters. William Stirling in The Canon quotes Julius Caesar’s account of the Druids, which declares that they ’deemed it unlawful to commit their statutes to writing; though in other matters, whether public or private, they make use of Greek characters. They seem to me to follow this method for two reasons: to hide their mysteries from the knowledge of the vulgar: and to exercise the memory of their scholars … They likewise teach many things relating to the stars and their motions, the magnitude of the world and our earth’.

Now, one of the themes developed in The Canon is the way in which, by means of gematria, the Greeks bestowed upon their gods and goddesses names which were appropriate to their particular nature and function. The actual examples given by William Stirling are rather too abstruse for the present chapter; but a simple illustration may be seen in the name of the mysterious Gnostic god Abraxas, which by Greek Cabbala yields the number 365, the number of days in the year. Images of this god depict him with the head of a cockerel, the bird whose crowing greets the dawn; hence, he was a symbol of the power of the sun throughout the year. The name of the god Mithras, in its Greek spelling Meithras, also gives the number 365. The cult of the solar god Mithras was very popular throughout the Roman empire, especially among soldiers. It will no doubt be remembered how the remains of a Mithraic temple were found in fairly recent years, when some excavations were being carried out in London. Bearing all this in mind, would it be possible to discover what were at least some of the actual names of the god and goddess of Ancient Britain? I believe that it would.

One of the names of the sun god of Ancient Britain was Belinus. This, in my view, is commemorated in a number of place-names which survive to this day; for instance, Billingsgate in London, Billingshurst in Sussex, and so on. If this name is given its Greek form, it will read as follows:


This is a very appropriate number for the name of the god worshipped by the priesthood who inherited Stonehenge, although we know today that the Druids did not build that splendid sanctuary, with all its astronomical alignments throughout the year.

We know also that lunar as well as solar observations were connected with our megalithic monuments. Professor Alexander Thom called his second book upon the remains of prehistoric Britain Megalithic Lunar Observatories. So what of the moon goddess as well as the sun god? She would have been his necessary complement, the feminine aspect of nature, as Isis was to Osiris and Diana to Apollo.

We know the name of the goddess worshipped by Queen Boadicea. She was the goddess of the great forest of Southern Britain, which the Britons called Coid Andred, the Romans Silva Anderida and the Saxons Andredsweald. Today the name has been shortened to the Weald, an area of the south of England where remnants of the great forest still survive: Ashdown Forest, St Leonard’s Forest and so on. She was the goddess of other forests also. According to the historian Dion Cassius, it was in ’the grove of Andate’ that Boadicea sacrificed her women prisoners, probably somewhere in the region of what is now Epping Forest.

Dion Cassius’s version of the story of Boadicea’s rebellion is very circumstantial, and contains details not mentioned in the shorter and more matter-of-fact account by Tacitus; although Tacitus describes the strange omens that preceded the destruction of the Romanized cities of Londinium, Camulodunum and Verulamium (London, Colchester and St Albans). He gives two versions of the goddess’s name, Andraste and Andate. Dion Cassius wrote in Greek and he spells Andate thus:


This is the number of days in the old Celtic lunar year, which consisted of thirteen twenty-eight-day months. I have indicated elsewhere in this book the probability that this is one of the factors in the sacredness of the number thirteen and its association with witchcraft. Here, therefore, we have an evident lunar significance in the Greek spelling of the name of Boadicea’s goddess.

If the numbers of the names of the sun-god and the moon-goddess, Belēnos and Andatē, 365 and 364, be added together, they come to 729, which curiously enough is given by Aleister Crowley as the number of ’Baphomet’, the androgynous god of the Knights Templars as drawn in the famous picture by Eliphas Levi. Crowley received this number by psychic means, through the clairvoyance of his ’Scarlet Woman’, Ahitha (Roddie Minor). Be that as it may, the number 729 is 9 × 9 × 9, the cube of 9.*

The number 9 is the trinity of trinities, a kind of universal solvent of numbers because any number whose digits add to 9 will be found to be exactly divisible by 9. In fact, most of the sacred numbers of ancient time measures and so on will be found to be divisible by 9, in both east and west. Now, neither 365 nor 364 are in themselves divisible by 9, because by themselves they are incomplete, just as man is incomplete without woman and woman without man; but when they are joined together they produce a number which is not only divisible by 9 but is 9 multiplied by itself and by itself again. This is reminiscent of the hieros gamos or Sacred Marriage which was such an essential part of the ancient mysteries.

What of the other version of the goddess’s name given by Dion Cassius? Why should there be two versions of the name? Do both contain some esoteric meaning? We can only guess at the answers to these questions; but let us see what the name Andraste gives when written in the old Celtic alphabet called Ogham.

In the Ogham characters, the double letter ST is given as one letter; so in Ogham Andraste is a seven-lettered name. The oldest Ogham inscriptions are cut upon the edges of standing stones, though later the alphabet was adapted so that it could be written upon parchment.

The name Andraste requires twenty-two cuts to inscribe it:


As stated at the beginning of this chapter, the proportion of twenty-two divided by seven gives the rough equivalent of Pi, the relation of the diameter of a circle to its circumference. This mathematical ratio pervades the whole physical universe. It is part of the basic design of things, as well as having the symbolic meaning previously given, that of the relation of the finite with the infinite.

Thanks to the researches of Professor Thorn, we know that the people of Ancient Britain were very interested in this ratio. They went to a great deal of trouble to design a form of stone circle the shape of which was slightly distorted from the round, so that it gave a relation of diameter to circumference which should be exactly three, the sacred trinity. Admittedly, these stone circles were already very ancient when Queen Boadicea reigned; but the secrets of geometry and what they signified were still very much a part of mystic doctrine, as they have continued to be right down to our own day, for instance in the traditions of Freemasonry.


The Ogham Alphabet

Ogham was a sacred Druidic alphabet and would certainly have contained magical secrets. The majority of Ogham inscriptions which have survived are found in Ireland, though such inscriptions also occur in Wales and the Isle of Man. A few have even been found in Hampshire, Cornwall and Devon. An old Irish book known as The Book of Ballymote gives various written forms of Ogham. It was compiled in about 1391 by Solomon of Droma and Manus MacDonugh. The book also contains information about the Bardic lore of old Ireland, which was inherited from the Druidic traditions as was the Bardic lore of Wales.

Lewis Spence, in his book The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, records that there are a number of references in literature to the existence of Druidic books in ancient Ireland. Apparently, St Patrick was personally responsible for the burning of 180 books belonging to the Irish Druids. His example was extensively followed by zealous Christian converts, until the Druidic literature was utterly destroyed, an act which Lewis Spence likens to the senseless destruction of the great library of Alexandria. It is therefore not too fantastic, although admittedly speculative, to look at the Ogham alphabet in search of ancient British religious secrets.

Some old arrangements of the Ogham letters show them set out as a kind of mandala. This was known as the Wheel of Ogham. It will be seen that this arrangement roughly resembles a Celtic cross.


The Wheel of Ogham

To what extent the Druidic lore influenced witchcraft, we do not know, although we are told that there were Druidesses as well as Druids. When the Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus massacred the Druids on the Isle of Anglesey, black-robed women hurled defiance at his soldiers. There are records of true prophecies made in later years by Druidesses to the Roman emperors Alexander Severus, Aurelian and Diocletian. Probably the same thing happened to the Druids as happened to the witches. Those who were not exterminated went underground and preserved their lore in secret.

Certainly, the old Druidic fire festivals of the Celtic year coincide with the Great Sabbats of the witches. Also, the Druids and the witches held a common belief in reincarnation. So there is good reason for witches and pagans in Britain today to regard themselves as the inheritors and perpetuators of the Ogham alphabet.

With the coming of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes another form of magical writing was introduced to Britain, namely the runic writing used by these people of the north. The runic alphabet was called the futhorc, because its first six letters were F, U, TH, O, R, and K. There were various versions of this alphabet, differing from country to country. Also, the Old Norse runes, common to the Scandinavian peoples during the first six or seven hundred years A.D. were different from the runes of the Viking Age, which lasted from about A.D. 700 to 1050.

The earliest version of the runes consists of twenty-four letters, divided into three groups of eight. These are named after Norse deities: Freya’s Eight, Hagal’s Eight and Tiu’s Eight. Every rune has a dual meaning, outward and inward. Outwardly they indicate things of the material world, such as cattle, a lake, a birch-tree and so on. Inwardly they have a spiritual meaning, such as blessing, life-strength, law.

According to Norse legend, the runes were originally used for spells and magic, and only later descended to the prosaic uses of ordinary writing. The original master of the runes was the god Odin or Woden, just as the use of the Ogham alphabet was supposed to have been originated by the Celtic sun god, Ogma. Like Ogham also, the runes were well adapted to be either cut upon stones or wood or, alternatively, used as written letters.

The word ’rune’ is derived from the Old Norse language and means something which is a mystery or a secret. It has also come to mean a spell or a song. The poem which was originally written in runes, has taken its name from the magic letters with which it was inscribed.


The Runes

The study of the magic and mystery of runes continued in Germany, right down to the present century. Unfortunately, this circumstance served to bring it into disrepute, because it became part of the mystique of the Nazis. The hated SS deliberately wrote their initials on the collars of their uniforms in the runic form of S, because this had the inner meaning of ’victory’, the rune Sig. Hence, runes have shared the public disfavour of the swastika since World War II. However, both the runes and the swastika were already very ancient long before Hitler appropriated them. One wonders whether perhaps the centuries-old magical potency of these things, which he tried to steal, worked against him in the end.

It seems a great pity that Hitler and his thugs should be able to prevent the study and appreciation of runic lore, which, after all, is part of our heritage as descendants of the Anglo-Saxon race. Perhaps the descriptions and illustrations of the runes contained in this book may reawaken interest in this branch of magic.

The source of our information about Odin and his mastery of the runes is the old Icelandic poem called The Elder Edda, of which a good available version is The Elder Edda: A Selection, translated by Paul B. Taylor and W. H. Auden. In the section called ’The Words of the High One’, Odin tells how he passed through a strange ordeal, hanging nine nights upon a gallows as a sacrificial victim to obtain the knowledge of the runes, which he did not invent but discover, as if it was something that had existed from all time. It may be that the original Odin was not a god but a man, a warrior king who led his people from Asgard to populate the northern lands; because all our Anglo-Saxon kings were believed to be descended from Odin. Indeed, to be of the blood of Odin was a necessary qualification for kingship in England before the Norman Conquest.

In view of the respect given to practitioners of the magic arts among the Nordic people, it seems strange that so little has been made by the various writers upon the subject, of the contribution of the Anglo-Saxons to the witchcraft tradition. The very word ’witch’ is Anglo-Saxon in origin, though authorities differ as to its real derivation so widely as to make that derivation a matter of opinion only.

Modern witches, following Gerald Gardner, have usually associated it with wisdom. A witch, they claim, means a wise person, deriving the word from the same root as ’wit’ in the sense of knowing. This derivation, as I showed in my previous book An A.B.C. of Witchcraft Past and Present, is at least as old as the time of Dr Henry More (1614-1687). However, some other authorities associate the word ’witch’ with the same root as that of the words ’weak’ and ’wicked’, implying that witches were so called because they were wicked people. Another opinion is that ’witch’ is an Anglo-Saxon version of the old Welsh or Celtic word gwyddon, the ’dd’ in Welsh being pronounced ’th’. According to Bardic tradition, the Gwyddoniad were the aboriginal ’Wise Ones’ who existed in the British Isles before Druidism was organized.

Not being a philologist myself, I will not attempt to say which of the differing authorities is right; though I think the people who are anxious to associate witchcraft with wickedness are not entirely free from bias, whereas they, no doubt, will say the same of those who associate it with wisdom.

We know that Christianity had come to Britain long before the Saxons did. Nevertheless, there must have been some contribution to the pattern of witch beliefs and practices that came from Saxon sources, even if it was only the name ’witch’ and the attitude of mind that went with it. In spite of the book-burning attributed to St Patrick, as mentioned above, the Celtic Church was not everywhere on bad terms with the older faiths; whereas the Saxon followers of St Augustine, who owed his allegiance to Rome, were taught that all the old gods were devils. It would follow naturally upon this that the priests and priestesses of all older faiths would be regarded as witches, giving the word a derogatory sense.

For this reason, the use of the old runic and Ogham alphabets was discouraged by the Church. The letters of these old alphabets were associated with pagan magic, so they were eventually completely replaced by the Latin alphabet, the origin of the letters we use today. The process, however, had to be a gradual one. The use of the word ’ye’ for ’the’, still seen in mock-archaic inscriptions such as ’Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe’, is a relic of this changeover. The letter represented by ’y’ is not really a ’y’ sound at all; it is the old runic letter thorn, ’th’.

* In their book Gematria, Frederick Bligh Bond and Thomas Lea state that the number 729 ’symbolizes the perfect ashlar or cubic stone’, which is a significant concept in the lore of Freemasonry.


The author holding a Witches’ Wishing Mirror. This old handcarved mirror was for many years in the possession of a Cornish family.


Old-time conception of flying witches. An illustration by Sir John Gilbert to The Lancashire Witches by Harrison Ainsworth.


Portrait of a modern witch. Patricia Crowther, Priestess of the Sheffield Coven.


“Old George” Pickingill, the master witch of Canewdon, Essex (picture by courtesy of Eric Maple).


Distant view of Chanctonbury Ring, the traditional past meeting place of old-time Sussex witches (photo by A. W. Stubbs).


A typical example of a blocked-up north door from the fourteenth-century church at Alfriston, Sussex.


Witchcraft implements displayed on an altar: two cloven-hoof candlesticks, the Pentacle, the Bell, the Horn Wine-cup, the Cauldron, the Athame or black-hilted knife, the Crystal, the Cord, the Wand, jar of incense and incense-burner.


Wooden carving of the Horned God. The two faces look towards the Past and the Future. The four horns represent the four winds, the four seasons and so on. The base of the statue bears four coloured stones, symbolising the four elements.


The regalia of the Horned God: a crown or helmet surmounted by actual deer’s horns, plus a rough darkcoloured cloak. In olden days this would have been of animal skins.


A modern version of the Green Man, or Foliate Mask. This example is made of painted fibre-glass.


The Hand of Glory. A drawing based on a detail from David Teniers’ picture “The Departure for the Sabbat”.


The author holding the Sabbat wine-cup, with a holder made from a large cloven hoof.


The author demonstrating the use of the water-filled cauldron for clairvoyance.


Demonstrating the invocation of power into a glass ball for purposes of clairvoyance.


Traditional witch costume of hooded black cloak and broomstick.