Places: A witch’s Travel Guide
Witchcraft ultimately has but one requirement: human needs and desire. Witchcraft occurs wherever there are people, and so witchcraft is at home all over Earth.
That said, for one reason or another, certain places have powerful associations with witchcraft. Although some locales may be physically remote or difficult for the average person to access, that doesn’t mean these are rare locations. Quite the contrary. Many places are associated with witchcraft. These places fall into two categories:
Generic places identified with witchcraft practices. Thus bathhouses, forests, and crossroads, in general, are by their very nature, “witchcraft places” and may be considered witchcraft’s “power places”
Specific locations that for various historic reasons are identified with witchcraft
During Europe’s witch-hunt era, witch-hunters identified and named specific locations as the haunts of witches. Sometimes they posted scouts and spies to see who was traveling to and lingering in these areas. In many cases these were places that had ancient associations with Pagan religions or were by their nature (caves, mountain peaks) places that would be conducive to witchcraft practices.
In addition to places specifically associated with witchcraft, there are also many places around the world favored by contemporary witches, Wiccans, and Neo-Pagans including many ancient Pagan shrines—especially those associated with ancient Egypt, standing stones and stone circles, and places identified with the Arthurian saga. Many modern witches would consider Carnac, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge sacred sites for instance.
What is described below is but the tip of the iceberg: there were allegedly no less than 800 known locations specifically identified as witches’ rendezvous places in Lorraine alone during the height of its witchcraze (approximately 1580—1630). There are two ways of looking at this statistic: witchcraft, rooted in ancient Pagan traditions, was banned but never disappeared. The sheer number of places associated with witchcraft serves as proof of survival. Conversely (and not only in Europe!) the sheer number of places associated with witchcraft may reveal more about witchcraft-hysteria than about witchcraft itself.
Take your pick. Let’s take a tour!
Pagan shrines were very frequently situated by natural springs (see also Wells, page 681). From a very early era, fresh water springs, whether hot or cold, still or sparkling, were considered among Earth’s most sacred places. Natural springs radiated magical energy: they were sources of healing and spiritual cleansing. In fact, many mineral springs demonstrate healing powers. To this day, many travel to therapeutic spas built over mineral springs to “take the waters” or “the vapors.” Modern spiritual shrines feature sacred springs too, most famously the shrine at Lourdes, France.
Spas, shrines, thermes: if there is a structure near or over a natural spring and if that structure has facilities so that people can bathe while inside that structure, then whatever else you may call it, that structure is, in very plain English, a bathhouse.
Bathhouses were among the earliest shrines and temples constructed: taking the baths was a spiritual, sacred act. (Ancient rites of baptism derive from these primordial traditions or vice versa.)
In many spiritual traditions, even the simplest, most ramshackle, dilapidated bathhouse retains these sacred, magical, spiritually powerful connotations.
Where bathhouses are considered places of power, bathhouses are also considered places for witchcraft. Whether this is meant positively or negatively depends upon how one defines and perceives witches.
Before there was readily available piped water, springs were a magnet: every living being in the area, human or animal, would eventually come to a spring to drink or bathe. Spirits are drawn to springs as well. Djinn, for instance, are known to linger at springs. In addition, each individual spring is believed to have its own presiding spirit who is its guardian and shares its essence.
Water is a feminine element, aligned with the moon. Many springs were identified with sacred and powerful female deities, particularly those with lunar affiliations, such as Artemis, Diana, and Oshun.
Spirits like the Vila, Rusalka, and Bereginy congregate near springs as well. Often elaborate rules for springs associated with spirits developed: one could only bathe or do laundry on certain days of the week, for instance. The other days, the spring was reserved for the spirits’ use. (See FAIRIES: Nature-Spirit Fairies: Bereginy, Rusalka, Vila.)
Springs are a double threshold: not only places where Earth meets water but also places where humans and spirits mingle. (See page 680, Thresholds.)
There is much current amusement mixed with disapproval regarding medieval European aversion to bathing. Water (and thus bathing) was considered dangerous and detrimental to health: during the witch-hunt era, many bathed but once or twice a year, particularly very devout Christians.
However, once upon a time, Pagan Europeans bathed frequently incorporating physical pleasure and bodily hygiene with spiritual and magical rituals. In perhaps the ultimate example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” once these spiritual and magical traditions were forbidden and diabolized, bathing was forbidden too. The simplest way of guaranteeing that people weren’t participating in these practices was to discourage them from bathing.
People were warned that bathing was dangerous and it was indeed: too much time bathing and you might be suspected and accused of having Pagan leanings or even of being a witch! In some regions, witches, like Pagan spirits, reputedly liked frolicking in water.
Among the ancient Egyptian shrines dedicated to the primordial goddess Hathor, some served as therapeutic temples (ancient hospitals), featuring a form of hydrotherapy. Her shrine at Dendera was the ancient world’s equivalent of Lourdes. (See HORNED ONE: Hathor.)
Among his many other feats, master inventor Daedalus was renowned for his ability to provide patrons with indoor plumbing including private baths with hot and cold running water. (See HORNED ONE: Minotaur.)
Greeks and Romans of the classical era adored bathing. Public baths were ubiquitous. Not content with a mere tub of lukewarm water, a variety of baths to make a modern spa proud existed: hot air, hot water and cold plunge.
The Romans, in particular, created monumental bathhouses, veritable temples of bathing. Roman emperors built thermal bath complexes as monuments to their glory. The baths of Emperor Diocletian (245—313 CE), for instance, held a maximum capacity of six thousand bathers. The earlier baths of Caracalla (186—217 CE), could only accommodate 1,600 people at a time but covered 27 acres; the complex included meeting rooms, gymnasia, walkways, gardens, at least two libraries and a public stadium as well as bathing facilities.
Then as now, bathhouses may be spiritual shrines but they were also dens of iniquity: in late antiquity, public baths were also frequently centers of promiscuity and vice. Public baths were associated with male and female prostitution, thus baths frequently came under civil and ecclesiastical regulation.
Early Christians suspected that bathhouses, in addition to encouraging immorality, were also haunted by demons. This was actually in accordance with Pagan belief, although they would phrase it differently: bathhouses are the residences of spirits. If you wish to meet and greet spirits, the bathhouse is frequently the place to do it.
So, what do witches do in bathhouses?
They commune with spirits
They practice divination and hold séances
The atmosphere in the bathhouse has traditionally been conducive to soul-journeying
The bathhouse is the ideal place for spiritual and magical cleansing rituals
Various spiritual rituals are held in the bathhouse, particularly those having to do with threshold experiences, like birth, marriage, and death
Spiritual initiations are held in bathhouses
Magic spells are cast in the bathhouse; power places are often considered conducive to spell-casting because the spell absorbs power from the surroundings
Bathhouses rejuvenate, revive, reinvigorate, and empower bathers. Witches, like so many others, have fun in the bathhouse!
Basically two types of bathhouses exist. They may feature cold or hot pools, or there may be steam baths. Bathhouses associated with witchcraft more frequently feature what are now called steam baths, saunas or Turkish baths.
In steam bathhouses, water meets fire to produce healing, cleansing steam. From a metaphysical perspective, the steam bathhouse reproduces the act of creation: male (fire) meets female (water) to create new life (steam or air).
Steam bathhouses were once common to many traditions; wherever they exist, they are associated with spirits and are typically considered magically powerful. Native American sweat lodges remain a vital spiritual tradition. There were once comparable Irish and Norse sweat bathhouses as well. Although the tradition didn’t survive past the nineteenth century, the teach an alais (sweathouse) was once common in Ireland and perhaps elsewhere in the Celtic world. These bathhouses consisted of beehiveshaped huts constructed from stone covered in clay and turf. Many had stone seats within. Frequently located near springs or rivers, they were used for the alleviation of physical conditions, including rheumatism, but also for healing fairyrelated sickness.
Among the traditional bathhouses especially associated with witchcraft are the following:
Nowhere is the bathhouse more associated with witchcraft than in Russia. Historically, most Russian villages featured at least one bathhouse or bania, usually a log shack set at a distance from residences, ideally very near or over a source of water. Officially the reason for maintaining a distance between residences and the bania was fire safety—the bathhouse being very fire-prone—but spiritual issues were also a significant, if sometimes unspoken, reason.
Banias tended to be fairly dilapidated buildings. It is usually a small, one-room cabin similar in style to a Finnish sauna; there’s an outer area for dressing and an inner sanctum for the actual steam bath. An open hearth, usually constructed from cobblestones, is in the corner of the room. A bathhouse attendant builds a fire in order to heat the stones. When sufficiently hot, the smoke is vented and bathers may enter. Dry heat may be used but traditionally water is thrown onto the stones to produce steam. Aromatic herbs may also be strewn onto the stones for medicinal and other effect. Benches are set at different heights for sweating or washing.
The bania is more than just a place to clean one’s body. It is a place of tremendous spiritual and magical power, descended from ancient Slavic water shrines. In Russia, bathhouses were also temples, a threshold space where fire and water merge and where spirits may be approached.
The bania is the traditional meeting place for revenants (ghosts), spirits, and witches. Russian village bathhouses are only heated during hours of conventional use. Thus anyone attending at unusual hours is assumed to be there for less than conventional reasons. Being seen entering or leaving the bathhouse during unconventional hours was considered a telltale sign of witchcraft. Entering the bathhouse during magically significant days like St John’s Eve, Yule or New Year was considered even more of a telltale sign.
Banias were also sometimes built underground or semi-underground, in which case they were called laznya, from the Russian lazit “to creep” or “to crawl.” Entering or leaving the laznya was like entering or emerging from the womb.
Rumor had it, Russian magicians and witches congregated in the bathhouse while others attended Church. (This also recalls that baths were once sacred territory, too.) The safe, proper time for respectable Christians to use the bathhouse was between dawn and midday. Bathing was done in company as it wasn’t considered safe to enter the bania alone. (It was certainly not safe for one’s reputation as entering alone fostered rumors regarding Pagan predilections or witchcraft activity.) Any time after midday was considered less conventional and “safe.”
Between midnight and dawn, the bania belongs to the spirits. A high percentage of Russian divination techniques, magic spells, and rituals involve a trip to the bathhouse at midnight. Typical Russian magic spell instructions start “Enter the bathhouse at midnight.” Initiation rituals took place in the bathhouse at midnight, too.
It was generally acknowledged that Christianity’s authority stopped at the threshold of the bania. No icons were hung in the bathhouse, and bathers removed amulets, crosses, and icons. Technically this is for convenience and because intense, prolonged steam may damage these items, particularly painted icons, but in addition the bania is tacitly acknowledged as a place where old ancestral traditions reign.
The ruler of the bathhouse is the bannik and his wife, the bainikha, bannaia or even bannaia babushka if one wished to take an affectionate, respectful tone with her. Bannik literally means “bathhouse spirit.”
The bannik is usually visualized as a little old one-eyed man. He is usually naked but lack of clothing is appropriate to the bathhouse environment. Banniks are a race of spirits; each bania has a resident bannik who may or may not have a wife and/or children, too. Devout Christians identified these spirits as evil demons; those with other spiritual orientations describe the bannik as volatile, temperamental, and grouchy but potentially helpful.
The bania is the prescribed location for threshold experiences. Magical traditions involving birth, death, and marriage took place in the bania:
Brides prepared for their nuptials in the bania
Corpses were laid out, cleansed, and prepared for interment in the bania
Babies were born in the bathhouse, and the bannik is believed to personally welcome babies to Earth.
The bannik, like most spirits, generally maintains invisibility. Allegedly if one wished to actually see the bannik or make personal contact with him, one must go to the bathhouse after dark, preferably at midnight. One must then step halfway into the bathhouse by hovering over the threshold and placing only the right foot inside. Meanwhile, remove the cross from around your neck, put it on the ground outside the bathhouse and place your left heel over it.
There are two ways to interpret this ritual. The standard explanation identifies the bannik with the devil and suggests that contact is diabolical and anti-Christian. The action of stepping or indeed stamping, if done with passion, is the equivalent of religious desecration. In more devoutly Christian regions, the bannik was explicitly identified with the devil and so going to see him was akin to the classical diabolical pact. (See HORNED ONE: The Devil.)
The alternative explanation suggests that the bannik is a pre-Christian spirit whose rites have been neglected and forbidden since the rise of Christianity. People continue to frequent bathhouses but offerings given are half-hearted and not up to pre-Christian standards. In order to inaugurate a new relationship, the bannik needs a commitment and needs to know where you stand.
Corresponding to the tenets of Russian double-faith, some might profess Christianity in the daytime but at night venture to the bathhouse to engage in older ancestral rituals: removing emblems of Christianity identifies these ritualists to the bannik.
The bannik is not the only spirit to consider the bania home. The Rozhanitsy, Russian fate goddesses or fairies, live in the bathhouse, too, not to be confused with that other set of goddesses also known as Rozhanitsy. (See HORNED ONE: Rozhanitsy.)
The word rozhanitsy derives from the Russian rodit, “to give birth.” In many traditions, birth fairies travel to the baby’s home to proclaim the baby’s destiny. For the rozhanitsy, however, an offering table is set up in the bania where babies were traditionally born. The rozhanitsy are present and attend the birth. Images of these rozhanitsy squatting like a laboring woman, arms flung open wide, were once popularly embroidered onto Russian women’s sacred embroideries and napkins. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Russian Fairy Tales.)
Similar bathhouse traditions may once have extended throughout Slavic regions. Goddess Pirta Mate, “Mother of the Bathhouse,” for instance, is the presiding spirit of the Latvian bathhouse. Similar to the bania, in pre-Christian Latvia the bathhouse was where babies were born and the scene for rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death.
The temescal is the traditional Aztec sweat bathhouse, also called temazcal or temazcalli. The word derives from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language: tema, “to bathe,” and calli, “a house.” The temescal is a complete bath facility incorporating areas for bathing, dressing, and relaxation. Direct heat derives from a stone fireplace, many traditionally lined with potshards set in mortar. The temescal is a permanent structure and is not to be confused with the now more familiar Native American sweat lodge.
Temescal-style bathhouses were standard features of Meso-American cities. The temescal simultaneously played (and plays) various roles: offering hygienic, magical, spiritual, rejuvenating, relaxation, and therapeutic services to bathers. Healing rituals were spiritual rituals; in a holistic system, the two are not distinct and cannot be separated.
Sweat lodges are a vital, popular Native American spiritual tradition. The sweat lodge is a sacred place, considered akin to a church. In general, they are small structures, often temporary and constructed as needed. People sit inside the tent-, womb- or cave-like structure; heated stones are bought within. Water is splashed onto the stones creating steam. Because the sweat lodge is smaller than bania or sauna, the physical experience can be particularly intense.
Information regarding the traditional temescal derives largely from Spanish records and sources. In 1567, Brother Duran, in the first written history of Mexico, described the temescal as a small hut heated with fire into which at most ten people will fit, although it was not high enough for the people to stand. (It was a womb-like structure into which people had to crawl in and out.)
An oven stood in the far corner. Baths were hot and dry, intended to make the bather sweat. This sweat bath was followed by a cold, water bath. Bathers were beaten with botanical switches, identifiably related to modern barrida cleansings of Mexican curanderas, which involve massaging the body with similar botanical switches. (See also BOTANICALS: Birch; DICTIONARY: Curandera.)
The Spanish did not approve of bathing, let alone spiritual rites connected with bathhouses, very clearly reminiscent of Pagan practices left at home. A sixteenth-century Spanish priest described temescal rituals:
The temescal’s attendant was simultaneously a healer, spiritual practitioner, and leader.
Ailing people offered copal incense to the “idol” within the temescal complex.
Both men and women frequented the temescal and were naked within the sweat house.
Those who enter the temescal come into direct contact with various spiritual beings, but most especially Tlazolteotl. Tlazolteotl, a witch goddess and the deity responsible for cleansing Earth and all her inhabitants, is credited with inventing the temescal. She is Matron of Midwives and Female Healers. The sweatbath was crucial for midwives and their clients. Babies were traditionally born in the temescal; pregnant, laboring, and recently delivered women frequented the temescal, too.
The temescal attendant, known today as a temescalera, was also traditionally a curandera skilled in herbal and spiritual therapies. Various herbal treatments were available, administered internally and externally. Those seeking to conceive but unable might request her assistance; the temescal was also considered beneficial for infertility.
According to one Codex, temescals were also dedicated to the Lord of Magic, the deity Tezcatlipoca.
The temescal tradition was almost entirely suppressed. Maintenance of the temescal or partaking of its services was equated with witchcraft and subject to the criminal penalties associated with witchcraft. Because the temescal is a permanent structure intended to serve a community it isn’t easily hidden, however the tradition was secretly and surreptitiously kept alive in remote locations.
Since the late twentieth century, there has been a revival of indigenous traditions and a subsequent revival of the temescal.
The most controversial place associated with witchcraft is the cemetery. Among the worst stereotypes propagated against witches is that they desecrate graves. The Classical Roman era equivalent of horror fiction depicted witches (striges) digging up, dismembering and sometimes consuming corpses for assorted reasons, all nefarious. That stereotype survived through the centuries and continues to plague modern witches. However it is nothing more than a stereotype and a false one at that. Witchcraft has nothing whatsoever to do with grave desecration.
And yet, much to the discomfort and embarrassment of many, including some witches, burial grounds have historically been associated with witchcraft. One must explore attitudes towards death and the after-Life to appreciate witchcraft’s associations with burial grounds.
Spiritual traditions aligned with witchcraft tend to see the world as filled with spiritual entities. Although these spirits are usually invisible, they are ever-present.
Birth is the gateway into the Realm of the Living
Death is the gateway into the Realm of the Dead
The cemetery is the threshold or crossroads where the Realms of Life and Death meet, intersect, and collide.
In terms of magical energy, thresholds and crossroads are the most powerful places of all. The cemetery is a place of exponentially charged magic power:
The cemetery is where one can access, absorb, and manipulate this magical energy
The cemetery is where one may contemplate mysteries of death and existence
The cemetery is where one can encounter ghosts and perform necromantic rituals (see MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy)
The cemetery is where one can commune with spirits, especially those who are guardians of this special crossroads
Just like human magical practitioners, it is believed that many spirits also seek to access the profound magical energy associated with burial grounds. Many types of spirits, such as Djinn, are believed to reside in cemeteries. Other spirits, like sidhe, trolls, and barrow-wights are believed to make their home inside ancient burial mounds.
These magical traditions hew very closely to mysteries of death and the after-Life, a topic many find disconcerting, historically as well as now. For this reason and others (the topic also borders closely on intensely sacred mysteries), these are not aspects of witchcraft and magic that are commonly or openly discussed. There is not even a simple term that defines this type of place: “cemetery” is limited and inadequate, as is “burial ground” which implies interment in Earth. Because death is such a profound threshold, any physical space or location intrinsically identified with it potentially possesses this threshold quality, and potentially generates exponential quantities of magical energy.
These places include cemeteries but also cremation grounds, barrow mounds, mausoleums, groves where the dead are buried, or where once upon a time corpses were hung from trees. Ruins or disaster zones where many people have died, especially violently or abruptly, are also classified among these places. Coffin factories that make traditional wooden coffins as well as funeral parlors and crematoria also generate this type of magical energy.
Trees historically associated with death, including alder, beech, cedar, cypress, elder, elm, hemlock, juniper, pine, willow, and yew, sometimes generate this type of power, particularly if there is a grove of these trees. (Groves of these types of trees sometimes indicate ancient and perhaps forgotten burial grounds. These trees were perceived as portals between realms of death and life and so particularly conducive towards easy transitions between them.)
The modern wooden coffin evolved from ancient spiritual devotion to trees. In some traditions, the dead were simply hung in trees but Neolithic hollowed-out tree trunks in which the dead were laid as in a wooden cradle have been discovered. This practice is reminiscent of the ancient myth of Osiris, whose coffin floated from Egypt to Syria, where it was grounded on tree roots. The tree enveloped and enclosed the coffin. Isis, searching desperately for her beloved’s body finally located it cradled within a cypress tree. (See DIVINE WITCH: Isis.)
Although there are certainly witches as squeamish as anyone, in general, because of affiliated spiritual philosophies, many witches do not find the topic of death distasteful. The cemetery is not a scary place but the place where one celebrates life and the links between those who reside in different realms. Many witches find burial grounds to be places of magical energy: witches venture to cemeteries, not to desecrate graves but to dance, hold rituals, perform divination, and cast spells.
A technique once common to Celtic and Germanic shamanism involved lying down on a tomb, either merely to rest meditatively or to actually sleep, in order to receive spiritual revelations and messages from beyond.
This identification of witches with burial grounds exists not only in Europe but also in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. (In many, although not all, Native North American traditions, the dead are not viewed as benevolent but as possessing an energy that can contaminate and poison the living. Those who spend time in burial grounds thus are considered with suspicion, as only harmful, malevolent energy is available to be harnessed. See MAGICAL ARTS: Healing.)
Among those spirits who live in the cemetery are Kali and Shiva. Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer, is envisioned leading a nocturnal parade of ghosts, spirits, and witches through cremation grounds. See DIVINE WITCH: Kali, Shiva.
Many traditions envision witches convening in cemeteries at night to dance, sing, cast spells, and make merry. Many traditions involve sharing meals with loved ones who have passed onto the next realm. Picnics are enjoyed graveside. These traditions survive in annual festivals of the dead. (See CALENDAR: Days of the Dead.) In these traditions, witches tend not to have negative associations with cemeteries, nor with darkness.
In contrast, from the earliest days of Christian Europe, to be observed in the graveyard, particularly after dark, was to be branded a witch (see FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Hans Christian Andersen: The Wild Swans). St Basil (c.329-January 1, 379) denounced “shameless women” who rendezvoused in graveyards for nightly revels. They sang, danced, and according to Basil, attracted “a swarm of young men to watch them.” (It’s also possible, although Basil doesn’t suggest it, that the young men were participating in rituals themselves and were not merely spectators.)
Everything that occurs naturally on Earth is believed to radiate some sort of magical energy, including Earth herself. Dirt is a common ingredient of magic spells in many traditions. Different kinds of dirt, dirt from different places, possess different magical energies. Among the most magically charged dirt of all is that within the cemetery.
Graveyard dirt, also called graveyard dust, is a common spell ingredient used for all kinds of purposes, both malevolent and benevolent. Graveyard dirt is a component of protection spells, fertility spells, good fortune and employment spells, as well as hexes. Exactly what constitutes graveyard dirt depends on personal perception:
Some consider any dirt from within the confines of a burial ground to be effective, magical graveyard dust
Some believe it must actually be dug out from a grave
Some perceive that there are different “grades” of graveyard dust. Thus any dirt from the cemetery counts as graveyard dust, however maximum strength graveyard dirt comes from within a grave—ideally as close as possible to the heart of the person buried in there.
Graveyard dirt is not just there for the taking, especially the closer one gets to an actual grave. Payment is usually offered to the spiritual guardians of the cemetery. Dirt taken from an actual grave belongs to the person buried there. One must pay or barter for it. Typical payment includes small cash payments (coins) or libations poured onto the grave, especially alcoholic beverages but basically anything that the deceased would favor.
See BOTANICALS: Alder, Elder, Elm, Juniper, Willow; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Dance of Death, Danse Macabre; DICTIONARY: Orisha; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Sidhe, Trolls.
Folk tales and blues songs recount journeys to crossroads. For those with a magical orientation, crossroads are the locations believed most conducive for successful spell-casting. Those of other orientations identify crossroads as the devil’s territory.
Exactly what are crossroads and what’s so special about them?
Despite all the legend and lore, superficially at least, crossroads are just intersecting roads. The most common varieties are three-way and four-way crossroads, although once in a while a five-way crossroad presents itself, as well as those offering even more roads to choose from. The “ways” of a crossroad indicate the possible number of available paths or choices: a three-way crossroad usually forms the shape of a “T” or “Y” while a four-way crossroad forms an “X” shape.
Magically speaking, of course, a “path” or “road” is more than just a cleared, paved street. Your “road” or “path” is also your destiny; literally and metaphorically, crossroads offer choices, change, opportunity and the ability to determine (or at least try to determine) one’s own future.
From a magical perspective, all energies converge and diverge at the crossroads.
Every type of spirit eventually passes the crossroads too, thus, if one has a little patience, it is the most likely place to encounter them. Journeying to a crossroads almost inevitably empowers magic spells and personal magical energy.
True magic involves manipulation of natural magical energy and power; the point where two lines intersect is considered especially powerfully charged, absolutely radiant with magical energy. After all, as they teach in elementary geometry, a line radiates from a point. The concept of the magically powerful crossroads exists virtually worldwide. It is common to a tremendous number of magical traditions.
Crossroads are prime arenas for casting magic spells. Crossroads are also associated with the safe and effective disposal of magically charged items. Spells often leave remnants, the equivalent of leftovers or garbage or, from an energy perspective, nuclear waste: these items include bits of candle wax, left-over food or fabric, the contents of now obsolete charm bags, and so forth. The spell isn’t complete until these items have been carefully and safely laid to rest.
Crossroads are the appropriate place to dispose of these items, whether by burying, dispersing them into the air or placing in a trash can, so that their energy safely dissipates or, conversely, so that their energy finds the correct path to accomplish its goal.
In many Latin American magical traditions, crossroads are the place to leave spiritually contaminated objects or objects that radiate dangerous magical energy, such as those associated with illness.
A literal crossroads is a conjunction of two roads. Midnight is a metaphoric crossroads in time. It’s where day meets night and is considered a very magically powerful moment. Time and space can converge to create one of the most powerful magical places of all: a crossroads at midnight, especially on a special magic night, say Halloween or Midsummer’s Eve. Journey to the crossroads during this time and tradition suggests that one will encounter ghosts and spirits. Expect the Wild Hunt and Fairy Host to troop past.
Witches and other magical practitioners desiring either to avail themselves of the natural radiant power or to dance with the spirits, linger at crossroads too, especially on those magically charged nights.
Witches weave their spells at crossroads, sometimes literally. In Slavic tradition, witches bring their looms and spindles to crossroads during the Full Moon, where they simultaneously spin thread, weave tapestries, and/or weave spells. These witches require privacy although they are not inherently harmful: anyone interrupting or accidentally witnessing them will find themselves bewitched to sleep. They’ll wake in the morning when the witches have gone.
Crossroads are understood to be populated by hosts of divergent spirits. However certain spirits are especially identified with crossroads and are often classified as “Crossroads Spirits” or “Gatekeepers.” Sometimes they’re called “Road Openers” too.
In magical parlance, these spirits “own the roads”; in plain English this means that these spirits provide and prevent opportunities and success. Those spirits who own roads permit or even encourage Opportunity to arrive at your door. Conversely, if displeased or in the mood for tricks, these spirits keep Opportunity far away, dooming one to stagnation at best, failure at worst.
Among the most famous road-owning spirits are Eshu-Elegbara, Hecate, Hermes, and Pomba Gira. (See DIVINE WITCH: Hecate, Hermes; HORNED ONE: Exu.) In general, three-way crossroads are associated with female spirits; four-way crossroads with male.
Once upon a time, back in ancient Greece, in order to contact Hermes one erected a cairn of stones at one of his crossroads. These cairns eventually evolved into monuments known as “herms.” The traditional herm was a monolith, a solid block of stone featuring a man’s head at the top and an erect phallus sticking out. (The oldest, simplest herms didn’t even bother with the head.) Traditional herms were very simple; eventually they incorporated artistic touches and were personalized to indicate the god whose power was embodied. Many herms are crowned by Hermes’ characteristic traveler’s hat, for instance. (Herms, as their name indicates, almost always portray Hermes; a few however depict Dionysus instead.)
Herms were the ancient equivalent of modern roadside shrines. Those who wished to beseech Hermes’ favor made offerings there. Women seeking personal fertility, which Hermes allegedly bestows, ornamented herms with floral garlands and wreathes as part of spiritual petition.
In ancient geometric symbolism, a T-shape reproduces the potent, sacred unification of male and female energies: the long vertical bar represents male genitalia, the horizontal bar, female. (The Y-shape is perhaps even more explicit: the vertical bar represents the phallus, the downward pointed “v” at the top is the vulva.)
In indigenous traditions of Meso-America, crossroads were considered dangerous places haunted by volatile and sometimes malicious spirits, notably the Aztec female warrior spirits, the Cihuateteo. The Cihuateteo are spirits of women who died in childbirth, understood as the equivalent of dying valiantly in battle. The Aztec after-Life was fairly dismal for most dead souls, but the valiant Cihuateteo were given the glorious role of escorting the sun on its downward passage through the sky. When not busy with these celestial chores, the Cihuateteo allegedly haunted crossroads where they were suspected of stealing children, seducing gullible men and then punishing them, and last but not least, causing seizures and madness. Shrines to appease and propitiate the Cihuateteo were often placed at major crossroads.
Once upon a time, crossroads were commonly accepted as places of magical and spiritual power. Although perhaps witches always had business to conduct there, crossroads were not originally identified solely as witchcraft places. This changed with Christianity’s rise to power. Appreciation of the crossroad’s volatile energy was retained, but crossroads were now considered sinister, threatening places where Pagan or anti-Christian forces held sway.
Herms were toppled and replaced with large crosses
Gallows were erected at crossroads; crossroads became venues for public hangings
Suicides or others forbidden church burial were buried at the crossroads, with the implication that crossroads were unhallowed ground
To be observed lingering (loitering) at a crossroads, especially after dark, was frequently considered a telltale sign of witchcraft and grounds for accusation
In witch-hunt era Europe, crossroads became defined specifically as witches’ territory
Witches were accused of attending sabbats held at crossroads
Crossroads were always the place to meet spirits; post-Christianity, they became identified as the place to meet the devil. Various rituals for meeting the devil or selling one’s soul to him involved journeying to the crossroads after dark. Allegedly the devil offered violin lessons at the crossroads. He held all-night parties at crossroads, where witches allegedly danced with demons, familiars, and damned souls.
The most famous modern legend regarding the devil and crossroads involves Delta bluesman Robert Johnson (died August 16, 1938), who allegedly sold his soul in exchange for musical power and talent at the intersection of US Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Other locations in Mississippi also claim to be the spot. In the twenty-first century this has evolved into a point of pride and humor but once upon a time, many people took this very seriously: people hurried past crossroads, fearful for their very souls.
Ancient Pagan crossroads spirits by nature tended to be affiliated with witchcraft and shamanism. In addition to opening those roads to opportunity, many of these spirits also cleared the way for spiritual and/or necromantic communication.
In many African-Diaspora traditions, Eshu-Elegbara must be approached before one can communicate with any other spirit: he is the doorkeeper to spiritual interaction. Hecate, on the other hand, reputedly patrols the borders between Life and Death, determining who passes and who doesn’t. Shamans traveling to the Realm of Death but expecting to return to Life would do well to court her favor and avoid her displeasure.
Post-Christianity, these spirits became particularly diabolized:
Hecate was considered a dread spirit rather than the grand goddess she had been previously.
Pomba Gira, the Afro-Brazilian spirit, seems to derive from a confluence of Iberian, Romany and Central African roots. (Pomba Gira is the crossroad where those three traditions meet.) Sometimes depicted as a she-devil complete with pitchfork, horns, and cloven hooves, she is often vilified and described as an evil, sexually deviant spirit.
The devil himself took on characteristics of male spirits like Hermes and Eshu. People reported encountering Satan at the crossroads, describing him as a suave bantering musician who walked with a limp or hobbled on a cane.
Despite efforts at denigration, crossroad magic remains a powerful, vital magical tradition, one never abandoned or forgotten. A particularly simple magical spell intended to dissipate personal stagnation and encourage the arrival of opportunity and good fortune suggests that one go to a crossroad (ideally not a busy traffic intersection but a nice, old-fashioned country crossroad) and just linger, allowing negative energy to disperse and positive energy to attach itself to you.
See BOTANICALS: Mandrake; CALENDAR: Halloween, Midsummer’s Eve, Time of Day; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Step of Wu; Films: Alraune; Music: Violin; DICTIONARY: Alraune; DIVINE WITCH: Dionysus; HORNED ONE: The Devil, Dionysus, Eshu-Elegbara, Hermes.
Once upon a time, vast primordial, dense forests covered much of Earth. Human settlements were but small clearings within forests; in order to reach another settlement, one had to pass through forests. The forest was not something rare, as it is today, but ever-present and familiar.
Many consider the forest to be witchcraft’s birthplace. It is certainly the place where the craft was nurtured. Dedicated solitary practitioners and spiritual seekers lived alone in the forest, discovering the powers of botanicals and mushrooms, learning to negotiate with animal powers and navigate the world of Spirits. These practitioners, among Earth’s first shamans, witches, and healers, shared their skills and knowledge with those who ventured into the forest. For these practitioners, the forest was home, shrine, and medicine cabinet all in one. But other visions of the forest exist, too.
In fact, there are various different visions of the forest. Here’s one: the forest is a wild place not under human control. This forest is a mysterious, uncontrollable realm where wild nature holds sway. Animals, trees, and spirits reign supreme, not people. The only way for people to control this forest is to destroy it.
That vision fills some with dread and others with awe. Many people, in the past and now at present, consider the forest a holy place, hallowed ground. Deep forests were and remain sacred shrines, places where people venture to pay obeisance to the Spirit World. Some consider the eradication of Europe’s forests to be a form of spiritual warfare, the equivalent of destroying temples, churches or shrines.
The hedge divides the forest from human settlements. The hedge is the realm of witches who mediate between domesticity and wilderness, the human realm and those others not under human control. (See HAG.)
Here’s another vision of the forest, one commonly found in fairy tales: the forest is a dangerous place filled with ravenous beasts, evil, malicious spirits, and wild, dangerous people. Murderers, thieves, and outlaws live in the forest; chief among these dangerous folk are witches.
Folktale forests are inhabited by ravenous, cannibal witches. Some initially seem innocuous and even helpful but that’s just part of their trap: the witch in the Brothers Grimm story Hansel and Gretel epitomizes this witch. (See FAIRYTALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Hansel and Gretel.) In addition to the potential dangers of getting hopelessly lost or being attacked by wild animals, you can’t even trust humans encountered in the wood. In fairy tales, benign little old ladies transform into evil killer witches lurking deep in the woods.
Here’s yet another vision of the forest: maybe Hansel and Gretel feared they’d wander lost in the woods for ever but historically people have valued the forest precisely because they could get lost in it. Sometimes “lost” is the safest place to be. Despite tales of Baba Yaga and other cannibal witches lurking in the woods, the forest has traditionally been a place of refuge. Many people have preferred taking their chances with the dangers in the forest rather than those dangers outside it.
Over the centuries many have entered the forest in hopes of evading human persecution. Sometimes they had no choice: in the Pagan Nordic legal tradition, those decreed “outlaws” were forbidden to live among people. Anyone was free to kill them.
Where else were they to go? Many found refuge in the woods, some living solitary lives, others creating outlaw communities, à la Robin Hood. Similarly, lepers once lived in colonies in European woods, forbidden to come out.
The forest is not under human control: laws, just or unjust, are often ignored
The forest is a great equalizer: inside the forest, rank matters less than survival skills
If the forest presents dangers to some, it has traditionally offered protection to others. Because after all, although living in the forest presents obvious challenges and dangers, sometimes so does living outside the forest. The most famous people to take refuge in a forest are Robin Hood and his band of merry men (merry women, too!) who found fun and safety in Sherwood Forest, but there are many others too, many much more recently:
The Maroons of the Caribbean and southern United States were escaped African slaves who established free communities in wild, remote, wooded places. (Maroon derives from the Spanish Cimarron and indicates “wild,” “unbroken,” “untamed.”)
The Netotsi (“Men of the Woods”) are escaped Romany slaves who found refuge and safety in a Carpathian maze of rocks and forests. (Romany were enslaved in Hungary and Transylvania as early as the fifteenth century, but the most brutal area of persecution was Moldavia and Walachia, now modern Romania, where two hundred thousand enslaved Romany were freed in 1855, just five years prior to the American Civil War.)
In 1941, when the Nazis began mass executions of Polish Jews, some fled to the Naliboki Forest to form combined refugee and resistance communities, eventually numbering over one thousand people including women and children. Other partisans of World War II also found safety and shelter in Europe’s forests.
While some suggest that the destruction of forests is akin to spiritual desecration, others suggest that it is a method of population control: without forests, where would people hide and resist persecution?
Going back several centuries, among those seeking refuge in forests were those who refused to accept the then-new Christian faith. Some rejected its spiritual precepts, preferring ancient ancestral traditions: priestesses, priests, and other devotees retreated into the woods. Others resisted new authority and rules: when Christianity banished spell-casting and magical traditions, some practitioners sought privacy and independence in the woods.
These people eventually came to be called witches and are among those dangerous people that fairy tales describe as populating the woods.
Forests have always been associated with witchcraft, whether witches live there or just visit. Forests were where botanical supplies were gathered and where one communed with wild forest spirits. Many spirits make their home in the forest, the most famous being witch-goddesses like Artemis, Diana, Faunus, Kybele, and Baba Yaga. (See DIVINE WITCH: Artemis, Baba Yaga, Diana, Kybele; HORNED ONE: Faunus.)
The forest is sometimes called the mother of witchcraft: according to one legend, the great goddess Kybele herself invented witchcraft in the forest. According to this myth, Kybele was born an unwanted female child, left abandoned and exposed to die in the Anatolian woods. Rather than kill her, the leopards that discovered the crying baby raised her and nurtured her, feeding her on their own milk. Kybele, the original Catwoman, grew up in the forest, away from all human contact, finally emerging as a strong, smart, competent, independent, magically empowered woman.
She discovered all the necessary components of witchcraft in the forest: botanicals, especially trees and roots, animals, and spirits. Kybele became a healer, a musician (inventing the flute and percussion instruments), a shaman, and the first witch. She was finally motivated to leave the forest (temporarily!) in order to teach other women her newfound skills.
Other spirits associated with forest include:
Arduinna, Mistress of the Forest, rides through the woods on a wild boar. The Romans equated this Gaulish (Celtic) lunar deity with Diana. The Ardennes, an extensively forested region primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg but also extending within France and Germany, is named in her honor. There is a powerful history of ironworking in the Ardennes region, and the Ardennes Forest was for a long time considered a bastion of Pagan tradition.
Meza Mate, Latvian “Mother of the Forest,” has dominion over wilderness and the animals that reside within. She also asserts dominion over those humans who make their living from the forest, presiding over the balance between the forest, animals, hunters, and woodcutters.
Ogun, West Africa’s sacred smith, is also Lord of the Forest where he maintains his forge. Ogun lives in a forest-compound together with a band of male spirits (collectively known as the “Warriors.”) These spirits include Elegba, Ochossi, and Osain, Lord of Botanicals. (See DIVINE WITCH: Ochossi; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers.)
Osain is a powerful sorcerer who knows all of Earth’s botanical secrets. He is described as having one eye and one arm. He hops around like a bird on his one leg. He does have two ears: one is huge but the other is tiny and shriveled up. The huge ear is deaf but the little one is so acute it can hear the sound of a single flower crying.
Osain sponsors botanists, herbalists, healers, pharmacists, and chemists. His sacred creatures include parrots, roosters, turtles, and goats. His sacred color is green. Osain expects offerings such as coins and tobacco from those who harvest forest botanicals.
Other forest spirits include Papa Bois, “Father Forest,” woodland guardian spirit from Trinidad and Tobago. See HORNED ONE: Papa Bois.
Osain, Ogun, and Arduinna are individual spirits; the forest is also home to various bands of roving spirits including Leshii, Rusalka, and Vila. Many of these wild nature spirits are among those classified as Fairies.
In general, these spirits are identified with the balance of nature and traditionally mediated between the needs of people and the needs of forest animals, trees, and other botanicals. They regulate hunters, woodcutters, and those who harvest wild plants. Once upon a time (and still today for some) these actions were not performed without accompanying spiritual ritual.
Perhaps it is understandable that those who no longer maintained those traditions perceived these spirits as threatening. Why would those spirits look upon them with favor?
However, those maintaining those old traditions, who respected the spirits and continued to venerate the forest as holy territory had no reason to fear. If some legends tell of people killed or pursued by Vila, other legends describe Vila dancing with devotees in moonlit glades, performing miracle cures, and offering shamanic lessons.
Similar spirits closely identified with forests include the Skogsfruar (Swedish: “forest wives”). These are described as manifesting in the form of beautiful, naked women who mysteriously appear in the forest, often joining men at campgrounds, luring them deeper into the woods, from whence they never return. (Because they’ve met with foul play or because they’re too happy to leave is unknown.) “Forest wife” is also sometimes a euphemism for “witch” and it is not entirely clear if all these Skogsfruar are spirits or whether some are human forest dwellers.
Yakshas also take the form of beautiful women but they are spirits inhabiting the forests of India. They protect hidden forest treasure, especially that concealed beneath tree roots. Yakshas distract treasure hunters as well as other intruders in the woods. Men pursue them deeper into the forest where the Yakshas suddenly transform into trees, leaving the men hopelessly—and fatally—lost.
Sometimes specific forests are identified with witchcraft:
The Iarnvid (Iron Wood) is the legendary forest of Teutonic mythology, a deep, dark forest of iron trees at the very edge of the world, home of a witch clan feared by deities and mortals alike presided over by their matriarch, witchgoddess Angerboda. Wolves and witches make their home in the Iron Wood. (Iron Wood may be meant literally and/or mythically. Iron has profound associations with witchcraft, and in Northern Europe, iron trees also indicate strong, powerful oaks.) See DIVINE WITCH: Angerboda; HAG: Angerboda.
The New Forest in Hampshire, England was created by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a royal deer-hunting preserve. His son, William Rufus, was killed in a suspicious accident while hunting there. Rufus is among those that witchcraft scholar Margaret Murray identifies as sacred, sacrificed kings. (See HALL OF FAME: Margaret Murray.)
The New Forest figures prominently in the history of modern witchcraft and Wicca. Similar to the tale of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest (also a royal preserve), the New Forest was a refuge for smugglers, outlaws, and especially witches. Various covens allegedly made their home in the woods. Gerald Gardner, father of modern Wicca, claimed to have been initiated into one of these New Forest covens in 1939 by Old Dorothy Clutterbuck.
The word “forest” now indicates a deeply wooded region. Forest in the medieval English sense of that word, however, originally indicated a hunting reserve: a legally defined area, subject to special laws, where “beasts of the chase” were protected and reserved for royal pleasure. (Beasts of the chase usually means deer and boar, both once present in the New Forest.) Although most of the New Forest is forested in the conventional sense of being a thickly wooded region, a substantial percentage also includes bogs and open heath.
In addition to witches, the New Forest was also home for various Romany bands; there had long been interaction between the two communities. The most famous witch associated with the New Forest is Sybil Leek, who lived within in the forest with the Romany, studying many of their traditions. Leek grew up in the area, became High Priestess of a New Forest coven, and claimed that the forest was home to four covens surviving since the days of William Rufus. (See also Grove; HALL OF FAME: Gerald Gardner, Sybil Leek; WITCHCRAZE!: England: Pendle Forest Witches.)
A natural grotto is a small cave, usually located near water (ocean or spring) and subject to flooding or liable to flood at high tide. A grotto may be a real cave or an artificial recess or structure created to resemble one. Although some grottoes are very small, others are the size of a good-sized room and can accommodate a small throng (at least at low tide!).
The English word “grotto” derives from an Italian word (grotta), which in turn derives from the Latin crypta meaning “cavern” or “crypt.” Caves in general are associated with uterine imagery but natural grottos—wet, fluid-filled caves—are even more intensely identified with Earth’s womb, resembling a pregnant womb filled with amniotic fluids. Tidal patterns of water flowing in and out of grottoes are equally reminiscent of women’s lunar, menstrual mysteries. It’s no wonder that grottoes were considered sacred, power-charged places, identified with mermaids and other spirits. Dionysus was born in a grotto.
Grottoes thus had natural affiliation with witchcraft and various female spiritual traditions. Many were believed under the protection of powerful female spirits; this tradition survived post-Christianity. No doubt the pirates and smugglers who favored grottoes for caching their treasures made sure those legends stayed alive to discourage trespassers.
Ancient people transformed natural grottoes into sacred shrines and chapels. Some contained mineral springs and may be understood as primordial bathhouses. (See page 645, Bathhouse.) Although many are naturally very beautiful, grottoes were also ornamented with altars, statues, and paintings. Italian grottoes, in particular, were decorated with images of intertwining vines, floral garlands, and fanciful creatures.
Not all grottoes occurred naturally, although the first ones did. Creating artificial grottoes was a popular fad during the French and Italian Renaissance, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ancient ornamented Italian grotto-shrines had been unearthed and served as inspiration.
These artificial grottoes were recreations of Pagan shrines. The outside was usually designed to resemble a rocky cave: the inside was decorated with a combination of natural and mythic features. Ceramic stalactites and stalagmites enhanced the natural cave ambience: walls might be covered with seashells, both real and crafted from ceramics. Images of mermaids, spirits of the classical age and herms decorated the interior. Many contained fountains, intended to resemble sacred springs. Some of these grottoes served as conventional baths or chapels but others were rumored used for secret Pagan and witchcraft rites.
This type of architecture and interior design associated with grottoes was called “grotesque.” Grotesque is now most frequently understood to mean hideous but that was a reaction to changing styles. Originally grotesque merely indicated this type of painted, ornamented cave characterized by fanciful human and animal forms typically interwoven with foliage.
From the start, witches were associated with grottoes, both natural and artificial, and the grotesque style, especially Circe, the beautiful island-dwelling sorceress, and the Sibyls, who prophesized from within caves. Mountain witches Sibilla and Tante Arie might also be considered grotto-goddesses. (See DIVINE WITCH: Circe, Sibilla, Tante Arie.)
Eventually grottoes, their Pagan associations and grotesque style fell from fashion, but the word “grotesque” remained attached to witches while developing other, very negative connotations. When people heard witches described as grotesque they misunderstood and envisioned them as physically hideous, when literally what it indicates are witches festooned with garlands, seashells, and perhaps a mermaid’s tail or two.
Natural grottoes remain identified with witchcraft, for example, the Gruta das Bruxas (“Witches’ Grotto”) found near the village of Sao Thome das Letras, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The village is now a popular New Age travel destination, particularly for those fascinated by UFOs. Another nearby feature is the Cachoeira das Bruxas or “Witches’ Waterfall.”
The notion of the “sacred grove” is familiar to many people, if only because of the many complaints about them in the Bible. Groves are clusters of sacred trees: they may stand alone as an isolated group of trees, or sometimes as a designated cluster of trees within a larger, encompassing forest. Some groves might consist of no more than a small clump of trees; others, like the one dedicated to the oracular spirit Daphne in what is now Turkey, were large, imposing complexes and might be understood as a small forest. Sacred groves were once also located near lake shrines, such as that dedicated to the goddess Angitia. (See DIVINE WITCH: Angitia.)
The crucial difference between “grove” and “forest” isn’t size; historically some groves were quite extensive. Forests, however, are theoretically wild, untouched, natural places filled with magical energy; grove implies that the area has been consecrated.
Tree-centered spirituality is among the most primordial forms of religion. Among the earliest sacred images was that of a tree entwined by a snake or the combined features of a tree and woman. Some of the most ancient goddesses, like Artemis, Lady Asherah, and Hathor, were worshipped in the forms of trees. These fertile tree-goddesses were the original trees of life. (See BOTANICALS: Trees; DIVINE WITCH: Artemis; HORNED ONE: Hathor.)
Groves were associated with Pagan spiritual traditions in general and women’s spiritual traditions specifically. The Bible repeatedly complains of women journeying to “high places” to worship Asherah in her groves.
Sacred groves existed throughout Europe and the British Isles, and also in the Middle East, Anatolia, North Africa, throughout India, the Himalayas, the Caucasus Mountains, Indonesia, and East and West Africa. The city of Vienna arose around a sacred grove.
Groves were a very specific group of trees and so were extremely vulnerable to being cut down. Powerfully associated with Paganism, many were destroyed in the often-violent transition between Paganism and Christianity. The Roman Emperor Theodosius II (April 401—July 28, 450) issued an edict directing that all surviving groves be cut down except those already appropriated for purposes compatible with Christianity. (A few became monastery gardens and churchyards.)
The Grove of Aricia
Groves were dedicated to those deities now known as Queens of Witches: the Grove of Aricia within the Forest of Nemi was dedicated to Diana and is located approximately 16 miles east of Rome in the Alban Hills. The name Nemi derives from the Latin nemus or “sacred grove.”
The grove overlooks Lake Nemi, a circular, volcanic crater. The lake was known as Diana’s Mirror. Once upon a time, her temple stood amidst the sacred grove. The reflection of the full moon in the mirror-still lake could clearly be observed from the Temple.
Diana’s shrine combined various locations associated with magical power: forest, grove, hill—and a grotto, too. A stream flowed into the lake from a sacred grotto near Diana’s Temple. The entire Forest of Nemi was under Diana’s dominion. Diana had broad powers: she was a lunar, fire, and water goddess with dominion over magic, witchcraft, women and children, fertility, hunting, and wild animals. In addition, Diana was a Matron of Slaves and Outlaws; many sought and found refuge in her forest.
The shrine was the equivalent of Diana’s home: she lived in the shrine together with her male consort, the horned spirit Virbius, and her friend, the mermaid Egeria.
Very little is now known about ancient Teutonic goddess traditions; the Teutonic tribes left no writing and descriptions. What little is known derives from writings by outsiders to their culture—Pagan Romans and Christian missionaries.
Among the little that is known (mainly from Roman sources) involves the grove of the goddess Herta on Rügen Island. (See DIVINE WITCH: Herta.) Rügen Island, the largest of the German islands, is located in the Baltic Sea, off the northwest coast of Pomerania. It was once covered with beech forests.
A deep black lake on Rügen Island was surrounded by woods. Herta’s sacred grove was allegedly by the lakeside. Although she has not been actively worshipped for centuries, Herta’s association with Rügen Island, her stronghold where Odin once came courting her, remains powerful. The lake is still called Hertha Lake. Ruins of a castle (“Hertha Castle”) are located nearby, not far from the Stubbenkammer (Slavonic for “rock steps”), a sheer chalk cliff. Some believe that these remnants are what is left of the goddess’ sacred shrine. The area remains wooded.
According to reports, the statue of the goddess Herta was ritually removed from the shrine and bathed in the lake several times a year. Herta’s rites were secret and little else is known. (Whether they were always secret or whether secrecy increased under Roman threat is also unknown.) Allegedly most ritual attendants were drowned following fulfillment of their tasks, although whether as sacrifices to Herta or whether to maintain secrecy (to make sure they’ll never reveal her secrets) is also now unknown.
Although no longer actively worshipped, Herta has apparently not abandoned her old hometown. According to local lore, on Full Moon nights, a beautiful woman emerges from the woods and bathes in the lake accompanied by female attendants. Once in the water, sometimes they become invisible but still can be heard splashing about. These specters eventually reappear, emerge from the water and disappear into the woods. The bathers do not welcome company and it is considered dangerous to observe them: allegedly observers feel magnetically drawn to enter the deep lake where they then drown. (Local rumor suggests that at least one person drowns annually.)
Rügen, populated since at least 4000 BCE, was an important center of the ancient amber trade and as such was highly desirable real estate. (Among other stories related to Rügen Island is that it is Apollo’s original birthplace; Greek mythology sometimes describes him as coming from “the North.” The theory is that the Greeks encountered Apollo via amber trade routes.) It changed ownership many times over the centuries.
The Teutonic tribes were eventually displaced by Slavs, who considered the entire island to be sacred territory, and the groves in particular to be sacred to their war deity, Svantovit, revered by Balts and Slavs alike. (The name Rügen derives from the Slavic tribe, the Rugieris.) The island was also sacred to another Slavic deity, the seven-headed, sword-wielding war god Rugeviet, whose name literally means “Master of Rügen.” He had a sacred grove of rowan trees, his sacred tree.
Rügen remained among the very last bastions of European Paganism. Active Pagan worship continued openly throughout the twelfth century before it was violently suppressed.
Saterland is a region now within North West Germany close to the Dutch border. It contained an alder grove on an island deep in the Frisian moors that served as a witches’ dance ground and was allegedly a popular destination for witches and wizards from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
Not all sacred groves are ancient history: some are living, vital traditions. In the 1950s, Austrian architect, painter and sculptor Suzanne Wenger arrived in Oshogbo (Osogbo), Nigeria. She married a traditional drummer and became deeply involved in the indigenous spiritual traditions of the region, eventually becoming a priestess of the orishas Obatala and Oshun.
When Wenger arrived, Oshun’s shrine and grove were in disrepair. Nigeria is now equally split between Christianity and Islam and indigenous sacred sites, for a variety of reasons, were neglected. Wenger and the local community set about re-building and revitalizing the shrine. Gates, walls, and Wenger’s sacred sculptures were installed. An annual festival honoring Oshun, attracting thousands from worldwide, is held every August in her Sacred Grove. Festivities last for nine days, the ninth day featuring a mass pilgrimage to the Oshun river. Although the grove is sacred to devotees and served by priestesses, it has also become a primary tourist attraction in the region.
Various places on Earth have developed reputations as being particularly associated with witchcraft. Ancient Greeks associated Thessaly, Thrace, and Etruria as lands of magic. Lucius, hero of the second-century CE novel The Golden Ass, opens his adventures by explaining that he is in the very heart of Thessaly, which he describes as “world-famous as the birthplace of incantations.”
Some places remain associated with magic and witchcraft.
Benevento, Italy is known as the City of the Witches. In some circles, Benevento’s very name is synonymous with witchcraft.
Midway between Rome and Naples, Benevento is located in the Sabato Valley, a natural basin beneath Italy’s Apennine Mountains. In antiquity, Benevento was an important, significant city. The Romans named it Beneventum (literally “Good” or “Happy Event” but implying “Good Omen”) in 275 BCE following a military victory here, the first of several.
Benevento has been the capital of southern Lombardy and an enclave of the Papal State. It joined the Italian Republic in 1860. From its earliest history Benevento has been identified with witchcraft. Local legend suggests that not only did Benevento harbor a community of powerful witches, other witches traveled from far away to join in rituals and celebrations.
The “Walnut Witches” of Benevento allegedly conducted rituals and held their sabbats beneath a huge walnut tree near the town. Allegedly witches have gathered about the walnut trees of Benevento since that old time immemorial: one particular tree, however, the Walnut Tree of Benevento, was particularly ancient and allegedly always in full leaf. Its walnuts were auspiciously shaped and served as amulets. It was the largest tree in the valley and witches rendezvoused under it. Rituals dedicated to Diana, Nyx, and Proserpina were conducted in the darkness that resulted from the old tree’s deep shade.
Benevento allegedly remained a Pagan stronghold long after Christianity’s rise to power.
In 662 CE, St Barbato, a local Christian, converted the ruling Duke of Benevento to Christianity. Previously the Duke had been a Pagan and allegedly joined in rituals beneath the walnut tree himself.
Barbato convinced him to cut the witches’ tree down. Various stories recount what happened next: one version says a church was built on the site, another that the tree replanted itself and grew back so quickly that it was considered an omen and left alone. The most popular version of events says that the witches replanted the tree from one of its own nuts but in another secret location. Allegedly they danced around it during the witch-hunt era and dance around it still.
In Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches (see BOOKS: Grimoires), the name Benevento is synonymous with witches’ sabbat.
Folklorist Charles G. Leland, an authority on Italian witchcraft and compiler (or author) of Aradia, describes the Benevento witches as “good witches” renowned for healing the sick and providing for the poor.
According to the records of the Spanish Inquisition, Sicilian fairy-witches claimed to fly, at least in spirit, to witches’ sabbats held under the walnut tree of Benevento.
The witches’ liqueur Strega was invented here. The label features a picture of Benevento’s dancing Walnut Witches.
Chiloé Island, located 500 miles south of Santiago off Chile’s Pacific coast, is culturally very different from the rest of Chile and perhaps from anywhere else on Earth. A unique culture has developed on this small archipelago of islands at the world’s end, accessible by an approximately 45-minute ferry crossing from the mainland. The seas around Chiloé are stormy, rough, and dangerous, thus until recently the trip was avoided unless necessary.
Chiloé, known as the “Enchanted Island,” is famed for its old wooden churches and because legend claimed that it was once inhabited and ruled by witches. People used to avoid Chiloé for fear of witchcraft; now its magical aura is a draw for tourists.
Originally inhabited by the Mapuche, an indigenous people of Chile and Argentina, the Spanish landed here in 1553 and occupied the island until 1567. Jesuits built the wooden churches around the island’s perimeter so that missionaries from Peru could “visit.” This was optimistic: in fact, priests rarely visited Chiloé due to a combination of political turmoil, armed resistance from the Mapuche, reluctance to navigate the stormy seas, and, not least, Chiloé’s location at what seems the end of Earth.
A Spanish population was settled on the island and left to “civilize” the Mapuche. After a violent earthquake in 1646, these settlers begged permission to leave the island, but their request was denied by the Jesuit authorities who insisted they stay among the Mapuche.
The Spanish and Mapuche populations were left together in isolation; to the fascination of scholars, historians, and anthropologists, the Chilotes, as the local population is called, developed a very unique occult folklore. It is unclear how much of this folklore is indigenous to the island, how much was imported by the Spanish settlers, and how much is the result of a merger of the two cultures.
Old, persistent rumors suggest that Chiloé is ruled by a secret cabal of powerful witches. Attitudes toward the witches are somewhat ambiguous; on the one hand, there is an ancient indigenous goddess tradition on Chiloé. Witches serve as priestesses of this ocean goddess, Pincoya, and mediate with her to provide safety and prosperity for islanders. Allegedly, merchants who make contracts with the witches prosper, too. However, much of Chiloé’s witch lore is exceedingly negative and would not be out of place amongst the fantasies of Europe’s most virulent witch-hunters. Legends depict local witches as grotesque in the absolute most negative sense of that word. (See page 661, Grotto.)
Chiloé’s witches fly and shape-shift. They can raise or lower the sea level at will. They control the tides. Witches plot and scheme and cause death, disaster, illness and assorted mayhem, mischief, and mishaps.
Chiloé is allegedly home to a unique type of witch known locally as La Voladora or “the flying woman.” No broomsticks for La Voladora; instead she transforms into a bird. In order to fly, La Voladora must lighten her body so that it functions like a bird’s: to accomplish this, she vomits up her intestines into a zapa, a wooden pan, which is then hidden in the forest. (Alternately she vomits into an empty mollusk shell.) She then transforms into a bird and takes flight.
The witch’s flight must be concluded by dawn. La Voladora must return to her intestines and swallow them again before the first rays of sunrise if she ever hopes to regain her human nature. Should she be unable to reach her intestines in time, or should someone hide them, La Voladora must fly ceaselessly for a year and then die.
Another version of the legend of La Voladora suggests that she doesn’t really fly: the witch merely lies on the ground while making flying motions. No, it’s not a shamanic soul-journey: instead, while she’s going through the motions, the devil flies in her place. (An even less pleasant alternative suggests that witches create special jackets from the flayed skins of virgins, enabling them to fly.)
The witches’ other methods of travel may be preferable:
Caballo Marino (the sea horse) is a horse with a golden mane. It is so large that it can comfortably carry 13 witches at a time. All a witch has to do is whistle for it and Caballo Marino comes; slap it on the rear and it departs.
The witches also possess a ghost ship, which rides over or under water like a magical submarine.
The witches’ headquarters are maintained in a cave, rumored to be in Quecavi, a village on the eastern side of the island. (Other legends suggest that rumors of witches’ caves kept nosy neighbors from exploring smugglers’ stashes.) The cave is guarded by the Imbauche or Invunche, the witches’ sentry. Witches allegedly kidnap babies, preferably first-born males, whom they then deform hideously, breaking the baby’s right foot and then binding it to the left shoulder so that the baby can never escape. (This mimics the way witches were often bound during European witch-trial ordeals.) The Imbauche is entirely dependent on the witches for sustenance; in exchange, he is forced to guard their caves.
Salem, Massachusetts, is called the “Witch City” and for good reason. Based on Hollywood movies and popular literature versions of witchcraft, one would think every witch came from Salem or had an ancestor that was burned there. One might even think that witchcraft hysteria began and ended in Salem, which is absolutely not true. In the scope of hundreds of years of witch hunting, Salem was not even unique: more people were killed in longer panics elsewhere. Nor was it uncommon for young girls claiming to be bewitched to accuse others of witchcraft both in Europe and elsewhere in the American colonies, just as occurred in Salem.
Be that as it may, the witchcraft panic in Salem has gripped the public imagination like no other witch panic. It is extensively taught in American schools, and is the subject of countless books and movies and an award-winning play—see CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: The Crucible.
Those who journey to Salem will discover that its witchcraft history is not ignored but is a crucial part of the local economy; many sites, both historical and entertainment-oriented, are devoted to various visions of witchcraft.
The first thing one must realize is that there are two Salems: Salem Village and Salem Town. The historical center of witchcraft hysteria was in Salem Village, a parish of Salem Town. Following the notoriety (and subsequent embarrassment) of the witch trials, Salem Village, changed its name to Danvers. Thus most of the surviving historical sites associated with the hysteria are really located in Danvers, approximately 17 miles north of Boston.
The Salem Village Historic District of Danvers has several properties related to the witch trials that are accessible to the public, including the home and burial place of Rebecca Nurse (who was among those executed) and of Ann Putnam (one of the “bewitched girls”), as well as the Salem Village Parsonage, where Salem’s witchcraft hysteria began. (This was home for Reverend Samuel Parris’ family and his slave Tituba, the first person in Salem to confess to witchcraft. Also living here at an earlier time was Reverend George Burroughs, Parris’ predecessor, who was convicted of witchcraft and hanged.)
Other sites of interest in Danvers include:
The Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial, dedicated in 1992 to commemorate those who died during the witchcraft hysteria. It sits opposite the site of the old Salem Village Meeting House, scene of many of the witchcraft examinations. The monument includes the names of those who died as well as final statements of eight of those executed.
The Ellerton J. Brehaut Witchcraft Collection, housed at the Danvers Archival Center, a department of the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers. This is a collection of printed materials, including many original documents, devoted to the Salem witch trials. The collection includes the signature mark of Giles Corey, pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea and stand trial.
Most people associate the township of Salem with the historic events that occurred at Salem Village. In addition, popular media used the name “Salem” in all kinds of explorations and exploitations of witchcraft, so that many people assumed that Salem remained a city filled with witches. Over the years, people flocked there for a variety of disparate, contradictory reasons including historical research, thrills, and pilgrimages. A substantial and growing Wiccan population is now also based in Salem.
Although historic sites are found in Danvers, locations geared for students and tourists are mainly in Salem, including the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, featuring a reenactment of a witch trial based on actual trial transcripts and a guided tour of a recreated dungeon, and the Witch History Museum, offering a guided tour of fifteen scenes recreating the panic of 1692. In addition, the Salem Witch Village offers a guided tour on the subject of witchcraft. Created in conjunction with contemporary witches, the Village hosts ongoing programs and events relating to themes magic, Paganism, and witchcraft that are open for public participation.
Halloween/Samhain in Salem is now a major tourist destination; hotels are reserved months in advance. Salem is filled with special seasonal activities:
Haunted Happenings is an annual three-week Halloween festival featuring many family-oriented activities (see www.hauntedhappenings.org).
The annual Festival of the Dead, founded by Salem witch elders Shawn Poirier and Christian Day, explores death’s mysteries through haunting events that investigate both the favored and forbidden ways in which cultures have revered, celebrated, and secretly divined the meaning of life’s inevitable destination. Events include a dumb supper, séances, psychic fair and witches’ exposition, and, for children, Ms. Firefly’s School of Spirit Conjuration (www.festivalofthedead.com).
Further information regarding the Witch City may be found at www.hauntedsalem.com.
Adjacent to Salem’s Old Burying Point is the Witch Trials Memorial erected in memory of those who suffered in Salem in 1692; it’s open to the public.
Siquijor Island is located between the large Visayan Islands of Mindanao and Negros in the Philippines and may be reached via ferry. Siquijor, described as the “Island of Sorcerers,” is feared by many Filipinos as a source of malevolent, evil magic.
Two opposing viewpoints exist regarding Siquijor Island, depending upon one’s spiritual perspective. Either it is home to a sophisticated, magical system deeply rooted in indigenous pre-Colonial traditions, or it is the home of evil practices and malevolent magic.
Attitudes toward the magical traditions of Siquijor and its practitioners are comparable to attitudes toward Hoodoo and New Orleans Voodoo in the United States. However, many Siquijor witchcraft activities are reminiscent of Sweden’s Easter witches and Russian witchcraft.
Similar to Swedish Easter witches, the primary witchcraft activity on Siquijor occurs on the Eve of Good Friday. Healers, practitioners, shamans, and witches allegedly gather botanicals during Holy Week before converging on San Antonio Mountain, the highest peak on the island on Good Friday Eve. The mananambals (indigenous shamans and healers) craft their brews on their sacred mountain on Good Friday Eve: ingredients are added to a large cauldron or kawa. While it brews, the night is devoted to spiritual and magical rituals; then the brew is apportioned to the various practitioners.
Holy Week evolves into an unofficial “Witches’ Festival” during which practitioners and healers from various parts of the Phillipines and elsewhere converge on Siquijor Island. Russian witches travel to Bald Mountain to gather herbs on Midsummer’s Eve: allegedly botanicals picked at this time in this place possess maximum magical power. Likewise, practitioners journey to Siquijor during this time to gather botanicals, especially healing medicinal plants. (Allegedly some plants are only available on Siquijor.)
Powerful shamanic and botanical healing traditions survive in Siquijor. Botanical potions are bottled in oil, reminiscent of Hoodoo preparations, themselves reminiscent of magical concoctions from ancient Egypt. For instance, haplos, a healing ointment, is crafted from over 100 herbs steeped in coconut oil in large empty liquor bottles.
Siquijor witches allegedly cast hexes and turn tricks, not dissimilar in style from those of the Southern United States. Malevolent spells are cast using intimate items belonging to the spell’s target (pieces of clothing, hair, fingernail clippings, and the like). The concept of “live things” introduced into a victim’s body by a malevolent practitioner also exists, although the techniques used are allegedly different. (See MAGICAL ARTS: Healing.)
Some villagers boast of the island’s witches and perceive its reputation for witchcraft as beneficial, crediting Siquijor’s low crime rate to fear of witches; others deny their existence, claiming these stories are all innuendo and superstition. Others acknowledge that historically there were witches but all have since been killed. (An elderly couple was killed in the 1960s when their house was dynamited. Allegedly neighbors feared the couple’s relationship with spirits.) Still others suggest that the witches still exist, living quietly and discreetly in mountain caves.
Envision a time and place with no shopping malls, no department stores, and no main streets lined with stores. Envision a time and place with no mail-order catalogs and no online shopping. Now, in that context, envision the magic of the traditional marketplace, another place intrinsically associated with witchcraft.
The marketplaces traditionally associated with witchcraft aren’t modern shopping malls or strip malls; instead they are traditional markets where merchants brought their wares to sell and trade. This type of market might be considered a crossroads: it is where different people’s lives intersected. (And in fact, historically many markets were held at crossroads. These markets didn’t have fixed locations: vendors converged on schedule at a particular location, essentially bringing the market with them. The easiest, most convenient place to meet was frequently a crossroads.)
Once upon a time, and still in some places, the marketplace was a realm where women held sway. This remains true in rural West Africa. Women man the marketplace, buying, selling, and trading.
Services are also commonly found in the traditional marketplace: healers, diviners, body artists (tattoo and henna artists as well as piercers), story-tellers, and entertainers also offer their services, as do craftsmen like ironsmiths and other artisans who do repair-work and commissions as well as sell goods. This type of traditional market survives amongst the souks of North Africa and the Middle East as well as elsewhere, but once existed around the world.
The marketplace is identified with witchcraft for two reasons:
The more obvious reason is that for centuries, the marketplace was where one could obtain the services of a witch, magical healer or fortune-teller. It was where stories and information was circulated; instruction in various traditions could also be obtained.
It was also where witches and other practitioners obtained supplies. (The marketplace thus is the replacement for the forest.) The marketplace is the location where practitioners could meet, socialize, and trade techniques and secrets.
The less obvious reason has to do with the magical energy generated by the marketplace. The marketplace is the equivalent of a crossroads: anything can theoretically happen in the marketplace, it is a world of possibility and opportunities, either to be won or lost. Fortunes may also be won or lost. The excitement of the marketplace, the high emotions and interaction between so many people generates a powerful magical energy that spirits love and upon which they thrive. Spirits hover at the marketplace and thus witches and magical practitioners do too.
Many traditional cultures believe witches deliberately linger in the marketplace, absorbing the magical energy generated by impassioned trading and bargaining to enhance their own power.
Just as human women are believed to rule the physical marketplace, its spiritual rulership is overseen by powerful female spirits:
Ferronia, Italy’s ancient shamanic goddess now wanders through traditional markets in the guise of a shabby old hag. Don’t be fooled by her humble appearance: she remains the spiritual queen of the marketplace.
Oya, the orisha of storm winds and cemeteries exerts authority over the marketplace too. Shopkeepers wishing to improve business and profits are advised to petition this powerful orisha and leave her offerings every Thursday.
There are also markets specifically devoted to witchcraft. These witchcraft markets are where practitioners obtain botanical and other supplies. (They are also popular with tourists.) Among the most world-famous witchcraft markets are the Witchcraft Market (Mercado de Hechiceria) in Mexico City, and the Witches’ Market (Mercado de Brujas) of La Paz, Bolivia.
See DICTIONARY: Orisha; DIVINE WITCH: Feronia; HORNED ONE: Oya.
Witches revel. But where do they revel? According to widespread European folklore, witches hold their parties and perform sacred rituals atop hills and mountains.
This actually makes sense if one considers witchcraft’s ancient origins: in days of yore, before maps, sat-nav and road signs (and sometimes even roads), the easiest places to rendezvous were those characterized by obvious geographic features—crossroads for instance. Once upon a time, roads often only intersected in only one place and so a crossroads couldn’t be missed. All you had to do was keep walking until you arrived. Other popular meeting points including standing stones, large barrow mounds or similar unique monuments and, of course, the highest point in the area.
The highest point in the area is a vantage point: it has an obvious advantage.
Those already in attendance can see exactly who’s approaching, crucial during the witchhunt era when festivities, rites, and revelry were forbidden and threatened by legal persecution. Many of the mountains associated with witchcraft combine features: they are also forested and dotted with caves. If the wrong people crashed the party, devotees might have the opportunity to find safety within these caves and forests.
Mountains and hills are more than that, however: they are also sacred places, the places on Earth closest to the Heavens. The Bible continually complains of people traveling to “high places” to worship “foreign gods.” The practice has never ended.
There are a tremendous number of these places. Some (Bald Mountain, The Brocken) are very famous: allegedly witches flew from all over the world to attend the massive festivities held there. Others are only of local repute. The ones listed here are but the tip of the iceberg.
Bald Mountain is perhaps the most famous “witches’ peak” on Earth. The name is sometimes used generically to indicate any mountain associated with witchcraft, however, the original Bald Mountain is in the Ukraine.
Bald Mountain is a nickname for Mount Triglav near Kiev, also called Bare Mountain. Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian witches, plus those from much further afield, allegedly applied ointment to their bodies and rode broomsticks, pitchforks or chimney pokers up chimneys to journey to Bald Mountain, especially on Midsummer’s Eve, known in Russia as the Feast of Ivan Kupalo.
Bald Mountain is more than just a place to hold a party, however: Bald Mountain was a pilgrimage point for collecting magical supplies. Witches and others journeyed to Bald Mountain on Midsummer’s Eve because that was the sole time and place where one could collect Earth’s most magical plants. The fact that they were collected at the magical conjunction of Bald Mountain and Midsummer’s Eve (space and time) was what gave these plants their immense power.
Bald Mountain is crucial to the concept of the Russian magical plant. According to the tenets of Russian botanical magic, it isn’t sufficient for a plant to be of a magical species. For instance, in other parts of Europe rowan or elder is innately powerful: any rowan twig possesses incredible power. Obviously it can be enhanced through ritual and spell-casting, however the plant itself is inherently powerful.
Not so with Russian magical plants. It is not the species alone that creates power. For maximum power, a botanical must be picked at a specific place and time, and often specific rituals and incantations must be incorporated for magical activation. Rituals and incantations may vary but the best place and time is invariably Bald Mountain on Midsummer’s Eve. This is true for witches but also for anyone wishing to obtain such a plant: one must go and gather among the witches, a civilian amongst priestesses.
Bald Mountain has historically served as an artistic muse, inspiring Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky to create “A Night on Bald Mountain.” Mussorgsky claimed to have been inspired by the confession of a witch who was burned at the stake in the 1660s as well as by Nikolai Gogol’s novella St John’s Eve. The piece did not meet with immediate critical success, originally rejected as too “raw.” Five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed his own orchestration of the work. It is among the works featured in Disney’s Fantasia.
Another Bald Mountain is also identified with witches’ revelry: Kopasz Tetö (literally “Bald Head”), is a peak in the Hungarian Tokay hills, in the shade of the Carpathian Mountains. Tokay is famous for its wine, which once held a reputation almost as magical as absinthe. Presumably it was on the menu at the witches’ sabbats allegedly held there.
See BOTANICALS: Elder, Rowan; CALENDAR: Ivan Kupalo, Midsummer’s Eve; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Disney Witches, Literature: The Master and Margarita.
Blokula, Blockula, Blakulla or Blokulla
Sweden had a brief but brutal witchcraze. According to confessions extracted, witches flew off to sabbats presided over by Satan at a mountain called Blockula. Where exactly is Blockula? Who knows? It is unclear exactly where Blockula was or whether in fact it ever really existed. According to confessions, extracted under torture, witches allegedly flew tremendous distances on broomsticks with assistance from flying ointments.
Blockula has developed a famous name and is frequently sited in fictional depictions of witchcraft; however, it’s unclear whether or not it even exists. If it does, these are likely suspects:
The most popular explanation is that Blockula is another name for The Brocken (see below), the German mountain once called the Blockberg. The Brocken is profoundly associated with Freya and hence it would make sense that Swedish witches, if indeed there were witches, might join German compatriots at The Brocken.
Another suggestion is that the Blockula is not a mountain at all but a rocky island in the Baltic Sea, located between Öland and Småland, a still heavily forested region of Sweden characterized by extensive marshes and lakes.
Blockula is intrinsic to the legend of Sweden’s Easter witches who still allegedly fly to the Blockula on Maundy Thursday, returning home on Saturday just in time to be present for Easter.
See CALENDAR: Easter; DIVINE WITCH: Freya; WITCHCRAZE!: Sweden.
At 3,747 feet, the Brockenberg, more popularly known as The Brocken, is the highest peak of Germany’s Harz Mountains and a fabled haunt of witches. (Older maps identify The Brocken as the Blockberg.) Alongside Bald Mountain, it is the location in Europe most associated with witchcraft and witches.
Prior to Christian influence, The Brocken was a sacred area. Rübezahl the dwarf lives on the peaks but the deity most identified with The Brocken is Freya. Allegedly, following the acceptance of Christianity, Freya didn’t disappear: instead she retreated to her old stronghold, The Brocken. Her priestesses sought refuge there too; those who wished to honor or petition her sought her in The Brocken.
Allegedly witches flew from all over Europe to dance atop The Brocken on Walpurgis Night (May Eve). Local lore reported that witches danced with such fervor and gusto they wore out their shoes by morning. Boys traditionally dressed up as werewolves to scare and drive off the enemies of approaching summer in re-enactments of Pagan rituals.
The region was closely identified with witches: medieval maps illustrate the area with images of witches riding broomsticks. In 1589, the ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg, in The Brocken’s shadow, burned 133 women accused of being witches to death in one day.
A mass of huge granite blocks at The Brocken’s summit is known as “The Witch’s Altar,” or alternatively “The Sorcerer’s Chair” or “Devil’s Pulpit.”
A nearby spring is called the “Magic Fountain.”
A local anemone (wind-flower) is known as “The Sorcerer’s Flower.”
It isn’t only The Brocken’s height that earned its reputation as a magical, holy place. The Brocken is also home to a unique meteorological phenomenon known as the Brockengespenst (Specter of the Brocken). Given the right atmospheric conditions, this specter, technically an optical illusion also known as the anti-corona or glory, causes a person’s shadow cast from a ridge to appear magnified. Although really only a shadow, it appears that a specter walks alongside you. Rainbow-like bands or rings may surround the shadow.
Witches still really do meet at The Brocken on Walpurgis Eve. Walpurgis Eve (May Eve) is exactly opposite Halloween (November Eve) on the calendar. Now Halloween may be the witches’ night in North America, Ireland, and elsewhere but in Germany and Central Europe, April 30th is their special night. Beginning in the 1930s, a special steam train brought Walpurgis Night revelers up The Brocken, children and adults, many costumed as witches, especially red witches, although whether these disguises serve as masquerade or as ritual clothing are the secrets of individual revelers.
See ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves; CALENDAR: Halloween, May Eve, Walpurgis Night; DIVINE WITCH: Freya, Rübezahl.
Once upon a time, Gellért Hill was where Budapest’s witches celebrated nocturnal rituals and festivities. These days, it’s prime real estate: the hill offers beautiful panoramic vistas of Budapest and the Danube River. At least one dozen thermal springs gush from the hill; the source for Budapest’s fabled thermal baths and spas and the reason for its status as sacred Pagan territory.
Gellért Hill is now covered by shops, residences, and hotels: it’s hard for modern observers to visualize Gellért Hill as a natural slope and sacred site.
The hill was named in honor of Gellért, the eleventh-century Venetian bishop, missionary, and martyr who, under the reign of King Stephen (now St Stephen), converted Hungary to Christianity. After Stephen’s death, the Hungarians revolted and captured Gellért. They stuck him in a wooden barrel, hammered spikes through it and rolled Gellért down the hill into the Danube. After Christianity was reinstated, the hill was renamed in his honor (a statue of him stands there today), but according to witchcraft trial records, centuries later Hungarian witches continued to mount the hill to dance on moonlit nights. (See WITCHCRAZE!: Hungary.)
The Horselberg, also known as the Venusberg or Mountain of Venus, lies in Thuringia, between Eisenach and Gotha in Germany. Witches from Eisenach accused of venerating Hulda allegedly celebrated sabbats here, but the Horselberg is now most famous as the location associated with the legendary German knight Tannhäuser.
The story of Tannhäuser describes his visit to a deity called “Frau Venus”; it’s unclear whether this deity was a euphemism for Hulda or Freya or even whether the story was inspired by tales of Sibilla and just transposed to Germany from Italy. (See DIVINE WITCH: Freya, Hulda, Sibilla.)
A cavern near the summit is known as the Horselloch or Venus’ Cave. Sounds resembling subterranean waters emanate from this cave so that it is reminiscent of a grotto. The Horselloch is allegedly an entrance to Frau Venus’ palace.
Tannhäuser was a celebrated minnesinger, a German minstrel knight, similar to the French troubadours of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. The minnesingers were among those who composed tales of the Grail Knights but they specialized in romantic sagas like those of Tristan and Isolt. They composed elaborate, flowery love songs, although whether these were inspired by individual women or by the Goddess remains subject to speculation. During their own time, minnesingers were frequently accused of having Pagan sympathies and eventually fell from favor.
According to the legend, Tannhäuser was riding past the Horselberg at twilight when an incredibly beautiful woman mysteriously appeared and beckoned to him. He left his horse, joined her and discovered that she was none other than “Frau Venus.” He accepted her invitation to enter her palace in the very heart of the mountain. Before he knew it, seven years of pleasure and happiness had passed.
For whatever reason, after these seven years, Tannhäuser was suddenly stricken with pangs of homesickness and remorse. He longed to see sunlight. In some versions of the story, Tannhäuser just bids farewell to Frau Venus and leaves. In others, he prays to the Virgin Mary who releases him from Frau Venus’ spell. Tannhäuser immediately went to a church seeking absolution. After hearing his tale, the local village priest doesn’t know what to do with him and sends him to a superior who does the same. Tannhäuser goes from priest to priest, bishop to bishop, confessing to all: none grant him absolution until finally he goes to the Pope. He begs for absolution but the Pope rebukes him, telling him that guilt such as his is unforgivable. The pope declares that his almond wood staff will flower before Tannhäuser’s sins will ever be forgiven.
Tannhäuser, despairing, returns to the one place that will welcome him with open arms: the Venusberg. Three days after his departure, the Pope discovered that his staff had budded and flowered. He realized that he was wrong to reject Tannhäuser’s repentance and sent messengers after him. But it was too late: observers described seeing Tannhäuser reach, ascend and enter the mountain.
Several other mountains in Germany had reputations as “witches’ mountains”, including:
Heuberg Mountain, near Balingen in the district of Baden-Wurttemberg
Huiberg Mountain, near Halberstadt, Saxony-Anhalt
Koterberg, in Westphalia
Monte della Sibilla, The Sibyl’s Mountain in Norcia
According to legend, the Cumaean Sibyl took refuge in a mountain cave where she transformed into the witch-goddess Sibilla. (See BOOKS: Library of the Lost: Sibylline Books; DIVINE WITCH: Sibilla.) That cave may allegedly be found on Mt Sibilla in the Sibillini Mountains, part of Italy’s Apennine mountain chain, now a National Park.
Her cave is near the summit, which is wrapped by rocks resembling a crown. Archeological evidence indicates that whether or not the Sibyl herself lived there, the cave served as a shrine to a prehistoric goddess.
Another feature of the Sibillini Mountains is now called Lake Pilato, named after Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. According to legend, he was later condemned to death and was drowned in the lake. (Rumors suggest that Lake Pilato is the gateway to Hell.)
The lake was renowned long before the Crucifixion however; it has a mirror-smooth surface but periodically during the year, its waters turn red. Christian myth suggested this was because of the devil’s influence. Modern science reveals that Lake Pilato is the home of a unique shellfish, similar to the Phoenician mollusks that produced wonderful vivid red and purple dyes. One may only imagine how ancient Pagan goddess-worshippers envisioned this periodically red lake.
Lake Pilato and Mt Sibilla were famous all over Europe. Documents dating to the fifteenth century indicate that sorcerers and wizards traveled from great distances to consecrate their grimoires here, despite the gallows erected at the entrance to the valley by a local bishop to serve as a warning to visitors.
Mount Hekla, an active volcano in southern Iceland, was allegedly the favorite haunt of Danish witches who flew there to attend sabbats. Mount Hekla is among Earth’s most active volcanoes and was believed to be among the entrances to Hella’s realm. A nearby town is named Hella. Some have suggested that the mountain shares its name with the goddess, although others protest that Hekla means “slab” or “covering,” which would still make it cognate with Hella as that is what her name means, too. Another suggestion is that the name Hekla is linguistically related to hexe or “witch.”
See DICTIONARY: Hexe.
Old Woman’s Mountain
The Old Woman’s Mountain or Grandmother’s Mountain, allegedly once favored by witches and wise women, is found in the Tatra Mountains, part of the Carpathian range between Poland and Slovakia. Called Babia Gora in Polish, Old Woman’s Mountain is now a National Park. Its highest peak is called Diablak (Devil).
On August 20, 1612, ten women and men were convicted of charges of witchcraft and hanged at Lancaster Castle in England. These ten are known as the Pendle Witches. Pendle Hill, located in northeastern Lancashire, part of the Pennine chain of hills, dominates Pendle Forest.
Pendle Hill combines the characteristics of sacred hill, forest, and burial ground: a Bronze Age burial site is located at the hill’s summit. Pendle Hill remains powerfully identified with witchcraft and is a popular destination on Halloween. (See WITCHCRAZE!: England.)
Puy de Dôme
Puy de Dôme is a mountain in the Auvergne region of French, near Clermont. For at least two thousand years the thermal waters of the spa town of Royat have been considered healing and beneficial. The area is filled with thermal springs, caves, and grottoes.
The Celts considered Puy de Dôme sacred to the solar deity Lugh. The Romans worshipped Mercury here, building him a temple at the summit of this 5,000-foot peak during the first century of the Common Era. By medieval times the mountain was famous as the setting for witches’ sabbats.
Information about sabbats comes primarily from the confessions of a woman, Jeanne Boisdeau, tried as a witch in 1594 and subsequently burned at the stake. According to her confession, which, as with virtually all confessions of witchcraft, may be assumed to have been made under torture and so is questionable, witches journeyed from all over France, from as far away as Languedoc to rendezvous at Puy de Dôme on Midsummer’s Eve.
Witches mounted broomsticks and let the winds carry them to Puy de Dôme. Jeanne told her Inquisitors that witches worshipped Satan there in the form of a goat. Witches greeted him by kissing his posterior; the Devil said Mass using a radish as a sacrament. (Those familiar only with little round red radishes may be unaware of the phallic nature of many more rustic radishes.) The devil distributed charms to his devotees that served as amulets, providing safety from fire, animals, and assorted dangers. He allegedly breathed on witches to bestow oracular power on them.
During sabbats, allegedly during a Satanic Mass, a gigantic black hen appeared at La Cratère du Nid de la Poule (Crater of the Hen’s Nest) where it laid three black eggs before disappearing in flames. (This may be intended to recall the phoenix or to indicate Hellfire.)
The witches broke the eggs open: Satan’s instructions for the following year were found within. They then had a picnic of bread, wine, and cheese followed by dancing. Witches, demons, and the devil did a back-to-back circle dance going in a widdershins direction. The eldest person present held the goat’s tail while others held hands. (See ANIMALS: Chickens; DICTIONARY:Widdershins.)
It is unknown how much, if any, of Jeanne’s confession was true.
Witches’ Caves of Zugarramurdi
Cuevas de las Brujas or the Caves of the Witches are an extended, natural tunnel, running some 100 meters within the mountain in the Pyrenees, which is also dotted with smaller galleries of caves known as Sorgin Leze in Basque or “Witches’ Galleries.” A stream flowing within the Witches’ Caves beneath a large natural arch is called “Hell’s Stream.”
These caves and mountains are among the many powerfully identified with the Basque goddess Mari (see DIVINE WITCH: Mari). The cavern was believed to be a rendezvous point for Basque witches. Akelarres were allegedly held beneath the cavern’s arch (see DICTIONARY: Akelarre).
Legends strongly advise that one should never enter Mari’s homes without an invitation or without conducting proper ritual. One should never damage anything in her homes and never, ever, ever take anything away from her homes. Allegedly, her punishment of those who infringe these rules is swift and sure.
Mari’s homes are largely subterranean. Many caves in the Pyrenees are identified with Mari and hence with witches. The Inquisition spent several months stationed in Zugarramurdi, and twelve people convicted of witchcraft by the Inquisition were condemned to die by burning in November 1610. (Five were burned in effigy only as they had already died in prison prior to the verdict.) Others were punished by imprisonment and loss of property.
The caves still bear associations with witchcraft. An annual “Witches Festival” is celebrated here every July. Other mountain caves associated with Mari include Amboto, Azcondo, Aizkorri, and Muru.
Museums of Witchcraft
Although many occultists have famed personal collections, notably Raymond Buckland, the following museums are open to the public:
Castle Halloween in Benwood, West Virginia houses the collection of the Halloween Queen, Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell, author and renowned authority on Halloween. The collection consists of over 15,000 items of Halloween and related memorabilia from the 1860s until the present. Among the exhibits are over one thousand Halloween costumes, a fortune-telling display, a Harry Potter exhibit and a section devoted to the Salem Witch Trials. Apkarian-Russell’s extensive Halloween postcard collection is also on display as well as many games, toys, and paintings. Website: www.userpages.cheshire.net/~halloweenqueen. Telephone: 304 233 1031.
Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, Iceland, is open between June 1st and September 15th and at other times by special appointment. Hólmavík is 273 miles north of Reykjavík in the region of Strandir. The museum is devoted to traditional Icelandic sorcery and witchcraft as well as the history of Iceland’s seventeenth-century witch-hunts. Website: www.vestfirdir.is/galdrasyning/english.php.
Museum of Witchcraft
The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, has for fifty years housed the world’s largest collection of witchcraft-related artifacts and regalia.
Originally opened by Cecil Williamson in 1951 on the Isle of Man, it coincided with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act; Gerald Gardner was briefly employed as “resident witch”. (See HALL OF FAME: Gerald Gardner, Cecil Williamson.) After several moves—local communities were, to say the least, less than welcoming to Williamson and his extensive witchcraft collection—he relocated finally to Boscastle, where the museum has been since 1960. Williamson ran the museum personally until he sold it in 1996 just shortly before his death aged 90.
Graham King, the present owner, bought the museum from Cecil Williamson at midnight on Samhain/Halloween 1996. His mission statement is “to educate and entertain.” Website: www.museumofwitchcraft.com. Telephone: 01840 250111.
Several museums devoted to witchcraft in general or the Salem Witch Trials specifically are located in the towns of Salem and Danvers in Massachusetts. Please see Magical Places, page 665 for further details.
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.