Witch Signs and Symbols

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

Witch Signs and Symbols

Witches make use of a number of signs and symbols, many of which are held in common with the practice of ceremonial magic. Others derive from ancient religions. In fact, most magical signs probably take their origin from pre-Christian religions, although they have been used all over the world for so many centuries that no-one knows where they actually originated.

An example of this is the swastika, made notorious in our own day by Hitler and his Nazis, yet before that revered as a good-luck sign by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and venerated from China to Mexico. It has for long been a sacred sign of the Buddhist religion, and its name is derived from Sanskrit words meaning ’well being’. Hitler adopted it because he regarded it as a purely Aryan symbol; but its use is so ancient and widespread that one might as well call it Atlantean or even Lemurian as Aryan.

I do not know of any witches who use the swastika as a magical sign; but some modern witches have adopted another almost equally time-honoured sign, the ankh cross. This derives from ancient Egypt, where it is found in use from the most archaic period. To the Egyptians it meant ’life’, being the union of the masculine and feminine principles. The looped part of the cross represents the feminine principle, while the T-shaped part represents the masculine.

Worshipping as they do the god and goddess of life, it is not difficult to see why witches of the present day find this sign appropriate, as also do other groups of pagans and nature-worshippers.

However, its use by witches is not as traditional as that of the pentagram, or five-pointed star. This, too, goes back a very long way. It was the badge of the followers of Pythagoras, perhaps because its proportions contain that mathematical secret known as the ’golden section’, which is still used by artists and architects. The meaning ascribed to it by witches, however, is a simpler one. They see in it the emblem of magic, the four elements of the material world being ruled over by the power of mind, represented by the topmost point of the star. Reversed, that is with the point downwards, the pentagram shows the face of the goat-god, which Satanists take as a symbol of the devil, though actually it only means spirit hidden in matter.

Both the pentagram and the six-pointed star were much used by ceremonial magicians in medieval times. These signs frequently occur in the books of magic called grimoires, which in olden days were very secret, because to be found in possession of a copy of one of them was to be revealed as a practitioner of forbidden arts. Grimoires such as The Key of Solomon or The Goetia are often wrongly regarded as witchcraft books. Actually, however, the practice of ceremonial magic as described in the grimoires differs from that of witchcraft in important respects. It is not pagan, but rather Christian or Jewish, often in a manner seemingly quite devout. It seems probable that many of its secret practitioners were clerics of one kind or another, who would indignantly deny being witches.

The essence of ceremonial magic of this kind is the evocation and binding of spirits by the power of the sacred names of God, which are derived from the Hebrew Cabbala. This, in turn, derived its words of power from even more ancient sources; possibly in many instances from Egypt, that immemorial home of magic.

Along with the use of the words of power goes the tradition of the protection of the magic circle; though the circles drawn by ceremonial magicians are usually much more elaborate than those used by the witch. The ideas of the witch cult generally seem to be simpler and more primitive than those of ceremonial magicians, probably because the cult was carried on by the common people of the countryside. The ceremonial magician had to be literate; he had to have some working knowledge of the languages in which all learned men of Europe in times past were versed, namely Latin, Hebrew and Greek, because these were the languages of his magical books. The witch, on the other hand, did not even need to be able to read or write so long as he or she had a good memory for the traditions handed down.

Gerald Gardner, in his occult novel High Magic’s Aid, tells the story of a working partnership between a ceremonial magician and a witch, in a tale placed in the thirteenth century. In many instances, something like this story probably did take place, with practitioners of the secret arts helping and protecting each other and possibly borrowing from each other also.

Certainly witches and ceremonial magicians both make use of the magical circle, as noted above, and also of consecrated weapons, such as a magical sword or knife which is used to draw the circle and to command spirits. However, the ceremonial magicians derive the magical signs of the pentagram or five-pointed star and the hexagram or six-pointed star from King Solomon, the great traditional master of magic. Both of these signs are referred to as the Seal of Solomon, and it is not clear which of them really deserves this appellation, although it is most frequently given to the six-pointed star, which is also the symbol of the Jewish religion.

Witches, on the other hand, say that King Solomon may well have used these signs, but that they are actually even older than Solomon, and no one knows how old they really are. In fact, the pentagram goes back to Ur of the Chaldees and the hexagram is also found in India, where it often appears as the basis of the meditational diagrams known as yantras.

The pentagram is sometimes called the endless knot, because it can be drawn all in one line without removing the pen from the paper. In this connection, there is an interesting and little known explanation of it which seems peculiarly relevant to our times.

The topmost point of the pentagram is regarded as representing Deity, the divine source of life. From this point a line is traced to the lowest left-hand angle of the figure. This represents life descending from its divine source into the lowest and simplest forms of living matter. The line is then continued up and across to the upper angle on the right. This represents the ascent of life from primitive forms, by the process of evolution, to its highest physical form on this planet, the human being.

The line then continues across the figure to the upper angle on the left. This represents man’s earthly progress, his achievements on the material plane, as he becomes cleverer, richer, more powerful, building himself great empires and civilizations. However, in his progress in this way he sooner or later reaches the danger point and begins to fall. To show this, the line goes down and across from this angle to the lowest angle on the right-hand side. This is the story of all man’s empires; but because the human spirit is one with its divine source, it must and will strive upwards to find that source again. Hence the line of the pentagram rises up again from the lowest level to rejoin the topmost point from whence it issued.

Sometimes both the pentagram and the hexagram are shown enclosed in a circle. This is the sign of infinity and eternity, without beginning and without end.

The pentagram is known as the star of the microcosm, or little universe, because it bears some resemblance when drawn in the upright position, with one point uppermost, to a human figure standing with arms and legs outstretched. The old occult philosophers taught that man is himself a little universe, containing by analogy all that is in the great universe, the macrocosm. It is interesting to note that this teaching appears in the occult philosophy of both east and west. It is as well known to the Tantrics of India as it was to medieval magicians.

The hexagram is the star of the macrocosm, consisting as it does of two interlaced triangles, one pointing upwards and one downwards. These represent the two great forces of polarity, positive and negative, masculine and feminine, Yang and Yin, god and goddess of life, which bring all things into manifestation. The upward-pointing triangle is the triangle of the male element, fire; the downward-pointing triangle is the triangle of the female element, water. This symbolism too is found in the east. Each equilateral triangle consists of three angles of sixty degrees each, so that the sum total of all the angles makes 360 degrees, the perfect circle.

These beautiful and symmetrical figures, besides being magical signs, are in themselves harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Hence they are often found in architecture, though there is good reason to believe that the masons of ancient times knew well the inner meaning of such figures and did not use them merely for decoration.

Remarkably interesting decorations can often be found in our older cathedrals and churches, which seems to indicate a period when a good deal of the lingering faith of paganism intermingled with the new creed of Christianity. The old nature god of the witches himself frequently appears in the form of the foliate mask, or ’the green man’ as he is sometimes called.

The foliate mask is the representation of a man’s face, often with pointed ears and sometimes with horns, surrounded by green leaves which actually seem to be growing out of the face itself. Often leafy branches are seen coming out from the figure’s mouth, as if he were breathing them forth. He is the life-force of nature, the power that clothes the spring woodlands with green, the continual renewal.

A good place to look for examples of the foliate mask is among the roof bosses of old churches; but he is also found in wood carvings and even in stained glass windows and among the decorations of illuminated manuscripts. He may be outside or inside a church or a cathedral, peering puckishly down from the top of a pillar or peeping up from the little seats known as misericords. The latter, incidentally, often contain all sorts of quaint and freakish scenes which show a robust and rather pagan sense of humour in the craftsmen who carved them. For instance, there are quite a number of examples, in this and other places in sacred edifices, of a fox wearing a monk’s cowl standing up in a pulpit and preaching to a congregation of geese!

An even more explicitly pagan figure is the fertility goddess found carved on certain very old Irish churches, from whence she derives her Irish name of Shiela-na-Gig, which may be roughly translated as ’the merry Shiela’. This is the name given to certain crude and curious carvings, showing a nude woman with her genitals deliberately emphasized, in such a way that it seems a very strange thing to display upon a Christian church. Nevertheless, examples of these carvings can be found in British churches also, notably at Kilpeck in Herefordshire and at Whittlesford near Cambridge.

These Shiela-na-Gig figures are strikingly similar to those venerated by the Tantrics of India, as part of their worship of the Universal Mother, Mahadevi. When the Arts Council of Great Britain organized a splendid exhibition of Tantric art at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1971, among the exhibits were several figures strongly reminiscent of the Shiela-na-Gig. In particular, there was a photograph of an eleventh-century carving from a temple in Hyderabad, showing the goddesses as genetrix of all things, displaying her yoni or female parts for worship; and a similar carving from north-eastern India, dating from about A. D. 600.

It is tempting to deduce from this, and from the horned god figures of prehistoric India referred to in Chapter 1, that the faith of the Tantrics and that of our own pagan ancestors, which survived as the witch cult, had a common origin. Perhaps, however, one should not be too insistent in seeking such an origin, because the answer may really lie not in migration of tribes from some common centre so much as in the collective unconscious of mankind and the images which arise from it.

After all, what more potent images of the life force are there to our consciousness than those of sex and generation? I remember in a radio interview once being asked, wasn’t there a lot of sex in witchcraft? I pointed out that there was a lot of sex in human life. Witches are not responsible for this fact, so those who object to it must direct their complaint to a higher power.

While upon the subject of old churches, we may note that the best place to look for something curious or equivocal in such an edifice is upon the north side. This is because the north side was anciently believed to be ’the Devil’s side’. Few graves are to be found there, because this is not where the good people were buried. Those who died by their own hand, or somehow in bad odour with the Church, were buried upon the north side. The north door of a church was known as ’the Devil’s door’, and one frequently finds that such doors or the remains of them exist in old churches, but have been blocked up.

The witch belief is that this was done because the pagans in the congregation, who had to attend church by law, or at any rate by prudence, used to forgather around the north door of the church, deliberately choosing their place there as being the place of pagan things. Eventually the north doors were closed up and filled in with masonry, to discourage this practice.

Many of the curious signs which may be found engraved upon the walls or pillars of ancient sacred edifices are masons’ marks, the signatures of the craftsmen who built our churches and cathedrals; but I have seen others in such places which are not masons’ marks, though usually referred to as such in the official guidebook. They are magical or pagan emblems. For instance, I once found a small, deeply engraved version of the eight-rayed figure which illustrates Chapter 3, the emblem of the eight ritual occasions, on a pillar on the north side of an old Sussex church. The pentagram is sometimes found also.

These things were not put there to deface or desecrate the church. On the contrary, it is usually the church which has been deliberately built upon the site of a pagan sacred place. The older the church is, the more likely this is to be true. Innumerable instances of it could be given. The oldest church in my home town of Brighton stands on a hill which was once crowned by a stone circle. The church is dedicated to St Nicholas, who may be a substitute for a pagan god, ’Old Nick’, turned by the new religion into another name for the Devil.

At Knowlton in Dorset the ruins of a twelfth-century Christian church actually stand within the earth circle which once surrounded a pagan sanctuary. This is referred to by Jacquetta Hawkes in her book A Guide to the Prehistoric and Roman Monuments in England and Wales. She comments upon its strange and haunted atmosphere. One of the most numinous places in Britain, Glastonbury Tor, is crowned by the solitary remaining tower of a church dedicated to St Michael; but the Tor itself was sacred long before Joseph of Arimathea and his twelve companions came to Britain and built the first Christian church here, as local legends record that they did.

Another persistent legend declares that the site of what is now St Paul’s Cathedral in London once held a temple of Diana the moon goddess. The relic known as London Stone, still carefully preserved behind an iron grille in the wall of what is now the Bank of China in Cannon Street, which lies on the line between the Cathedral and Tower Hill, is reputed to have been an altar from this ancient temple. It has been suggested that Britain’s capital city derives its name from this sanctuary. It began as Lan Dian, a Celtic name meaning ’temple of Diana’; this was Latinized into Londinium, which was eventually shortened into London.

To return to the subject of witchcraft signs, there is one which has not only survived into our own day, but even experienced a remarkable revival, though its real significance has been little realized. This is the sign known as the witch’s foot in centuries past; but today it may be seen worn by many young people as a symbol of nuclear disarmament.

In the past this symbol was thought to come from the shape of a bird’s foot, supposedly an attribute of female demons and, in particular, of the witch goddess who according to European legend, sometimes led the Wild Hunt on windy moonlit nights. This mysterious divinity had a variety of names in different countries, such as Holda, Frau Holle, Abundia or Dame Habonde, Nicneven in Scotland, Aradia or Herodias, and Bensozia (the latter meaning ’the good neighbour’, an old synonym for one of the fairy race). Her distant ancestress is Lilith, the moon goddess of ancient Sumeria, who is depicted with bird’s feet, probably because of her affinity to her sacred bird, the owl.

There is a faint trace of an old belief among witches that in days long ago people who were secretly members of the witch cult used to mark this sign somehow upon the soles of their shoes. In this way, walking upon soft ground, they would leave a trail of signs sufficiently plain to be followed, if they wished others of the faith to do so for any reason. This, too, might have something to do with the symbol being called the witch’s foot.

This old sign had been almost lost in oblivion until it reappeared with its modern significance. Today, so the story goes, it signifies the letters ’N.D.’, the initials of the words ’Nuclear Disarmament’ as signalled by the semaphore system. The idea of it was allegedly conceived by the late Bertrand Russell in February 1958 and it soon became very popular. But it is precisely the same as the symbol which appears in Rudolf Koch’s Book of Signs, where it is called ’The crow’s foot, or witch’s foot’.

It seems certain that in the days of persecution, the witches must have used signs and tokens as passwords of recognition. The word Toledo is said to have been one such, from the school of sorcery which was supposed to exist in that city when it was under Moorish rule. To mention this word was a sign that you were interested in the forbidden and so-called black arts. No doubt in practice every coven had its own signs and passwords.

Two signs in general use which were made by the hands, were the Mano Cornuta and the Mano in Fica, or the sign of horns and the sign of the fig. The sign of horns was made by holding up the hand with the first and little fingers outstretched and the rest, including the thumb, folded into the palm of the hand. It signified the horns of the horned god. The other, the sign of the fig, was made by clenching the fingers and showing the thumb thrust between the first and second fingers. It signified the female genitals, for which ’the fig’ is still a slang term in Spanish and Italian.

Both of these signs were supposed to be efficacious against the evil eye, perhaps because they opposed one witchcraft to another. Little amulets in the shape of hands making these signs are still very popular in Latin countries, where belief in the evil eye lingers tenaciously. But the actual hand signs were used by witches, sometimes for purposes of recognition. They bear some resemblance to the mudras of the east.

Another means of recognition was the so-called ’token of the Sabbat’, which resembled a small coin or medal with some magical emblem imprinted upon it. A whole hoard of these was found in the River Seine in France, where they had probably been thrown at some alarm of danger. Some of them are depicted in Two Essays on the Worship of Priapus by Richard Payne Knight and Thomas Wright. The tokens are made of lead, a substance easily cast into moulds and hence popular for the making of such things in olden times. They show upon one side an equal-armed cross in a circle, the pre-Christian or Celtic cross, while upon the other side appears either a phallus or a stylized representation of the female genitals.

Not long ago I saw advertised for sale in an English magazine an alleged example of a ’witch’s coin’, which I took to mean a token of the Sabbat. A high price was demanded; but whether it was obtained, or whether the object was indeed authentic, I do not know.

A witch sign that was used in olden times in the county of Sussex, and perhaps elsewhere, was the number thirteen written in Roman numerals, thus: XIII.

Among the Sussex witchcraft objects in my collection are an old pewter candlestick with the ’XIII’ marking on it, and two very old horn spoons, probably once used to stir some witch’s brew, that bear the same marking. In the latter case, to the casual eye the ’XIII’ could appear to be just a rough attempt at decoration; but the initiate would recognize it for what it was.

Once, when I was giving a lecture on witchcraft, I showed these things among other objects. In the questions and discussion that followed, a gentleman in the audience told me that he lived in an old house in Sussex where the same marking was cut into an old oak beam in one of the upper rooms. He had often wondered, he said, what significance it had—now he knew! Possibly the room had once been used for witch meetings.

Some present-day witches have adopted as a kind of password an old East Anglian greeting: ’Flags, flax, fodder and frig!’ This means the basic things that make a happy life. ’Flags’ means flagstones, the stones that build a house. ’Flax’ is what linen is spun from, hence it means clothing. ’Fodder’ is evidently food, enough to eat. ’Frig’ is the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frigga who was the goddess of love, though it degenerated in vulgar speech into another name for sexual intercourse; but in the old saying it simply means sexual love without any obscene connotation. So ’Flags, flax, fodder and frig’ simply means a secure home, enough to wear, enough to eat, and someone to love you. A good basic blessing!

If people in the world were content with these four things, instead of spending their lives trying to grab more and more of everything, how different life might be.