Witches’ Attire

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

Witches’ Attire

The name of this chapter may seem to be a contradiction in terms; because the traditional attire of witches is generally believed to be nudity. When Gerald Gardner first revealed the present-day practice of witchcraft in his book Witchcraft Today, his statements about the communal nakedness of witchcraft rites provoked a good deal of shock and scandal, or at any rate professed shock and scandal, among journalists of the popular Press. Today, however, times have changed. It is rather amusing to note that newspapers which formerly published articles attacking this ’evil cult’ that was supposed to be sweeping the country, and solemnly warning people against it, now specialize in providing their readers with luscious portraits of nude young ladies. Nor does anyone seem any the worse. Indeed, it is coming to be recognized that people who get indignant about human nakedness are not psychologically healthy or well-balanced. It is the prudes today who are on the defensive. In the issue of the Daily Mirror dated 14 June 1975, under the headline ’Nude’s not rude it can do you good!’ appeared the views of a number of psychologists and psychiatrists who support the belief that nudity, particularly communal nudity, is healthy and beneficial both mentally and physically.

Naturists have always maintained this; and Gerald Gardner was a pioneer naturist, in the days when it was considered very shocking indeed to support those ’nudists’ and their dreadful goings-on. It may well be, however, that Gerald Gardner’s naturist beliefs coloured his ideas about witchcraft; because he maintained that witches always worked in the nude, and in the climate of the British Isles this is just not a practical possibility. Of course, one may work indoors, with modern central heating and so on. Probably the majority of witchcraft rites today take place indoors; but one misses the contact with living nature that is found in outdoor rites, a thrill that once known is never forgotten.

It is true that the Roman writer Pliny, dealing with the magical practices of ancient Britain, says that the British women and girls performed religious rites in the nude; but there is reason to think that in former times our climate was somewhat milder than it is now.

However, when nude working is possible it is undoubtedly both pleasant and effective. It is true that one can in a sense cast off one’s everyday self with one’s everyday clothing. As the room in an ordinary house becomes a different place by the light of the candles round the magic circle, so the naked witch dancing by the light of those candles is a different person from the usual inhabitant of that room. As the witch saying has it; ’The circle of the coven is between the worlds’, a borderland place where two worlds meet and where unusual things can happen.

Normal people enjoy being nude, if the surroundings are warm enough to prevent chills. And why shouldn’t they? Now that the great blight of pseudo-morality is beginning to be lifted, as a result of the revolutionary social trends of the 1960s, why shouldn’t people assert their right to enjoy sunshine and fresh air on our beaches, for instance, without having to fasten funny pieces of cloth around their bodies for fear of offending someone? Surely, if some people are offended by nudity, that is their problem?

If people appeared more often in the nude, they would take more pride in the health and strength of their bodies. One would not see so many flabby, round-shouldered victims of middle-age spread, for instance. There is no need for people, even in their sixties and beyond, to be afraid to be nude, if their bodies are healthy. People whose bodies are bronzed by exposure to sunshine and fresh air soon begin to look aesthetically pleasing at any age, when they straighten their backs and shed their surplus weight.

I wonder if one day we shall see the great primitive religious centres of our nation, such as Stonehenge and Avebury, once again alive with happy, naked people dancing in and out of the great stones in a wonderful round of air and sunlight and joy? Today, thanks to the books of Gerald Hawkins and Alexander Thorn, we are beginning to look with new eyes at the work of our remote ancestors, seeing them not as savage numbskulls but as people with remarkable knowledge in the way in which these great monuments were made; even, perhaps, as people from whom we can learn forgotten spiritual truths. At the moment, such a vision of our ancient heritage of joy in nature and our own humanity is just a dream; but not, I think, one too fantastic to come true.

In the meantime, there has arisen of late years a mischievous prank known as ’streaking’, being a means of defying the prudish by dashing naked through some public place and hopefully not getting caught. Recent warm summers have even brought out male streakers across such sacred precincts as English cricket grounds and Twickenham, the home of Rugby football, causing policemen to use their helmets as emergency screens before their captives and elderly persons to wonder aloud what the country was coming to.

It is curious to note that streaking is nothing new. Charles Godfrey Leland wrote of it in his book Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune-Telling. He says that forty years before this time of writing, which would make it about the 1850s, there was a craze for the more daring type of young girls to go out late at night and try to run naked round some public square or block of houses without being caught by the police. He connects this with the old witch belief in the magical efficacy of nakedness when casting a spell. According to him, there is an old witch ceremony to enable a girl to marry the man she loves, that requires her to go out naked when the moon is full and run around some enclosure, dwelling or group of trees without being seen. If she succeeds in doing this, the charm will work.

Unfortunately, Leland does not specify what the enclosure or group of trees ought to be; but my guess is that originally this was a stone circle or the remains of some sacred grove. So the custom of streaking may be really the lingering folk memory of a very ancient ritual. Like many other things, it has survived as a game or a prank long after its original significance has been forgotten.

Another relic of ancient beliefs connected with the Old Religion is the Lady Godiva procession, originally held at Coventry in Warwickshire and now often copied at other carnivals. A beautiful young girl is chosen to act the part of Lady Godiva, riding through the town mounted upon her white horse and clad in nothing but her flowing hair, though today a flesh-coloured bikini is sometimes added as well. Most people know the story of Lady Godiva’s naked ride through the streets of Coventry, in order to persuade her hard-hearted husband, Earl Leofric, to remit the oppressive taxes that were burdening the people. Lord Tennyson wrote a noble Victorian poem about it. However, at the time when the historical Earl Leofric and his wife lived, Coventry was just a village. According to Domesday Book, written after Godiva’s death, it consisted of about three hundred people, mostly serfs, who would have been liable only for feudal dues which were still being paid. What Godiva and her husband really did for Coventry was to found a monastery there, which raised the status of the place and helped it to grow into the prosperous city that it afterwards became.

Hence the ancient story of a naked lady riding on a white horse came to be told as a Christian legend about an actual benefactress, instead of what it really was, namely the survival of the appearance of the naked goddess of the Old Religion in the person of her priestess. The commemorative ride took place annually at Coventry Fair, which was granted approval by King Henry III in 1217. It was held in summer, commencing on the day after Corpus Christi.

The nearby village of Southam also had a Godiva procession in olden days. This was an even more pagan event, because it featured two nude Godivas, one of whom was stained black. One is reminded of the Egyptian Isis and Nephthys, or the bright moon and the dark moon. According to Lewis Spence in his book The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, there was also in the procession a man wearing a horned mask shaped like a bull’s head; clearly enough the old horned god himself, who was the goddess’s consort. One wonders, if the name Godiva really derived not from Godgifu, the wife of Earl Leofric, but from Goda diva, the goddess Goda?

The reason for ritual nudity once again connects with the belief in odic force or animal magnetism, the mysterious borderline energy referred to before. Wilhelm Reich believed that the energy he had discovered, orgone energy, was the basic preatomic energy which pervades everything. All other energies are modifications of this basic energy. So-called static electricity, according to Reich, is really more related to orgone than it is to the electricity we use for light and power.

It is well known that the human body generates electricity; but according to Reich, all living substances radiate orgone, which has beneficial effects when accumulated in the right way, unlike electricity, the effects of which may not be beneficial at all. Be that as it may, the effects of static electricity can easily be seen in a dark room, when sparks can be stroked from one’s hair or from a cat’s fur. The wearing of some nylon underclothes and then removing them in a dark room can cause a blue flash of static electricity to become visible. It is easy to say, ’Oh, that’s just static electricity’; but what is static electricity? No one really knows. Such flashes produced from a woman’s long hair in the darkness of a cave must have seemed strong proof to our distant ancestors of the force-field surrounding the human body. I remember Naomi Mitchison bringing this fact into one of her stories about Stone Age people, which referred to a girl being chosen as a priestess because of her fiery hair.

’Letting one’s hair down’ was originally more than just a figure of speech. The Scottish witch Isabel Gowdie describes how the ’Devil’ of her coven instructed her to recite spells: ’When we had learned all these words from the Devil, we all fell down upon our knees, with our hair down over our shoulders and eyes, and our hands lifted up, and our eyes steadfastly fixed upon the Devil, and said the foresaid words thrice over to the Devil.’ Old spells to be performed by women often contain the instruction that they are to be carried out ’with hair loose and feet bare’. In ancient Greece and Rome, ritual nudity was regarded as essential for the practice of magic; alternatively, if complete nudity could not be attained, then the wearing of light, loose flowing robes was enjoined.

In our colder climate, such robes can be made of woollen material. Their basic design is similar to that of a monk’s robe, or a hooded caftan. This design is popular among the members of magical orders also, because it recalls the figure of the ankh cross. The body of the robe, with the long loose sleeves, is the T-shaped part of the cross, while the oval-shaped hood represents the loop of the cross, the ancient Egyptian sign of life. Such robes are quite simple to make. They can be girdled in the middle with a belt or tie, according to one’s fancy. This will hold a sheath for the athame. Sometimes a large pocket is incorporated in the design as well, or worn suspended from the girdle. This comes in useful for outdoor rites, to hold things needed in the ritual. Such a loose robe can be slipped on over one’s top clothes, if one is working outdoors in very cold weather. A robe that opens right down the front is a bit more complicated to make, but easier to get on and off for outdoor work.

Sandals are the usual accompaniment of a robe; though, once again, in very cold weather, something more substantial may be needed outdoors. I once took part in a very successful outdoor Sabbat, when it was so cold that many of us were wearing heavy boots. Commonsense and practicality are the things to be guided by, in my opinion. One cannot work magic if one is half frozen.

As explained in Liber Umbrarum, the traditional black robe or cloak of the witches was to enable them to slip through the shadows without being seen, on the way to their meetings in olden days; but black has also the significance of being the emblem of night and secrecy. Earth brown is also a pleasant colour for a woollen robe, recalling our connection with Mother Earth and the powers of nature. Some covens have the Maiden or priestess attired in a scarlet cloak, the colour of life.

If you have a desire for more colourful robes in your own working, here is a list of the astrological significance of colours, according to the correspondence given by the Order of the Golden Dawn:

Red … Mars

Orange … Sun

Yellow … Mercury

Green … Venus

Blue … Moon

Indigo … Saturn

Violet … Jupiter

The brighter colours generally associated with witchcraft in the past have been scarlet, the colour of the life-blood, and green, the fairies’ colour. Hence, probably, the belief that green is unlucky; because of its magical potency and its association with paganism, it became dangerous to meddle with. One recalls the lovely wanton Lady Greensleeves of the old English folk song. She may have been originally a form of the nature goddess herself.

There is an old English Morris dance tune called ’Green Garters’ which, according to Margaret Murray, was the traditional accompaniment to the processional dance on May Day morning to the place where the Maypole had been erected and where the revels were held. An old version of this dance tune, associated with the Morris Dancers of Bampton, Oxfordshire, has some interesting words:

First for the stockings, and then for the shoes,

And then for the bonny green garters.

A pair for me and a pair for you,

And a pair for them that come arter.

’Arter’, of course, is the dialect version of ’after’. This could be a veiled reference to the witch garter and the handing down of the old pagan tradition.

Another old folk song relates to the witches’ Sabbat of Hallowe’en. It is quoted from English Folk Rhymes, by G. F. Northall.

Heyhow for Hallowe’en,

When all the witches are to be seen,

Some in black, and some in green,

Heyhow for Hallowe’en!

The Devil of the coven is often referred to in Scottish folklore as ’the Man in Black’. It seems that the male leader of a coven often dressed in black. Did the priestess, the Queen of the Sabbat or the Queen of Elphame, dress in green? She might well have done, on account of the relationship that existed between witchcraft and the world of Faerie, more especially in Scotland than elsewhere.

The whole question of the fairy world is one that would need a book in itself to be done justice to. There are fairy legends which seem to be dealing with the spirits of nature, a kind of parallel evolution which inhabits this world alongside mankind. Other stories seem to be derived from folk memories of the aboriginal races of Western Europe, who lived in turf-covered round houses and were shorter and darker than the Celts who took over the country from them. Still other stories regard the Land of Faerie as the other world, beyond the bounds of the physical plane, where pagan souls go when they die. The Sluagh Sidhe or fairy host of Ireland is said by some accounts to be made up of those who were too bad for heaven but too good for hell. In both Scotland and Italy, long after the coming of Christianity, the pagan goddess Diana was regarded as queen of the fairies. So much of the old paganism simply moved over into fairyland that the liking by witches of the fairies’ colour, green, is quite explicable.

As stated in Liber Umbrarum, however naked the witch priestess may be, she should always wear a necklace in the circle. This tradition derives from the goddesses of the ancient world, who are usually depicted even when naked wearing jewellery of some kind. I own a quite delightful little statue from Egypt of the Ptolemaic period, around the time of Cleopatra. It portrays the goddess Isis in somewhat Hellenized Egyptian form, wearing nothing but a necklace, an elaborate headdress and a mischievous smile. The more grave and dignified statues of Diana of Ephesus, depicting her as the Great Mother, many-breasted, show her with a necklace made of acorns.

Jewellery looks particularly attractive upon an otherwise nude body, whereas to be simply bare may be rather stark. Perhaps this is the origin of the practice; but I think it more likely that the priestess’s necklace is either symbolical, perhaps of the round of the zodiac through which the moon passes in a month, or else magical, consisting of talismans and amulets.

The witch priestess’s other traditional ornament is a wide silver bracelet, the metal of the moon. This may be engraved with magical signs and sometimes inset with semi-precious stones, especially moonstones. Green chrysoprase, too, looks very effective set in silver, and I have seen it used in witch bracelets; once again, perhaps, because of its pure green colour, the green of nature and the fairy world.

The actual design of the bracelet varies from coven to coven. Nowadays, when many people are able to take up the craft of the silversmith as a hobby, some beautiful bracelets are being produced. However, if one really cannot afford silver, a brightly polished pewter bracelet would make a good substitute. Pewter is a popular handicraft material which lends itself to fine workmanship and the setting of semi-precious stones.

In the old days such precious regalia was handed down from mother to daughter, or from the old priestess to the young one. In times of danger it was buried, to be dug up again when the danger was past.

The ’grand array’ of the Devil of the coven, which he used to wear upon the occasions of the Great Sabbats, consisted, as we have seen, of a horned helmet or headdress and a costume of animal skins. Sometimes the male coven leader still disguises himself in this way on some special ritual occasion. A long black robe with a horned mask is a favourite present-day version. Some covens like to keep up the old tradition of the rest of the coven wearing masks also. Although this derived from the days of persecution, when people who attended the Sabbats did so at peril of their lives, nevertheless there is something very potent and curious about the effect of a mask.

I remember when a grand meeting of Morris Men was held on the green lawns outside the Royal Pavilion at Brighton a few years ago. We were fortunate in having a splendid summer day and there were groups of dancers from all over England taking part. The pipe and tabor sounded their merry tunes, the bells rang, the handkerchiefs waved and the quarterstaffs clashed. Around the dancers circled the traditional beasts, the maskers with animal heads and costumes reminiscent of bulls and stags, hobby-horses and dragons. It was a very strange sensation, even in broad daylight on a crowded lawn, to have one of these horned, masked figures towering over one. How much more eerie must it have been by night on some lonely heath to see a figure like that, illuminated by the glow of a witches’ bonfire! Even when one knew perfectly well that underneath the mask was a man, perhaps someone known for years, still there was a strangeness there, a presence that was something more than the person one knew.

Masks used to be made of leather or velvet, and ranged from the simple black covering of the upper part of the face to elaborate animal and bird designs, sometimes horned or with two pheasants’ feathers to simulate horns. When one put on a mask, one put on a magical personality; a fact known to primitive tribes all over the world. Actually, the word ’personality’ derives from persona, a mask. Animal masks were also used by the mummers, the people who took part in traditional countryside plays at Christmas and other times of festival. The masked ball, or masquerade, was an opportunity for people to shed their ordinary, everyday selves and put on a new personality, just as they did at the witches’ Sabbat.

If, therefore, you are clever at handicrafts you may care to try your skill at making masks and experimenting with their psychological effect. Today there are many new materials, such as fibre-glass and papiermâché, out of which masks can be made. Alternatively, a theatrical costumier may be able to provide you with some exciting new faces and headdresses. Remember, the psychological effect may be a good deal more than just dressing up; you will be doing something which has its roots in our very primitive past. What it is capable of releasing from the deep levels of your unconscious mind may surprise and even alarm you.

We have seen how even in the Stone Age cave painting the witch dancers were depicted wearing pointed caps, perhaps to symbolize the cone of power. But what of the tall pointed hat that is the trademark of the witch in all our nursery picture-books?

It seems that this may have been a pointed riding hat originally. It was called a copataine and was worn to protect the head in the case of falling off one’s horse when riding over rough country. It was made of very stiff material, hence the sugar-loaf shape of the design. Probably a veil or a tie beneath the chin secured it to the head. The tallness of the hat has been exaggerated by generations of artists until it became the typical witch’s hat of caricature.

Ladies of quality who rode on horseback on the Sabbat would have worn copataines. They were the headgear of the more upper-class, stylish type of witch. Perhaps in people’s minds they became associated with midnight jaunts across moonlit countryside or down dark lanes, and so became the typical witch’s hat.

And yet—in the native Mexican painting known as the Codex Fejèrvàry-Mayer, there is a picture which looks very much like that of a witch, naked except for a pointed hat, riding upon a broomstick! Lewis Spence comments upon this in the article ’Witchcraft’ in his Encyclopaedia of Occultism. There was a kind of witch cult in pre-Columbian Mexico. This painting raises curious questions as to its origin, and that of the witch hat.

Lewis Spence regards the presence of witch cults in both ancient Central America and ancient Europe as yet another piece of evidence for the existence of the sunken continent of Atlantis, from which the cult may have spread both east and west. He refers to this in a number of places, in his various books about Atlantis. Perhaps one day archaeologists will find definite evidence from the sea-bed which will place Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean, where Plato said it was. Already interesting results have been forthcoming from diving carried out in the neighbourhood of Bimini in the region of the Bahamas. The remains of massive walls and pavements have been discovered and photographed. Perhaps in the not too distant future Atlantis will have ceased to be a myth, as Troy has ceased to be a myth.

At present, however, such views of the far distant past of our planet and of the origin of its cults, including witchcraft, must remain matters of opinion. What has now ceased to be a matter of opinion and become a matter of scientifically proven fact, is the aura which occultists have long claimed to surround all living things. This has an important bearing upon the subject already referred to more than once in this book, namely the force-field, odyle, ’animal magnetism’, and so on, which is believed to be the agent of magic. I make no apology for reverting to this, because I believe it to be one of the most basic concepts of witchcraft and one of the least understood or explored; that is, until now.

The break-through has come with the Kirlian photography process, which has enabled the aura not only to be proven to exist, but to be studied in its actions and reactions. In the first chapter of Gerald Gardner’s book Witchcraft Today, he discussed the question of ritual nudity and the aura, remarking that it would be interesting to study the effectiveness of having one team of witches in the traditional nude and another wearing bikinis. Now, since 1968, when Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder first brought Kirlian photography from Russia to the western world, we are able to do just that!

Briefly, Kirlian photography enables living things to be photographed in such a way that what science now calls their bioplasmic energy appears. This manifests itself as an aura surrounding them, causing pictures of the human hand, for instance, to bear a striking resemblance to the old ’Hand of Glory’ when taken by this process. When the subject is healthy and normal, this aura appears regular and harmonious in form and a beautiful blue in colour. If the subject is injured, disturbed or ill, the colour changes to various shades of pink and crimson and the appearance of the auric halo becomes spiky and out of shape. What is still more remarkable and full of possibilities for the future in research and diagnosis, is the fact that illness can show up in the aura before it becomes manifest in the physical body.

Such things are no longer the optimistic claims of clairvoyants. They are proven laboratory facts, backed by money provided by the United States government for experiments in this new and exciting field of research.

The Kirlian photography process was discovered by a Russian experimenter called Semyon Kirlian, from Krasnodar in the USSR. He was interested in electricity and in trying to photograph its effects. One day, while attempting to photograph the spark patterns made by high-frequency electrical impulses, he found that he had photographed the aura of his hand. He continued to develop this new possibility, finding curiously enough that the Soviet government was more open-minded and willing to sanction and back further research than western authorities at first proved to be. Kirlian became famous for his new photographic technique; but it was practically unknown outside the Soviet Union until two American women freelance writers, Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, came to Russia and discovered that these experiments were going on.

They published their findings in a book entitled Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain. At first, however, orthodox science would have none of it. No one would build the experimental unit to the design that they had brought out of Russia. In the eyes of American science, all this stuff belonged in the realm of the occult and was therefore crazy. The first American-built Kirlian unit was made by a California insurance salesman who experimented with electronics as a hobby!

Within the last few years, however, things have changed dramatically. Major universities and medical centres, backed by government money, have started Kirlian photography research, while leading scientific equipment manufacturers are turning out Kirlian units. The break-through came when Dr Thelma Moss, a psychologist at the University of California’s Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute, began a serious examination of the claims made by Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder.

Among other experiments, Dr Moss duplicated the extraordinary ’phantom leaf’ result obtained by the Russian researchers. She cut a leaf from a plant in half and then photographed one of the cut halves by the Kirlian process. In the developed film, not only the actual portion of leaf appeared, but also a phantom image of the missing portion.

Briefly, the Kirlian process consists of amplifying the aura, or bio-luminescence as it has been named, of the subject, by giving it a short charge of high-frequency electricity as it is being photographed. Naturally, special equipment and expert technique are needed to do this and the whole subject is still in the development stage. Already, however, Kirlian photography has been used to reveal the serial numbers which had been completely filed off a gun. The disturbances they made in the basic molecular structure of the gun’s metal when they were originally engraved showed up on the film. This demonstrates that the Kirlian technique will work with non-living matter as well as with organic matter. This brings us back to the old occult claim that everything has an aura; moreover, that this aura carries within it the history of the thing itself, which can be perceived by the practice of psychometry. The relevance of radiesthesia, dowsing and pendulum divining is another aspect of these borderline energies which may eventually be considered in this connection also.

In this coming Aquarian Age, science and the occult are joining hands. In the meantime, how old Gerald would laugh to see his jocular suggestion become a practical possibility!