Where would the witch be without her cat? That black dog over there—is that a stray roaming loose, a disguised witch on the prowl or a messenger for the goddess Hecate? And those flies buzzing around? Do they merely indicate the presence of food or do they hold deeper significance?
Around the world, specific animals are associated with witchcraft. In some societies, certain animals are so intrinsically identified with witchcraft that should you have a close association with one (or in an era of witchcraft hysteria, even a brushing acquaintance will do), there’ll be no need to ask whether you’re a witch; that very relationship defines you as one.
There is no creature, living, extinct, or mythical, that does not have its place among the magical powers of witchcraft. Each creature possesses its own magical powers, to be drawn upon by the human practitioner as needed. Elks, for instance, are invoked for romance; dragons to guard wealth. However, certain animals are specifically identified with witchcraft, whether as teachers of the art or because of relationships with witches. These are the animals that are featured in this section.
Animals closely identified with witchcraft are invariably also closely identified with sex, birth, death, secret wisdom, wild nature, and/or intensely radiant male or female reproductive energy, the potential for creation, and hence magic. What is a magic spell, after all, but the act of bringing something into existence?
The various magical partnerships between animals and people, including such concepts as familiars, allies, and nahuals are also discussed in this section, as is transformation, which incorporates the various magical and spiritual traditions that blur the boundaries between species.
While outside observers may sometimes react to the witchcraft animals with fear, witches and other magical practitioners traditionally view their animals as partners and their relationships as alliances.
In magical theory, it’s generally acknowledged that every individual possesses allies in the various realms: botanical, mineral, spirit, and animal. They share your essence and possess a loyalty and affinity toward you, and so are reliable magical partners. As an example, the Egyptian goddess Isis is affiliated with myrrh, bloodstone, a constellation of compatible fellow spirits, cows, scorpions, snakes, and crocodiles. She also has alliances with certain people, whom she protects but who are expected to offer devotion in exchange.
Alliances, as their name implies, are mutual relationships: obligations exist on both sides. These are not relationships to be exploited but are instead meant to be treasured and nurtured. It is a loving, caring relationship and as such cannot be forced or compelled on either side.
Because animals are closest in nature to humans, they are our most accessible allies. Different people possess different needs: some are fairly solitary, one or two allies may be sufficient, in the same manner that one or two human friends are sufficient. Social butterflies may require a crowd. Some alliances are life-long; others are transitory, ships passing in the night. It’s believed that every individual is born with at least one ally from each realm. (They accompany you through incarnations.) Other alliances may be forged as needed during a lifetime.
A familiar is an ally but an ally may not be a familiar. Familiars are generally understood to be exactly what their name implies: familiar. These are animals with whom one can share your home and daily life: ferrets, cats, dogs, hedgehogs, birds, frogs, and snakes. Extended contact need not be difficult or dangerous. Depending upon circumstances, a wild or potentially dangerous creature may become your familiar but they must choose you as, for instance, wild dolphins, which will occasionally form a friendship with a specific swimmer.
The possibility of familiars, then, is relatively limited whereas the world of animal allies is vast. What if domestic animals don’t fulfill your magical needs—your magic requires a komodo dragon or a snow leopard? What if your magic requires a velociraptor, a dragon, or a unicorn?
Because these animals may be accessed on a spirit level, animals with whom one could not normally have true contact become possible allies. Whether one possesses a relationship with a specific spirit-animal or with the spirit presiding over that animal is subject to interpretation and may vary.
How do you discover the identities of your allies? Various methods exist:
Consciously or subconsciously, their identities may already be known to you. Intense passionate emotions, whether positive or not, may indicate an existing alliance. If you just adore lynxes, well, there you are. Conversely, passionate fear may also indicate alliance. (Where there’s no relationship, there tends to be little emotion, one way or the other, just neutrality.) Arachnophobes, I hate to break the news…
Animals may reveal themselves to you. Magic scoffs at the concept of coincidence. If something reoccurs with frequency, pay attention: it may be a clue.
Alliances may be revealed through dreams. Do certain animals consistently appear in your dreams? These may be your allies. Animals that feature in nightmares may also be allies; the nightmares may be due to miscommunication. A fierce wolf lies in wait for you in Dreamland, consistently appearing in your dreams. Terrified, you run or hide. The wolf, who longs to assist you or at least travel by your side, pursues, unable to communicate with you in a manner that would soothe your fears. This is a stalemate, the consistently reappearing nightmare that makes sleep something to dread and avoid. Next time some creature or person pursues you in a dream, don’t run. Stop, turn, face them, and ask them what they want. (This takes practice. Don’t feel bad if you can’t immediately accomplish something that sounds so simple. Before going to sleep, verbally affirm your plan of action and eventually it will work.) Because it’s a dream, anything can happen; you may be very pleasantly surprised.
Allies are revealed through divination. Various divination systems, usually cards, are commercially available; many are wonderful and extremely effective. The one drawback to these systems is that they tend to emphasize animals from a specific locale (Celtic or indigenous American most typically) and by nature are limited to a finite number of choices. Remember that you do not have to be limited to a set number of allies and that one can incorporate various systems as well as other methods.
Alliances are revealed through shamanic vision. Traditionally visions have been incubated through ascetic practices such as fasting or extended solitude in a place of power such as a cave or mountain, although with the exception of the extremely experienced, these practices tend to be mentored and supervised. (Always make sure that you are safe and that someone knows where you are and when to look for you.)
Alliances are identified through visualization, of which various methods exist.
Allow yourself to be surprised. Although you may be sure you know your allies’ identities, hidden allies may shock you when they reveal themselves. Also, do not be disappointed. We long for alliances with dramatic, romantic, wild, powerful creatures that bolster our self-image and are dismayed when instead our allies are revealed as ants, slugs, and bees. Every creature has power and gifts to share. Ants teach important lessons about persistence; rats are the ultimate survival artists, and in many places are perceived as incredibly lucky allies to have. Negative perceptions are often cultural. If you have negative perceptions of an animal, explore and research different perspectives and you may be pleasantly surprised. Spiders and bats for instance, while ominous in some cultures are incredibly auspicious in others.
Alliances may also be earned. If you crave a relationship with a particular animal, earn it by showing yourself to be a true ally. If you long for a hippopotamus ally, for instance, work to protect the species and preserve its natural environment. Investigate and see what needs to be done. On the spiritual level, erect an altar (or build a website) in the creature’s honor or devote one to its presiding spirit or affiliated deity. Should your good works draw attention, the desired ally will signal to you by using one of the previously discussed methods.
See also: Familiars, Nahual.
Baboons are the animals most especially identified with witchcraft throughout Africa, alongside bats, hyenas, and owls. Historically and currently, baboons are understood to serve as witches’ familiars or mounts, or even to be witches themselves.
Although an accident of alphabetical order, for a variety of reasons, it is fitting that an encyclopedia of witchcraft’s selection of featured animals should begin with the baboon:
According to Egyptian myth, a baboon deity is responsible for the invention of magic
Few other animals, perhaps only cats or wolves, can demonstrate so powerfully how a creature once beheld as sacred, powerful, valuable, and god-like can become diabolized and perceived as worthless, embarrassing pests
Persecution of baboons because of their perceived identification with witchcraft didn’t end thousands or even hundreds of years ago, but continues today
Baboons are descended from Old World monkeys. There are two sub-species, gelada and savanna, with the savanna baboons further divided into five sub-species: Chacma; Guinea; Olive; Yellow; Hamadryas (the sacred or dogfaced baboon).
Gelada baboons are found only in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, and the formerly sacred hamadryas is now endangered. However on the whole, baboons are the most successful of all Africa’s monkeys and are widely distributed throughout the continent. They are also found on the Arabian Peninsula.
Their very proliferation has caused them to be exterminated as vermin, with some communities offering a bounty on their heads. (Ironically, once upon a time baboons were sacred symbols of fecundity.) Biologists who specialize in baboons frequently spend considerable time convincing local farmers not to shoot baboons on sight.
Farmers very often dislike baboons, perceiving them as competition. Baboons are smart, aggressive, organized, and clannish—and they want to feed their families. They’re wary, suspicious, and may take flight easily; however don’t mistake that for being intimidated. As wild territory becomes scarce, rather than retreating baboons, unlike some other animals, will enter human territory looking for food, “stealing” fruit and produce as well as the occasional baby goat. Associations with witchcraft do not increase their popularity.
Male baboons possess something of a reputation as belligerent brawlers, although recent studies indicate that this reputation may not be entirely deserved, or at least not as across-the-board as once perceived. They certainly look fierce, possessing huge, sharp canine teeth, which they display as a sign of aggression and dominance.
When it comes to discussing or observing baboons there’s little avoiding the topic of sex, as their genitalia tend to be particularly prominent. No Viagra needed here: it apparently takes very little stimulus for the male baboon to display and maintain an impressive erection—particularly noticeable with the hamadryas, whose luxuriant mane doesn’t cover his private parts or his vivid red behind. Baboons greet each other via genital presentation (inspection). Hans Kummer, author of In Quest of the Sacred Baboon, suggests that the animal’s lunar associations derive from the females’ round genital swellings, which fluctuate in monthly rhythms similar to those of the moon and, by extension, women’s menstrual periods.
Baboons feature prominently in Egyptian mythology. Whenever Egyptian myth discusses baboons, the reference is always to hamadryas, which look different from other baboons, more canine, whereas the others appear more monkey-like. Hamadryas baboons are impressive, regal creatures possessing a square, very symmetrical head, often literally a “blockhead.” Males have a flowing leonine mane. They resemble some kind of composite creature: part dog, part lion, part human and part monkey, which must have increased their appeal to the Egyptians. (All types of baboons are identified with witches, however, as are mandrills, once believed to be a baboon sub-species but now shown to be genetically distinct.)
Hamadryas baboons no longer exist in Egypt due to hunting and loss of habitat. It is believed that they were never indigenous to Egypt but were imported from the mysterious land of Punt, now understood to be somewhere in the Horn of Africa. However, the Egyptians must have been aware of hamadryas baboons from an extremely early historical stage, as two of Egypt’s most ancient deities share their shape: Thoth and Babi.
Lord Thoth was understood to be the supreme god Ra’s right-hand man. Ra is the sun; Thoth is affiliated with the moon. Thoth rides through the skies as protective escort for Ra’s solar barq. Baboons share Thoth’s solar and lunar associations. Similar to roosters and crows, baboons greet the sun with noisy chatter.
Living hamadryas baboons were perceived to be either potentially a manifestation of Lord Thoth or a member of his retinue, hence deserving of respect. Many baboons spent their lives housed in temple complexes. Allegedly, Egyptian priests tested male baboons by placing writing implements before them. If the baboon ignored them he was revealed to be nothing more than a baboon; if however he picked one up and began scribbling, perfectly feasible for this highly intelligent, manually dexterous creature, he was then consecrated to Thoth or Ra.
Thoth’s nature is calm, rational, and sharply intellectual. He is what is known as a “cool” deity: he doesn’t anger easily, thinks before reacting, argues rather than attacks, and can be depended upon to defuse volatile situations. For instance, during a mythological episode when Ra’s daughter Sekhmet descended to Earth in an uncontrollable murderous rampage that none of the other gods could stop, it was Thoth who was ultimately successful in disarming her and leading her back home.
Whether Thoth is capable of cooling down his fellow baboon spirit (or perhaps alter ego) Babi is unknown. Babi (a.k.a. Baba) is a similarly primordial god, from whose name the word “baboon” derives. Lord of the Night Sky, Babi is called the Bull of the Baboons, meaning he’s the pre-eminent alpha male. Essentially he is the god of testosterone.
Babi is fierce, aggressive, and belligerent; no peacemaker, he steals offerings from other spirits. He’s blood-thirsty, devouring human entrails as snacks. A terrible, fearsome deity, Babi was also a role model to which one might aspire. He was very specifically a role model for the pharaoh, who prayed to possess Babi’s power, ferocity, instant reactions and, not least, his virility.
Babi controls the darkness. His phallus serves as the bolt on the gates of heaven. The boat that ferries souls to the next life uses Babi’s phallus as its mast. Although Babi was recognized as a destructive force, allied with the equally volatile spirit Seth, his powers were also perceived as potentially beneficial. Various magic spells exist to protect oneself from Babi; others seek his aid. (Babi had no formal cult; his relationships with people derive entirely through magical action, including spells and amulets.) Babi wards off snakes, controls darkness and turbulent waters. An alliance with him offers safety and protection—provided you can stay safe from him.
Different Egyptian deities were affiliated with various parts of the human anatomy for purposes of healing; Babi, no surprise, heals afflictions of the penis. He is also Master of Sex in the after-Life. (Egyptians expected to enjoy all the pleasures of Earth in the next life, too, not least a healthy sex life.) Men were buried with magic spells identifying their sexuality with Babi’s, so that they’d retain their virility after death.
Perceptions change. In medieval Europe, the hamadryas baboon became a symbol of lust as deadly sin. Baboons in general came to represent evil spirits. Perhaps most insulting, baboons, whose form once graced the Lord of Wisdom, became identified with his opposite: today if you’re called a big baboon, it’s an insult, no ambiguity about it.
Associations of baboons with witchcraft are not only ancient or medieval but also current. South Africa has been plagued with witch-burnings in recent years. Various incidents featuring baboons are indicative not only of cruelty but of the negative passions still inspired by witchcraft. As an example, in March 1996 a baboon was spotted in a village in Mpumalanga Province. A woman announced loudly that this baboon was a witch. A crowd then chased the baboon into a tree, from whence a man grabbed it, swinging it around violently until the baboon became dizzy and disoriented. The baboon was flung to the ground and beaten with iron bars. Gasoline was poured over it and a rubber tire was placed around the baboon, which was set aflame. The woman who first identified the baboon as a witch claimed that it was a particularly huge baboon. When the flames burned out, the corpse was discovered to be small; this perceived transformation, combined with the lengthy time the baboon took to die, was recognized by some as sufficient proof of witchcraft.
See also: DIVINE WITCH: Seth; Thoth; HALL OF FAME: Hermes Trismegistus.
Familiar features of Halloween paraphernalia and old-style horror movies, virtually everywhere that bats are found they are identified with witchcraft, perceived as witches’ familiars, mounts, and alter egos.
Bats are ancient creatures, having inhabited Earth for about 50 million years. There are nearly one thousand kinds of bats, who comprise nearly one quarter of all mammal species. They are unique as they are the only mammal who can truly fly. (Others, like the flying squirrel, merely glide.)
Bats inspired awe because their form was ambiguous: they resemble some kind of cross between an animal and a bird. In ancient Asian belief, bats were understood to be the most perfect bird because they nurse their young.
Most bats are nocturnal; they famously sleep through the day, hanging upside down in huge colonies, emerging at dusk from the caves they inhabit, sometimes in huge swarms. Animals that live in caves, grottoes or underground are metaphysically perceived as being especially close to Earth, and thus privy to her deepest secrets.
Medieval Europeans associated bats with dragons—magical winged creatures that live in caves and grottos. At first glance this may seem very flattering for a little bat, however this association proved unfortunate, as by the Middle Ages, the only role European dragons were left to play was as a target for questing knights. And small bats are much easier to kill than fire-breathing dragons.
Dragons were also associated with Satan; this association rubbed off on bats and they became closely associated with devils, demons and the anti-Christ. Medieval artwork frequently depicts Satan (as well as his demons and devotees) with bat’s wings; angels, on the other hand, were consistently painted with wings of white birds. That bat you see flying around might really be a demon.
Unfortunately for bats and women, in medieval Europe the sight of a flying bat was often interpreted as really being a transformed witch up to no good. Witches were believed to transform into bats, to ride bats like horses, and also to smear their broomsticks with bat’s blood so as to achieve lift-off. In 1322, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne, France was publicly burned at the stake as a witch. The evidence? Swarms of bats had been observed flying about her house and garden.
Today the concept of a person and bat exchanging shapes automatically brings Dracula to mind, and indeed the most common bat in modern Halloween imagery is the vampire. However, the bats that thrilled and chilled medieval Europeans were not vampires but “ordinary” bats; the original major fear regarding bats is that they would become entangled in a woman’s hair, not that they’d suck her blood. (With the exception of a very few blood-consuming species, bats eat either fruit or insects.)
Vampire bats are indigenous only to the Western Hemisphere. (The three surviving blood-consuming bat species range from Argentina to Mexico.) They are not and were never found in Central Europe, where the concept of an undead creature who survives by sapping the vitality of the living has existed since time immemorial. In certain areas of Central Europe and the Balkans, “vampire” and “werewolf” are synonymous; vampire is also used to indicate a “witch,” so vampire bat may also be understood to mean “witch bat.” (See DICTIONARY: Vampire.)
Vampire bats received that name from the mythic vampire, not vice versa. After blood-consuming bats were “discovered” by Europeans, the name was bestowed upon them. Bram Stoker was intrigued by the concept of blood-consuming bats and so incorporated them into his novel Dracula, whose success forever changed perceptions of bats and mythical vampires, who were traditionally not always typecast as blood-suckers; many traditional vampires preferred consuming sexual fluids or more abstract life forces, such as the aura.
The concept of a mythic blood-consuming “vampiric” spirit was, however, well-known in Central and South America prior to European contact. Bats figure prominently in Central American myth. This is the area where blood-consuming bats do exist and so bats also have associations with death and blood sacrifice.
Not all associations with bats are negative, not even vampire bats. The Kogi people of northern Columbia associate the vampire with human fertility. Their euphemistic expression for a girl who begins to menstruate is that she has been “bitten by the bat.” According to the Kogi, the bat was the very first animal to be created, emerging directly from the Creator’s body.
Some tribes in New Guinea also perceive bats as fertility symbols, perhaps because of the prominent penis of some species located there.
In China, bats are regarded as especially auspicious, their very name a pun for luck. Bat images abound in art and ornamentation.
The Chinese five-bat design (Wu Fu) represents the five blessings:
A natural death
Bats figure prominently in African folklore. In East Africa, bats are witches’ mounts. In the Ivory Coast, bats represent souls of the departed, while in Madagascar, bats aren’t just any old souls but those of criminals, sorcerers, and the unburied dead.
Bats have powerful associations with death and ghosts. A hoodoo charm to stop ghostly harassment displays African magical roots: Should you feel that ghost’s unwanted presence, toss one single black cat hair, obtained without harming the cat, over your left shoulder saying, “Skit, scat! Become a bat!”
Rather than inspiring avoidance, associations of bats with witches and magic inspired the use of whole bat corpses and various anatomical parts (hearts, wings, blood) to be featured prominently in magic spells.
References to bat’s wings in magic spells may refer to holly leaves, which may always be substituted
Bat nuts (dried ling nuts), which if held from one angle resemble bats, may be substituted for bats in any spell
Similar to bat’s wings as code for holly leaves, “bat’s blood” may have been a euphemism for another magical ingredient, perhaps a resin. At some point, people did use real bat’s blood as ink. However, since the 1920s commercially marketed Bat’s Blood Ink is scented red ink.
Perhaps because bats were understood to be transformed witches they have also been used to protect from malevolent witchcraft. A particularly unpleasant English custom involved nailing a live bat above the doorway to ward off witches, perhaps akin to the American rancher’s practice of posting dead coyotes or wolves to warn others away.
Negative associations have taken a deadly toll: many species of bats are extremely endangered due to loss of their habitat and because people have perceived them as vermin fit for extermination. This terribly upsets the balance of nature: bats are genuine fertility figures, responsible for the pollination of many plant species, particularly in the desert. Without the bat, these botanical species cannot multiply. Bats are also responsible for insect-control: one bat can gobble up as many as 600 mosquitoes in one hour.
Modern witchcraft practices suggest that maintaining a bat house (similar to a bird house) on your property will bring joy and good luck.
Bears are conspicuous in witchcraft lore by their very absence. They are the creatures so sacred that many fear to mention their name.
This is no exaggeration. Bears are the animals of shamanism par excellence. Throughout Northern lands, whether North America, Europe or Asia, bears are the original sacred animal, sponsors and symbols of shamanic healing societies. They are the teachers and perhaps originators of shamanism. Because bears dig in the Earth, they are also understood as the original root-workers and possess profound connections with healing, herbalism, and root magic. Bears are simultaneously sacred and dangerous creatures, benevolent and frightening, possessing powers too strong for the uninitiated to withstand.
Shamanic religion is often synonymous with bear religion. In traditional shamanic cultures, bears were worshipped and venerated. These bear cultures (some survive; there once were many, ranging across the entire far Northern hemisphere) typically never utter the name “bear”: that would be like taking the Lord’s name in vain or maybe like not calling the devil so that he won’t come. Euphemisms are substituted: “Big Brother,” “Old Honey Thief,” and the like. (In a similar manner, ancient Greeks never mentioned the name of the Lord of the Dead; Hades, which names his realm and Pluto, meaning “The Rich One,” are both euphemisms.)
Bear religion is among Earth’s original religions. Fairly soon after people began worshipping mothers, they began worshipping bears, too. Sometimes both were worshipped simultaneously. Paleolithic goddess statuettes depict huge mother bears nursing petite human infants.
Bears possess a great resemblance to humans. They stand upright and eat a similar diet. In a Native American story, a boy abandoned in the woods far from other people discovers that out of all the forest animals, the only animal that he as a human can live with comfortably is the bear.
Ursus spelaeus, the cave bear, appeared on Earth approximately 300,000 years ago and was physically very similar to the modern brown (grizzly) bear. Other than slight anatomical differences, the major distinction was size: cave bears were huge, weighing up to one ton. They were perhaps 30 percent taller than brown bears.
Cave bears hibernated, unsurprisingly, in caves, where they also gave birth and frequently died, leaving their skeletons behind. Remains have been found throughout the European mountain chains (Alps, Ardennes, Carpathians and Urals). The bones of at least 30,000 cave bears formed a deep layer of bone in the Dragon Cave near Mixnitz, Austria.
Not all bones were left as they fell. Among the very first indications of human spiritual traditions are ancient cave bear shrines. In Alpine grottoes dating to c.100,000 BCE, cave bear skulls are marked with red ochre and then carefully arranged alongside ritual hearths. Bear skulls were also arranged on stone slabs and placed in wall niches. The caves contain altars, flagstone flooring, benches, and tables. This is literally Neanderthal religion; Neanderthal people built these shrines.
Bear religion didn’t end with the Neanderthals; similar traditions still exist amongst some tribal peoples. Nor were these caves restricted to the Alps. In one bear cave discovered in south-western France, one crawls on hands and knees through a long, dark, narrow passage leading to a cul-de-sac where a bear’s skeleton awaits.
Vestiges of the sacred nature of bears survive in place names, like Berne, Switzerland, city of the bears. Europe is now largely devoid of bears. They have lost virtually all of their former territory in North America as well. There is a mistaken belief that no bears ever existed in Africa. This is true south of the Sahara, however Atlas bears once ranged from Morocco to Libya; the last Atlas bear is believed to have been shot in 1840 in the Tetuan Mountains. Bears of one type or another are indigenous to all continents except Australia and Antarctica. (Koala bears are not true bears.) A healthy adult bear has no enemies other than people. Wherever bears survive, they are endangered because of loss of habitat and because they have been exterminated as a competitive species and for sport and museum collections. Because various parts of bears’ bodies are valued in East Asian medicine, poachers place a high price on bears even though this hunting is largely illegal.
The ancient Norse associated bears with the shaman god Odin. Warriors who fought under his protection were known as “berserkers” (berserk means bear shirt). They fought naked but for bear skins, ritually channeling bear power—temporarily incorporating the bear’s spirit—in order to become fierce, formidable, and virtually unbeatable, striking terror into their opponents as they went berserk. (In a sense, they become temporary were-bears; their comrades, also under Odin’s protection, were wolf warriors.)
Bear-centered spirituality survives wherever traditional Northern shamanism survives, particularly among Native Americans. Native American bear doctors and bear societies still exist. Among the few explicit linkages of bears to witchcraft occurs in the Ojibwa tradition of bear-walking, a form of shape-shifting sorcery.
Bears were sacred in warmer climates, too. The Greek goddess Artemis’s name may derive from her affiliation with bears, which were among her most sacred animals and sometime her alter-ego. Her young temple priestesses were known as “bears.”
The few references to bears in European fairy tales usually tell of men doomed to wear the bear’s form because of unhappy encounters with witches, as in Snow White and Rose Red and some versions of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. These stories read negatively if one assumes that transformation into a bear’s shape is negative; reading between the lines, if one understands wearing the bear’s skin as a secret reference to shamanism, different conclusions can be drawn.
See DIVINE WITCH: Artemis; Odin.
Caprimulgids: Nightjars, Nighthawks, and Frogmouths
The nocturnal birds known as nighthawks are neither hawks nor owls; instead they are caprimulgids or “goatsuckers.” The Caprimulgiformes are an avian order numbering 91 species including nightjars, nighthawks, frogmouths, goatsuckers, and whippoorwills. They live in Africa, Australia, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Alongside the better-known owls and corvids, these are the birds most intensely identified with witchcraft.
Owls are their nearest relatives and it’s believed that owls and nightjars, the lay term most frequently used to encompass this avian family, share descent from a common ancestor, perhaps not more than 100 million years ago.
Long-winged, long-tailed birds with relatively big eyes, they are characterized by some unique features:
They possess enormous mouths fringed with bristles that prevent the escape of insects, their main food.
They have proportionately short legs and weak feet, unsuitable for walking, unlike corvids which spend a lot of time hopping on the ground. Nightjars are adapted for a life spent mainly in the air.
They have loud, distinctive voices.
Nightjars roost motionless in trees or on the ground during day. As their plumage is dull brown or gray, they are easily camouflaged; thus their loud cry can come as a sudden surprise. They are rarely observed during the day but are more readily seen at twilight or night. Shadowy and mysterious, they have long been associated with witchcraft and magic. Nightjar blood is an ingredient in ancient Egyptian magic spells. Nightjars and their relatives are also associated with prophecy, death, and the devil.
Their gaping fringed mouths are unique for birds and lead to comparisons with the female genitalia, sometimes even with the dread vagina dentata. Whether these associations are perceived as affirmations of fertility power or as diabolical embarrassments depend upon the eye of the beholder.
Nightjar is an English word; in German they’re known as hexe (witch). Considering that caprimulgids are harmless, insect-eating birds, they possess a fearsome reputation as vampires and are the subject of various superstitions. This vampiric reputation dates back at least to Aristotle. Nightjars are believed to suck blood or milk from animals—hence their family name, “goatsuckers.” (They don’t.) One theory suggests that because they forage for insects, nightjars often linger around livestock, especially goats. If for any reason an animal was bleeding, or a nanny goat’s milk was dripping and a largemouthed, eerie-voiced nightjar was discovered nearby, conclusions might be drawn and the nightjar blamed.
During the witch-hunt era, goats were identified as emblems of Satan who allegedly gave witches imps that they suckled on their own milk. With a name like “goatsucker,” the inference is clear; how could these birds not be associated with witchcraft and the devil? As example of their reputation, a species of nightjar from Sulawesi is actually named the diabolical nightjar (Eurostopodus diabolicus).
Yoruba witches fly around at night in the form of nightjars, sucking victims’ blood, while the Tukana Indians of South America believe that dead souls transform into nightjars and suck blood and vitality vampirically from the living.
Traditional depictions of the Roman goddess of Liberty show her holding a cup in one hand, a broken scepter in the other and with a cat lying at her feet. The cat, that animal which famously does not come when called, has long been an emblem of independence—and of free, independent, autonomous women.
Historically, attitudes toward cats parallel those toward women: when women have been respected and honored, their psychic gifts cherished, cats are beloved, sometimes deified; when women are perceived as dangerous and perverse, cats have been degraded and demonized. When women’s knowledge is particularly respected, cats are venerated; when women’s knowledge is particularly feared, cats are tortured and killed.
As we begin the twenty-first century, no other animal in the Western world is as identified with witchcraft as the domestic cat, particularly black cats. Black cats are sometimes used as short-hand to represent witches: a common Halloween image depicts a black kitten emerging from a cauldron or peaked hat. It’s not even necessary to see the witch; the kitty’s presence is sufficient for witchcraft to be evoked.
Cats are beautiful, intelligent creatures that cannot be ruled. It is not that they are intentionally disobedient (well, not usually; although as most cat owners will acknowledge, there is the occasional knowing spiteful act), but that the entire concept of obedience is foreign to their nature. Cats perform various services for humans, not least gracing us with their beauty, but only on their own terms; they can only be enticed, not commanded.
Cats epitomize the pleasure principle: sensuous creatures, they crave warmth, fine foods, soft fabrics, the choice seat in the house. Nocturnal, independent and mysterious, cats come and go as they please. Don’t be fooled: although domestic creatures, cats are never entirely tame.
They have profound associations with sex. It’s no coincidence that “pussy,” the common nickname for cats, is also a common nickname for the female genitalia. (The word “puss” may actually originally derive from “lepus” or rabbit, another animal profoundly associated with sex and witchcraft.)
Both male and female cats have reputations as lusty, prodigiously sexual creatures. Female cats will take one lover after another, as will the males. (To accuse a man of “tom-catting around” suggests he may not be a prime candidate for “til death do us part.”)
Since at least the time of Aristotle, cats have been used to symbolize lasciviousness and sexual insatiability, in folklore as well as an artistic device. Cats are affiliated with sexually autonomous female deities like Bastet, Diana, Freya, Hathor, Hecate, Kybele, and Lilith.
During the Witchcraze, women were accused of being sexually insatiable. Because mortal men lacked the capacity to satisfy them, these women craved Satan’s charms, taking demonic lovers who often manifested in the form of black tom cats—or at least that’s the witch-hunter’s version. By the eighteenth century, “cat” had become slang for a prostitute, hence the “cat house.”
Cats’ associations with sex have deeper implications: cats possess lush fertility. Felis, the scientific name for cats, derives its origin from the Latin root fe, “to bear young.” Other words deriving from this source are feline, fecund and fetus. Cats, like frogs, are often considered weather harbingers, announcing the start of the fertilizing rain. Jewelry in the form of images of a mother cat surrounded by a large litter of kittens was a popular fertility charm in ancient Egypt.
The earliest indication of intimate relations between people and cats derives from a recently discovered (2004) burial in Cyprus, dating back approximately 9500 years ago. A carefully buried cat was discovered inches from a human burial, which also contained jewelry, polished stones, shells, and tools. The cat’s bones were arranged to parallel that of the human and displayed no signs of butchering. It appears to have been a beloved companion animal. Cats are not native to Cyprus and so it is believed to have been imported (although cats are notorious stowaways on ships).
General wisdom suggests that cats were first domesticated in Egypt (although Libya or Nubia are alternative suggestions), where domestic cats were bred at least four thousand years ago. (However, because of that recently discovered burial, dates are being retabulated backwards.) Ancient Egypt certainly provides the first written records of cats, the clearest evidence of domestic cats and the closest identification with deification of cats.
As Egyptian culture became increasingly agrarian, stored grain attracted mice and other vermin, who, in their turn, attracted cats, who very quickly demonstrated their usefulness to people. Cats became sacred guardians of the grain. (See ERGOT.)
The most famous sacred Egyptian cat is Bastet, whose titles included Mistress of the Oracle and Great Conjuress of the Casket. She is depicted as a cat, often bejeweled, or as a woman with a cat’s head, sometimes surrounded by kittens. Bastet has dominion over sex, fertility, marriage, magic, music, childbirth, prosperity, joy, dance, and healing—in short the pleasures of life. She provides humans with a range of protections: against infertility, the dangers of childbirth, evil spirits, illness and bodily injuries, especially those caused by venomous creatures. A tomb inscription says Bastet bestows “life, prosperity and health every day and long life and beautiful old age.”
Bastet offers special protection to women and children and serves as matron of magicians and healers. Her cult originated in the swamps of the Nile Delta. The earliest known portrait of Bastet dates to c. 3000 BCE. She was a pervasive figure in Egypt from about 2000 BCE, and by about 950 BCE, her cult was found throughout Egypt; she was the most popular female deity in the kingdom. Worship of Bastet reached its zenith during the reign of Osorkon II (874—853) when a major temple was erected at her cult city Bubastis. Devotion to Bastet officially survived until 30 BCE and the Roman conquest.
Bastet’s annual festival in Bubastis was Egypt’s most popular festival. An ancestor of today’s Mardi Gras, the festival was renowned for its parties, revelry, and drunkenness. Herodotus, the Greek traveler and historian writing in the fifth century BCE, claimed that more wine was consumed in Egypt during this festival than during the entire remainder of the year. Although many details have been lost, Bastet’s festival celebrated female sexuality and generative power. Boats sailed up the Nile headed for Bubastis. As a barge approached towns and settlements on its way to the festival, it would halt and the mainly female celebrants on board would loudly hail the local women congregating on the riverbanks. They would shout sexual obscenities to each other, dance wildly, and perform ana-suromai, the ritual act of lifting up the skirts to expose the vulva, associated with laughter, healing, and defiance of grief.
Bastet, daughter of the sun, is a solar spirit, associated with the life-giving warmth of the sun. (Her sister Sekhmet, a lioness, represents the sun’s scorching, destructive potential.) Bastet possesses lunar associations as well. She is the mother of the moon. Her son Khonsu was reputedly able to impregnate women with his moonbeams. (That belief survives in the superstition against single women sleeping exposed to moonlight.)
The Greek biographer Plutarch, writing in the first century CE, suggested that one of the reasons Egyptians worshipped cats is that cats’ nocturnal habits reveal powerful lunar affiliations. Cats’ eyes also appear to grow in size and luminosity in harmony with the moon’s waxing. The ancient Egyptian cat was not exclusively a sacred temple animal but was also a family pet or domestic animal, a bit of holiness in one’s own home. Although Egypt had many sacred animals, no others lived so intimately with so many people. (Compare and contrast other sacred creatures, like baboons or crocodiles, which by necessity were kept at a distance.) Familiarity didn’t breed contempt, however: even a house cat maintained its mysterious, sacred nature. Herodotus reports that anyone convicted of intentionally killing a sacred animal was sentenced to death, and to varying extents all cats were sacred. Four hundred years later, the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus (born c. 100 BCE) witnessed an incident where a Roman official accidentally killed a cat and was promptly lynched by a mob. Although the fact that he was a Roman official suggests that the cat may have been the last straw in a deadly dynamic, Diodorus suggests that the situation wasn’t uncommon and that most such deaths occurred as spontaneous lynchings by enraged mobs before the person could be legally tried and judged. When a pet cat died, it was customary for the human family with whom it lived to shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning and respect.
Wide distribution of the domestic cat occurred only after the Egyptian kingdom lost its independence to Rome. Even then, for centuries, domestic cats remained rare throughout Europe. (Ferrets were used to eliminate vermin prior to introduction of cats.) Not until the fourth century of the Common Era were domestic cats widely distributed in Italy. As domestic cats gradually dispersed, their identification with the mysteries of ancient Egypt traveled with them, leading to associations with magic, witchcraft, and women’s sexual, lunar and reproductive secrets.
Although domestic cats were rare in Europe, uncommon in the British Isles, for instance, even into the tenth century, wild forest cats were common. Although wild cats can cross-breed with domestic cats, they are larger and typically possess different natures: fierce, wary, and solitary rather than sweet and cuddly. Vestiges of wild, fierce Celtic cat goddesses may survive in the witch-hags who frequently transform into cats, as for instance, Black Annis.
Cats have potent associations with yet another powerful female deity—Freya—Norse Lady of love, romance, sex, fertility, childbirth, shamanism, enchantments, witchcraft, and death. An oracular, sexually autonomous spirit, Freya typically manifests as a breath-takingly beautiful, golden woman: her chariot is drawn by her familiars, two huge gray cats named Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber), who embody Freya’s twin qualities of ferociousness and fecundity. Cats are Freya’s sacred animals; a traditional method of petitioning or pleasing the goddess was to offer pans of milk to cats, an old Norse country custom that survived. To be kind to a cat is to entreat Freya’s blessings and to remain in her good graces.
Eventually cats would be tortured and killed specifically because of their associations with Freya. After the introduction of Christianity, Freya’s devotees did not abandon her easily or willingly, and she became among the most demonized of spirits, coming to embody the stereotype of the seductive witch. Cats shared Freya’s demonization. (See DIVINE WITCH: Freya.)
By the Middle Ages, cats had become so identified with witchcraft that in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a decree, understood by many scholars as the official start of the Witchcraze, denouncing cats and their owners. Any cat in the company of a woman could be assumed to be a familiar. If one can assume the cat is a familiar, what might one assume about the woman?
Pope Innocent commanded that when a witch was burned, her cats were to be burned with her. He decreed that all European cat-worshippers be burned as witches. (This was in response to a strong revival of devotion to Freya in fifteenth-century Germany.) He authorized the killing of cats even without an accompanying witch. A vicious cycle emerged: the destruction of European cats is believed to have encouraged the proliferation of rodents, which in turn encouraged the spread of deadly disease, blamed on witchcraft and heresy, which in turn led to fear, panic, and more killing of cats.
Folklorist Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, suggests in his book Teutonic Mythology that the sinister aspect of the cat derives from Freya’s dual role, not only as a spirit of love and fertility but also as a death-spirit. As leader of the Valkyries, female warrior spirits who helped select the dead, Freya had dibs on half the fallen on a battlefield, the other half belonging to Odin.
The degradation and destruction of cats parallels that of women and their increasing loss of autonomy. Women, however, might engage in subterfuge or adjust their personalities and lifestyles in attempts to be beyond suspicion; the inherent nature and habits of cats betrayed them. Their nocturnal lives, their desire to prowl free at night, “singing” at the moon, their passionate sexuality, all now doomed them to associations with the devil and/or witchcraft. Instead of worship and respect, cats were feared and avoided at best.
According to the witch-hunter’s perceptions of witchcraft, cats played various roles:
Cats were believed to be common familiars. Should a woman display a close relationship with a cat, this was considered a telltale sign of witchcraft and perhaps sufficient evidence to warrant death for woman and cat.
Cats provided witches with a mode of magical transportation. Reminiscent of Freya’s air-borne cat-drawn chariot, witches rode to sabbats on cats’ backs or traveled about in feline form. Shape-shifting witches were believed able to assume the form of cats.
Sometimes the cats are the witches. Does the woman transform into a cat or vice versa? Cats are traditionally Hungarian witches’ alter egos, their doubles. Is the witch a cat or is the cat a witch? In this hall of mirrors, who can tell? In one Hungarian witch-trial transcript, the prosecution’s witness recounts how upon encountering two cats at night, whom he perceived as nocturnal apparitions, he began to talk with them, informing them that he wasn’t afraid of them because “Lord Jesus Christ is with us.” The cats, he claimed, responded with peals of human laughter.
In Slavic areas, cats may be vampires; hence the still-existing superstition that cats will suck a sleeping baby’s life out. In North African communities, cats may be djinn in disguise and so one is cautioned against ever harming a cat for fear of spiritual retribution.
Witch-hunter Jean Bodin insisted that all cats are witches in disguise. Nicholas Remy, another famed witch-hunter, argued that they were demons instead. Hungarian witch-lore suggests that cats do indeed become witches, but only between the ages of 7 and 12, and even this may be prevented. The Hungarians, a grain-producing people, who perhaps didn’t relish leaving their barns without feline protection, determined that shaving a cross into the cat’s fur was sufficient to rescue it from this fate. According to Somerset folklore, cats born in May were especially inclined to be witches in disguise and hence were frequently killed.
Stories of women transforming into cats are common witchcraft tales. A husband from Scotland’s Isle of Skye claimed to be perplexed by his wife’s secretive nightly excursions. One night he followed her and witnessed her transformation into a black cat. The wife invoked Satan’s name and sailed out to sea in a sieve with seven other cats. The husband invoked the Trinity and the sieve promptly overturned, drowning all the witches—or at least so said the husband, the only witness to his wife’s disappearance. One wonders how many other women’s disappearances were accounted for by those who swore that when last seen the women had transformed into cats or bats.
In a French variation on this theme, a woman was cooking an omelet when a black cat sauntered into her home and settled itself by her hearth. Apparently unfazed by her visitor, the woman did nothing but continue to cook. The cat stared at her for a few minutes then announced, “It’s done. Flip it over.”
In a traditional fairy tale, when a talking animal tells you something, it’s worth paying attention. However, in this story, the woman, seemingly unsurprised, only claimed to be outraged at being bossed around by a cat. She flung the hot pan at the cat, hitting it. The cat fled. The next morning, a malicious, “catty” neighbor was observed with a great red burn on her cheek.
There are millions of these stories, which are not limited to European origin. In Japanese folklore, cats transform into women who are frequently identified as witches. (Japan has a witchtradition but no history of European-style witch-hunts.) Sometimes these cats are saintly, if sexual. In the famous legend of Okesa the dancer, a devoted cat saves a human family from poverty by transforming into a prostitute and earning enough to support them.
Not all these legends are stories, at least not in the fictional sense; few of the documented tales have happy endings.
In 1586, Anna Winkelz Ipfel was burned as a witch in Bergtheim, Germany for allegedly disguising herself as a black cat.
In 1607, Bartie Paterson was hanged as a witch in England. According to witnesses, Bartie transformed into a cat and, together with other witches disguised as cats, “sang” in the backyard of one of the witnesses.
In March 1607, Isobel Grierson was brought to court in Scotland, charged with witchcraft. She allegedly invaded the Clarke household in the middle of the night in the form of a cat, accompanied by other cats, who together raised “a great and fearful noise.” The sleeping Mr and Mrs Adam Clarke were woken by this racket, as was their servant woman who had been lying in another bed near theirs. Apparently the cats were only the welcoming crew; shortly after this feline invasion, the devil himself also allegedly arrived, in the form of a black man. Isobel was burned to death for this, as well as for various murders by magic. (See Transformation.)
Cats were also identified with Satan, believed to favor the shape of a cat, inevitably a large black tom. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX declared that heretics worshipped the devil in the form of a black tom cat.
Of course one person’s devil is another person’s guardian spirit. In Slavic areas, especially Russia and Poland, the ovinnik, guardian spirit of the threshing barn takes the form of a huge disheveled black cat with glowing eyes. Offerings of blini or the last sheaves of grain are offered to him in exchanges for protection and divination services. The ovinnik is no cute, cuddly kitty; should he ever be seriously displeased, he’ll burn the barn down (frequently with the owner or his children within).
Elements of degraded, corrupt, perverted sacrifice are apparent in the treatment meted out to European cats, as if rather than venerating and preserving what is powerful and holy, it’s cruelly, wantonly, destroyed instead.
The torture and killing of cats occurred in various contexts: in conjunction with human witch trials, as random acts of violence, but also as organized, documented ritual killings:
In Paris, it was customary to burn a sack or basket filled with cats in the Place de Greve on St John’s Eve, a tradition also popular in other parts of France. (Although Louis XIV abolished the Parisian custom in 1648, it continued in the provinces until at least as late as 1796.)
Various French towns built bonfires to burn masses of cats on the first Sunday in Lent.
Cats were burned in Alsace at Easter.
(See CALENDAR: Midsummer’s; Ostara.)
Although all cats are associated with witchcraft, the black cat is most powerfully identified. Black cats’ special identification with witchcraft is not limited to Western European or post-Christian perspectives. Chinese, Hindu, Japanese, Jewish, North African, and Romany witch-lore make the same connection, although whether it is understood to be a sacred or malevolent connection depends upon cultural and individual perceptions.
People tend to fear or love black cats, frequently revealing their attitudes toward witchcraft. The major superstition regarding black cats is that they bring bad luck should they cross your path and people will cross the street to avoid them. This isn’t so ridiculous if one recalls that black cats were once commonly believed to be witches in disguise, out looking for fun and trouble. In Britain, however, black cats are lucky; white cats are identified with bad luck, as are many white animals, perhaps because of associations with ghosts and death.
Because chickens were perceived as being twice born (once when the egg is laid, once when it hatches), they were regarded as sacred. Black is the color of night, fertility, and gestation and so black hens were considered the most sacred of all.
Many magic spells stipulate that feathers or eggs must come from a pure black hen. The very first egg laid by a black hen is considered extremely magically powerful and is coveted for love and fertility spells.
Black hens are identified with and sacred to the supreme witch goddess Hecate (see DIVINE WITCH: Hecate). This spiritual memory survives in the Mother Goose rhyme, “Heckity peckity, my black hen…” In some parts of Britain, witches were allegedly incapable of approaching black chicken feathers, and so on Halloween it was customary to kill a black hen. The hen was cooked but the feathers were artfully arranged: hung onto the door of the house, over the bed or onto children or horses. It sounds suspiciously like a surreptitious method of offering a sacrifice to Hecate.
In African-derived magic, black hen’s feathers are used for magical cleansings. (Cleansing spells remove negative energy, spiritual debris, curses and malevolent spells.) Burn the feathers to a very, very fine ash, and then dust them on the person to be cleansed.
Black hens counter malevolent spells and allegedly remove jinxes. In the United States, frizzly (black and white speckled) hens are the substitute of choice and may even be preferable. Should the feathers be frizzly, it is immaterial whether the bird is a hen or rooster: in the hoodoo and conjure traditions of the Southern United States, frizzly hens or roosters were kept in the yard to scratch up any “tricks” (malevolent spells left on the property to fester and cause harm). Frizzled poultry was a valuable commodity: the bird might also be loaned or rented out to others in need. A renowned New Orleans root doctor went by the name of The Frizzly Rooster, his specialty lifting jinxes, hexes, and tricks. (See BOTANICALS: Roots; DICTIONARY: Root-worker.)
Chickens have served as oracles since ancient days. Various methods exist, however alectromancy is the standard method of divination by poultry. Individual letters of the alphabet are used to form a circle. An equal quantity of wheat is placed on each letter; the bird is placed in the center of the circle and carefully observed as it eats the grain. The corresponding letters should spell out a prophecy, which may then be interpreted. It is a primitive ancestor of the modern ouija board.
Ancient armies typically traveled with flocks of poultry, to lay eggs but also to perform grain divination. (In theory the greater the number of chickens and circles, the greater the possible complexity of the message.) A famous story describes a Roman general whose fleet was about to attack Carthage during the first Punic War. Before the attack was mounted, chickens were brought on deck and grain scattered for them. The seasick birds refused to eat. Rather than paying attention to the oracle, which clearly advised hesitation, the enraged, impatient (and perhaps queasy) general announced, “If they won’t eat, let them drink!” and ordered the poultry thrown overboard. Needless to say, the Romans suffered a crushing defeat.
Corvids: Crows, Ravens, and Jackdaws
The corvids are a large, widely distributed family of birds including crows, ravens, and jackdaws, powerfully associated with witchcraft and magic. (Other members of the family include rooks and jays.)
Scientific knowledge and genetic research has altered the way humans classify living beings. Once upon a time, classification was based purely on powers of observation. Because crows, ravens, and jackdaws bear an obvious family resemblance, both physically and personalitywise, they have always been understood as related. Magpies, which have profound but different associations with witchcraft, are also corvids, but because they were understood to be a distinct, if similar, species, they have their own encyclopedia entry. See Magpies.
Crows and ravens are big, loud, noisy, black birds. Crows and ravens are often referred to interchangeably. Technically ravens may be slightly larger, with shaggy, disheveled-looking feathers, unlike shiny, sleek black crows. They also possess slightly different habits, being somewhat more solitary than crows, which may roost together in communities numbering hundreds. Ravens will also hunt more than crows, which are mainly scavengers.
When mythology distinguishes between the two, ravens are usually associated with transformative magic while crows are identified with healing. Both are teachers and sponsors of magic and shamanism.
Crows and ravens are characterized by their shiny black color and by their raucous, loud voices. Diurnal birds, like roosters, they noisily greet the sun. If you live in an area with many crows, they will be your daily alarm clock. Crows, like baboons and roosters, are strongly identified with solar power and may be understood to venerate or worship the sun themselves. In a Pacific Northwest myth, Earth is enshrouded in darkness; Crow is literally the one who hangs the sun in the sky.
Crows and ravens, like bears and humans, are omnivores; crows do not like to hunt, however, but prefer to scavenge and not only on road-kill. Historically corvids hover over battlefields waiting for an opportunity to feast on the dead. Crows thus have profound associations with spirits presiding over death, war, and disaster. In Irish Gaelic, badbh meaning “crow” is a synonym for “witch.” It is also the name of a Celtic battle goddess, who may manifest in the shape of her namesake bird.
Crows are oracular birds; they evoke the spirit of prophecy and are also affiliated with oracular spirits. Among the deities with whom crows/ravens are associated are:
Cathubodua (Romano-Celtic Gaul, now France)
The Morrigan (Irish; known as the “battle raven” or “battle crow”)
Nantosuelta (Gaulish, now Germany)
Odin (Norse, Aesir; “God of the Ravens”)
Trickster heroes, Crow and Raven play an enormous role in world mythology, including Celtic, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Jewish, Native American, Scandinavian, and Vietnamese traditions, but most especially in the indigenous traditions of Siberia and North America’s Pacific Northwest.
Crows truly are tricksters and clowns; it isn’t just mythological affectation. If you spend time with them, you will observe their games and tricks. They are assertive, unafraid of people and as willing to play a joke on a person as they are on a dog, cat or on each other. Shiny things appeal to them and they’ve been known to steal them. Crows coexist well with people and occasionally become companion animals. Crows will, on occasion, mimic human language or the sounds of other animals.
The associations of crow/raven with witchcraft, magic, and shamanism pre-date Christianity. What changes post-Christianity is the perception of those associations. Rather than positive associations with wise-women, shaman, and seers, crows were now associated with diabolism and sin. In the eyes of Christian Europe, crows and ravens were linked with witchcraft because of their color, their raucousness, harsh voices, sharp intelligence, and assertive nature. Legends emerged explaining why crows were black—typically involving punishment for some kind of sin. According to the standard story, once upon a time, crows were pure white but they did something very bad and so were punished by being painted permanently black. Because crows are black birds that daily herald the light, the Church identified them with Satan in his guise as Lucifer, the fallen angel and light bringer.
Jackdaws, which are quite similar to crows and ravens, are restricted to the Eastern Hemisphere, ranging from Eurasia to northwestern Africa. It derives its name from its call: “jack!” It resembles a smallish, grayish-black crow, but is as noisy, raucous and sociable as its larger relations. It eats insects, worms, fruits, and carrion. The world’s most famous jackdaw may be Sybil Leek’s late companion, Hotfoot Jackson (see HALL OF FAME: Sybil Leek).
Coyotes exemplify “threshold animals”: wild animals that exist, thrive, and stay wild amidst human society, even flourishing among us.
Coyotes are medium-sized North American canines, midway between wolves and dogs. Once upon a time, coyotes were restricted to a reasonably limited section of North America; however as other predators (wolves and cougars especially) have been exterminated, coyotes have filled the void. Unlike most other creatures, coyotes have a far wider range today than ever before, although this is against all odds—attempts have been made to exterminate coyotes, too. They have been poisoned, shot, and trapped; in many areas bounties still remain on their hides.
Coyotes are the trickster supreme, akin to crows and rabbits but more so. They are clever, wary, and adaptable, epitomizing humor, curiosity, and intelligence. Coyotes in my own Los Angeles hill neighborhood were observed looking both ways before they crossed the street, something my golden retriever could never learn.
Coyote is a central figure in Native North American mythology, playing a broad range of roles. Coyote alternately creates the universe (because he’s lonely or curious or bored) creates people, creates death, darkness, and disaster and/or serves as human beings’ primary teacher. Coyote introduces people to sex, magic, and witchcraft, in both the positive and negative sense of that word. He is the spirit of eternity, regeneration, endurance, and persistence. He gets people into lots of trouble but is frequently also the only one capable of getting them out of it. Coyote teaches sacred rituals, secret knowledge, and malevolent witchcraft.
North America is a vast continent and tremendous variety exists among Native American cultures, truly a veritable “500 nations” possessing varied philosophies, cosmologies, and perspectives. Coyote is sacred to many; malevolent to a few. Coyote is particularly prominent among tribes in California: for the Miwok, Coyote is creator and supreme divinity, but for the Maidu, Coyote is a divine antagonist.
Navajo tradition understands Coyote as a malicious trickster responsible for the introduction of harmful magical practices. Coyote’s name may be synonymous with malevolent witchcraft, making it an insult to be called a coyote—the equivalent of the pejorative use of the word “witch” although traditional Navajo belief understands men to be as likely to be witches as women.
Jackals (which bear a physical resemblance to coyotes but are smaller) play a similar, if more shadowy, role in Africa, Western Asia and India. Jackals are tricksters possessing strong associations with sex and death and are often funerary deities, the most prominent being Egypt’s Anubis, credited with inventing the mummification process. Anubis manifests as either a full-fledged jackal or as a man with a jackal’s head. He may have been Lord of the Dead prior to Osiris’ rise to prominence. Funerary priests wore jackal masks, perhaps channeling the spirit of Anubis. Jackals are also powerfully affiliated with deities Kali and Lilith.
In a Tewa legend, Coyote marries Yellow Corn Girl and teaches her to transform into animal shape by jumping through hoops. He then teaches her methods of killing by witchcraft. She thus becomes the first witch, at least in the malevolent sense. Coyote is the source of witchcraft similar to the biblical angels who entangled themselves with the Daughters of Man, as recounted in Genesis 6:2-4.
Shape-shifters, skin-walkers and nahuals frequently take the form of coyotes—whether this is understood positively or negatively depends upon perceptions of the practice.
The history of dogs’ ancient alliance with humans is shrouded in the mysteries of time. They have been our steadfast companions and guardians since that proverbial time immemorial. Even cultures that historically do not domesticate animals, such as many of the indigenous cultures of North America, have maintained dogs as companion animals.
Because of this long alliance, it should come as no surprise that dogs have intense spiritual associations with protection and with healing and death, two sides of the same coin. In every one of these aspects dogs are understood to be guardian spirits:
Dogs protect people from spiritual and physical dangers in life.
Ancient people perceived illness as both physical ailment and spiritual crisis: dogs battle on behalf of their human allies.
Dogs protect dead human souls and accompany, guide, and assist them in their journey to the next realm.
Perhaps because feral dogs were observed lurking in ancient cemeteries ready to devour offerings and dig up bodies, dogs achieved early identification with death and funerary rites. Dogs also lingered on battlefields where they competed with crows for their share of the dead.
Although everyone dies alone, it was once commonly believed that without a dog’s assistance one would never be able to locate the realm of the dead. This was a widespread concept although how it was interpreted and acted upon varied. In some Central American beliefs, there’s no need to do anything: when one’s soul begins that journey, a dog will be found waiting by a riverbank ready to serve as your guide. Of course, should that spirit-dog not show up for any reason, your soul would wander for ever, never achieving peace. Some cultures refused to take chances: dogs were sacrificed and buried together with a person (or placed on the pyre) so that they might start the journey together. The Aztecs evolved a happier solution: they buried their dead with terracotta dogs who, through ritual and spell-casting, were able to perform this function just as well as flesh and blood dogs.
The ancient Egyptians may not have rigidly distinguished between jackals and dogs: Anubis, Lord of Embalming, Guide to the After-Life, may be understood as either species or both. His color is black, not because it is the color of death but because for the Egyptians it represented regeneration and rebirth. Anubis rules the Dog Star in conjunction with his adopted mother Isis, the first syllable of whose Egyptian name Au Set resembles a dog’s bark: ow, ow, ow!
The Norse Queen of the After-Life, Hel (Christianity borrowed her name for the eternal realm of post-life punishment) has her own companion pack of wolves and dogs that nibble arriving corpses. (Vestiges of the ancient Indo-European custom of offering dogs a bite of the corpse may survive in this legend.) These may be the original hell-hounds who will survive to ride with the Wild Hunt.
Dogs are most profoundly identified with the Eurasian witch goddess Hecate, Queen of the Night, spirit of birth, death, magic, healing, witchcraft, travel, and victory. Hecate guards the threshold between life and death, serving as a psychopomp (one who guides the dead). Hecate also serves as the personal handmaiden of Persephone, Queen of Hades.
Hades is famously guarded by Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed hound of hell. Hecate’s sacred number is three; she is typically depicted with three heads and very frequently assumes the guise of a dog. Cerberus may be Hecate’s pet dog or he may even be Hecate in disguise. Whether Hecate transforms into a dog or is in fact a dog spirit who transforms into other shapes (old crone, seductive beauty, occasionally even a black cat!) is a little like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. See DIVINE WITCH: Hecate.
Dogs serve as sacred companion animals to many spirits, most having to do with healing, death, war, and protection:
Babalu-Aye (West African)
Erinyes (Greek justice spirits who chase sinners like blood-hounds in pursuit)
Hecate originated in what is now Turkey. In Sumer, another goddess was intensely linked to dogs: Bau, the daughter of Sirius the Dog Star. Sometimes depicted as dog-headed, it’s tempting to associate her name with “bow-wow.” In her later Babylonian incarnation, Gula Bau, spirit of healing, walks Earth accompanied by her pack of hounds.
Hecate is not the only deity to transform into canine form. The Middle Eastern and North African spirits known as djinn have been known to lurk in the form of dogs, usually loitering in the marketplace just before dawn. In Jewish mystical folklore, Lilith and Asmodeus, respectively Queen and King of Demons, travel incognito disguised as large black hounds.
Black hound is the key: although to some extent all dogs have associations with funeral rites, magical healing, and protection, the dog most powerfully identified with magic, witches, and witchcraft is the black dog, the bigger and blacker the better. (Large black poodles have particularly strong associations, perhaps in honor of magician Cornelius Agrippa’s beloved pet, Monsieur.)
In addition to serving as witches’ familiars, black dogs may be transformed witches or witch goddesses. Nicholas Remy, the merciless witch-trial judge from Lorraine, alleged that women transformed into rabid dogs and wolves.
In witch-crazed Europe, dogs were understood as the devil’s favored companion or maybe even his favorite disguise. According to witch-trial transcripts, Satan routinely appeared at the sabbats he hosted in the shape of a massive black dog.
Dogs are believed to venture out at night to do battle with evil spirits. This is not an untypical international belief: lone dogs at night, particularly large black ones, are understood to either be evil spirits or out battling evil spirits. British folklore is full of stories of spectral black hounds mysteriously appearing to guard, guide, and accompany lone travelers, particularly when venturing through forests. Once the journey is over or safety is reached, the dog vanishes as mysteriously as it arrived.
Once upon a time, as with so many witchcraft animals, the humble donkey was venerated and held sacred. It was no coincidence that Christ chose to ride a donkey on his fateful entry into Jerusalem but fulfillment of prophecy. Dionysus rode a donkey, too. The Greek goddess Hestia has a donkey for a companion (or her consort). The most famous donkey in the Old Testament belonged to the sorcerer-shaman Balaam; it spoke, protested when beaten and was able to see an angel when its master could not.
Donkeys were first domesticated in the Nile Valley in pre-dynastic Egypt. Among their early tasks was helping thresh grain, leading to their close identification with the Corn Mother. This practice would degenerate into base cruelty: donkeys were blindfolded or even blinded so they’d walk in endless circles, turning the mill wheel.
Donkeys were once synonymous with phallic energy and the phallic organ itself, particularly in ancient Egypt, where the phonetic elements for their word for donkey (“a-a”; “hee-haw”?) were represented by the ideogram for donkey and a phallus. The veneration today reserved for the stallion was once given to the donkey. Roman couples carved donkey heads on their beds in hopes of enhancing fertility. Donkeys had close associations with the summer solstice (Midsummer’s Eve), as they were believed to ritually mate at that time, just like people celebrating that fertility festival. Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to the donkey’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In medieval Europe, donkeys became identified with rampant, uncontrolled, sinful lust. They were prominently featured in the Feast of Fools; donkeys were understood to be among the devil’s favorite guises.
The popular festival known as The Feast of the Ass was celebrated in Northern France during the Middle Ages. Held annually on January 14th, it allegedly commemorated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. A young girl holding a baby was seated astride a donkey and lead through the streets and into the church. It was a raucous, somewhat sacrilegious festival with many elements reminiscent of pagan, fertility, and, specifically, Dionysian rites. The donkey was actually brought into the church where it was given food and drink on a table, similar to a sacrificial offering. The festival concluded with a midnight mass, which the officiating priest ended by braying three times. This feast was suppressed by the Church in the fifteenth century, although it lingered in places for a long time afterwards.
Unlike cats or crows, the donkey’s disreputable and demonic associations pre-date Christianity. Their associations with sex, magic and dangerous, unpredictable deities already lead many to be ambivalent toward them. The donkey was among the Egyptian deity Set’s sacred animals. Despite periods of popularity, Set, Lord of Magic, especially sex magic, was an ambiguous, volatile deity, a disreputable and dangerous god.
The associations between donkeys and Set were strong and images of Set with a donkey’s head were engraved on magical talismanic gems. The Egyptians identified Set as the god of foreigners, most especially their Semitic neighbors. (The invading Hyksos kings, believed to be of Semitic origin, adored Set.) Set was also identified (by the Egyptians) with the god of the Jewish people who even then bore an ancient reputation as powerful magicians. (One of the Jewish god’s names (γah) sounds similar to io, the Coptic word for donkey.)
Dionysus, to whom donkeys are sacred, also became increasingly suspect and disregarded. As the Common Era loomed, there was little room or official sympathy for a wild shamanic god of intoxication, sex, and ecstasy, especially a god who encouraged women to dance wild, free and independent. King Midas was punished with donkey’s ears when he dared to suggest that a satyr was a finer musician than that Hellenic golden boy, Apollo. Satyrs were worshippers of Dionysus and on one level the story may be understood as a rebuke towards Dionysus.
By the dawning of the Common Era, conventional society and religion regarded donkeys poorly. No longer sacred, they were associated with foreigners, practitioners of magic, lechery and uncontrolled sex, and heretical strange religions, symbolic of lust and immorality. To accuse someone of worshipping an ass was considered the ultimate insult. That insult was frequently made:
In Alexandria, Greek propaganda accused Jews of worshipping a donkey’s head.
Throughout their vast empire, Roman propaganda accused Christians of worshipping a donkey’s head.
To suggest someone “worshipped the donkey” was also an allusion to Dionysus and his suppressed Bacchanalia.
Hidden within the intended insults, perhaps what authorities were using the donkey to symbolically express was that these varied spiritual traditions were stubbornly persistent and dangerously defiant.
These familiar accusations survived into the Christian era, although accusers and targets changed. Christians, once accused of worshipping donkeys themselves, now accused the Knights Templar of worshipping a mysterious idol named Baphomet. Among the forms suggested for Baphomet was that of a donkey’s head. Witches were accused of adoring Satan in the form of a donkey with huge, erect phallus while engaged in orgies at bacchanalia-like sabbats.
According to folklore, the donkey is the animal into which victims of witchcraft are most likely to find themselves transformed, the most famous example being Lucius Apuleius who was turned into an ass when he tried to steal a sorceress’ magic in the second-century CE book, The Golden Ass.
Familiars are witches’ animal friends, partners, and companions. The term “familiar” implies an actual, specific, living animal—unlike the larger term “ally” which is inclusive of spirit animals. In general, familiars are what their name says: familiar. These are the animal companions people keep as pets within their homes.
Do you have a familiar? If you have had an intense emotional bond with a living creature other than a human, then one might say you have had a familiar, whether you work magic with that animal in any capacity or not. The dog who won’t leave your side, the cat who nightly sleeps on your feet, the bird who begins to sing as soon as it catches sight of you: these are all familiars, or at least potentially so. The dog who guards you with his life is as much a familiar as the cat who assists you in magic ritual. Mutual love, loyalty, and devotion define the relationship between familiars and humans. Whether that relationship is also part of a working magical partnership is up to you.
In terms of witchcraft, the familiar is the witch’s partner, assisting her in various magical working including divination and spell-casting. Although any creature could be a familiar, certain animals are considered most likely to become familiars or to be most suitable or powerful, including cats, dogs, ferrets, crows, hedgehogs, toads, snakes, and other animals found within this section of the Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.
A very high percentage of the animal species considered most likely to be familiars have been identified with the moon, lunar deities, and fertility ever since Neolithic times including cats, frogs and toads, snakes, canines, hedgehogs, and birds.
That defines the identity of the familiar and its role in witchcraft as seen by witches, past and present. However, that definition presupposes that intense emotional and psychic bonds between humans and other living beings are possible and are something positive. That’s a fairly modern viewpoint: one way of looking at familiar-keeping witches of the Middle Ages is that they were way ahead of their time, at least in terms of animals.
Today hardly anyone blinks an eye at people who talk of how much they love their cats, dogs, lizards or other pets. The pet industry is a hugely profitable business: people buy special food and toys for their animals. They spend fortunes to heal their ailing animals. Even today, however, many consider this crazy, and they were in the majority not that long ago.
There are still people who adamantly insist that they would never keep an animal in their house. No need to wonder why. Once upon a time, intense affection and familiarity with another species could get you arrested for witchcraft. Humans were not the only ones killed en masse during the Burning Times: most familiars of convicted witches were burned alive too.
During the Witchcraze, the witches’ viewpoint was not the officially accepted definition of “familiar.” According to the inquisitors, familiars weren’t just plain old animals of whom witches were very fond. Familiars were special gifts from Satan given to witches upon their initiation at sabbats to act as messengers and servants. The familiar’s animal or bird form might only be a satanic illusion; the familiar really being an imp or demon in disguise. Some inquisitors perceived that the familiar wasn’t the witch’s servant but her boss. The familiar gave the witch her orders, which she must then obey for fear of the devil. (See below, Imp.)
According to the witch-hunters’ definition, there was no need for a familiar to be visible or physically present to exist: familiar imps and demons could transform into various shapes or make themselves invisible if they desired. This had tremendous implications. Because some witch-hunters decided that, by definition, witches possessed familiars, a demonic familiar, invisible to everyone but the witch (or the witnesses who testified against her) made it possible for someone with no contact with animals to be convicted of having a familiar. The very fact that no one but the witch’s accusers could see the familiar was offered as the very proof of witchcraft. Of course the witch denied having a demon imp, but what would you expect her to say? She’s a witch.
These various conflicting perceptions are best exemplified by the story of Dr William Harvey and the witch, as told in an anonymous seventeenth-century manuscript. Dr Harvey (1578—1657), the discoverer of the circulation of blood, visited Newmarket with his patron King Charles I. Hearing stories about a local witch, Dr Harvey decided to investigate. He paid a call on the anonymous witch at her home at the edge of Newmarket Heath. Her first instincts were to be wary and secretive but Dr Harvey worked to put her at ease. Engaging her in conversation, he managed to pass himself off as a fellow magical practitioner. Enjoying the company, the witch relaxed. When Dr Harvey asked to see her familiar, she obliged. Putting out a saucer of milk, the witch made some toad-like noises and a toad hopped out from under a chest to lap up the milk.
Dr Harvey gave the woman a shilling and sent her out to buy them some ale. In her absence, he caught and dissected her toad. Imagine someone coming into your home and secretly dissecting your pet. Having dissected the creature, Dr Harvey formed the scientific conclusion that the familiar was not an imp or a demon but was, in fact, really a toad and thus, in his understanding, not truly a familiar.
When the woman returned with the ale and learned what had happened, she was absolutely devastated, screaming and lunging at the doctor. He tried to calm her with gifts and explanations, all to no avail. Eventually he lost patience and identified himself as the king’s physician, telling her that instead of crying for her toad, she should be rejoicing that he wasn’t having her tried for witchcraft. Dr Harvey was an early scientific hero and this story is often understood as a parable recounting an early triumph of science over superstition.
Ferrets (Polecats) and Weasels
Perhaps only hyenas attract the same level of fear and revulsion as weasels. True, many people dislike cats, spiders, wolves, and snakes but that loathing tends to be mingled with grudging admiration. Even people who claim to be all-around animal lovers frequently make an exception for weasels, perceived as disgusting, blood-thirsty, evil creatures with no redeeming features. They might be surprised to know that once upon a time, in some places, weasels were admired, useful, and sacred.
The order Mustelidae encompasses weasels, ferrets, badgers, stoats, polecats, fishers, martens, minks, wolverines, otters, and the most famous member of the family, the skunk. It’s a smelly family; the order’s name derives from its members’ ability to produce must (musk) from their well-developed anal glands.
Mustelidae are a well-distributed family and the identification of weasels with witchcraft occurs throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Weasels and ferrets traditionally serve as witches’ familiars and as a form into which witches commonly change. Weasels are understood as “witch-creatures.” As with hyenas, the comparison isn’t intended to be complimentary toward witches; however, negative feelings towards weasels tend to be based on misinformation, misinterpretation, and untruths.
The Mustelidae family has a lot of members; the names used to refer to various species are frequently used carelessly and interchangeably. Popular understanding of what is a weasel or ferret may not match scientific classification.
Weasels and ferrets are closely related species but they are not identical. Ferrets are exclusively domestic animals; they were domesticated about the same time as cats and were once far more widely distributed as pets. Few people have actually seen a weasel; wild, forest animals, they’re significantly smaller than ferrets. Despite their big reputations, weasels are tiny. Fierce, energetic and truly fearless, they can and will successfully attack creatures many times their size, chickens only one example.
Weasels appear to be magical creatures for a variety of reasons:
Because they are so tiny, like a fairy creature, their ability to bring down a much larger animal appears to be magical—witchcraft. (Fairies were once understood as potentially very dangerous.)
A legend exists (it happens to be untrue) that weasels hypnotize their prey with their “evil gaze” like a snake-charmer. This only adds to their sinister reputation.
Sleek, slim, with tails as long as the rest of their bodies, weasels resemble furry snakes with legs. Like snakes, they burrow in Earth, disappearing within and then suddenly popping out. Their size makes them look like creatures that should be prey, not predator. Brave, fearless killers despite their size, weasels look like a magical blend of cat and snake.
Weasels in Northern climates change colors magically to blend with the seasons. Usually light brown with a white belly in warm weather, many species turn snow white in winter.
Weasels cannot be contained. Houdinis of the animal world, they wriggle snake-like out of cages and confinement, disappear into holes in Earth, leap and climb to precarious heights, and twist their limber bodies into all kind of gymnastic feats. Quiet, stealthy, and fast, weasels suddenly jump out like jack-in-the-boxes: pop goes the weasel!
What seems to disturb people most, and the reason why ferrets are banned as pets in places like California, is their manner of killing and eating. People perceive that weasels enjoy killing, have fun with it and are needlessly blood-thirsty, leaving devastation in their wake.
There’s a vestige of truth in this observation but it’s also misunderstood and misinterpreted.
As tiny creatures that kill larger animals, of course what they’ve killed is too much for them to eat (and weasels, unlike wolves, are solitary hunters; there’s no group feast) so, typically, a weasel takes a few bites (more likely a few sips of blood) and then moves on. People see weasels as blood-thirsty, vampiric, murderous creatures and dub them “wasteful killers.” (Of course, this is all relative. From a hyena’s perspective, humans must be incredibly wasteful: we don’t grind up bones and eat them, the way they do.)
It’s difficult to understand weasels’ habits unless you understand weasels. They may as well be poster animals for what was once labeled hyperactivity. Weasels and ferrets in action resemble the cartoon character, “the Tasmanian devil.” Smart, fun, dizzyingly fast, they never stop moving, bouncing, playing—or at least not until they pass out from exhaustion, only to jump back into action as soon as they are refreshed. Not only their bodies but their minds are constantly working. Lively, joyous, curious, not shy: they are extremely fun animals to watch and play with, but they can be dangerous pets. With very low thresholds of boredom, their minds must be constantly engaged. Unlike many cats, dogs, or even snakes and rabbits, ferrets cannot be left alone to sleep or wait for the fun to begin. Left to their own devices, they will escape from any cage and cause havoc in their wake in their desire for fun, adventure, and stimulation.
Weasels possess an extremely high metabolic rate; they need small amounts of food protein more frequently than slower, more sedate, less active creatures. For these tiny creatures, even a few bites are sufficient. Squirrels cache their nuts, leopards store their meat, but this isn’t the nature of the speedy little weasel. It doesn’t think about what’s been left behind but searches for something new. When it’s hungry, it kills again. It may lap blood from its victim’s throat for a quick burst of energy, lending it its reputation as a vampire. (This nature is common to weasels, polecats, and ferrets.)
Despite its name, the European ferret is originally native to the Middle East and North Africa and was domesticated there several thousand years ago. Ferrets are also commonly called polecats, indicating the confusion between cats and weasels. Once upon a time, the classification of species was based on observation, not genetics. Cats and ferrets were perceived as being closely related, although that’s not scientifically true. The same name, “catta,” was used to indicate both ferrets and cats. In old writings, it’s difficult to determine to which the word refers. To add to the confusion, there are wild species known as polecats that are also identified as popular witches’ familiars. These polecats dwell in woods, swamps and marshes, making dens in stream banks or under tree roots.
Ferrets originally played roles not dissimilar from pet cats. Long before cats became common in Europe, ferrets were used to keep homes and storehouses safe from mice, rats, and other vermin. Weasels were famously used as ratcatchers in ancient Rome.
In some places, ferrets are third in popularity as pets, following only dogs and cats. However, there is a reason cats, once they were well distributed geographically, drastically overtook the role once played by ferrets. Adult ferrets behave like crazed kittens. The phrase “curiosity killed the cat” probably applies to ferrets more than it does to felines. With more curiosity than common sense, ferrets get into a lot of trouble. They must be supervised: they get into holes in the walls, behind household appliances; every year ferrets are killed when they sneakily climb inside pullout sofas and are then accidentally crushed.
Weasels are associated with knowledge: they can’t get enough, even when it isn’t beneficial to them. They possess an unstoppable urge to know. This concept survives in the English language when we say someone “weaseled” or “ferreted out” information.
Mythologically speaking, weasels are associated with magic, witchcraft, prophesy, sex, reproduction, death, battle, and healing:
Because of their shape, weasels are associated with human genitalia.
Because they slip easily in and out of Earth, weasels were understood as messengers between the realms of daily reality, the after-life and the spirit world. Fearless, smart, and persistent, nothing will stop them from accomplishing a mission.
Because they can dig their way out of anything, and escape from any confinement, they are associated with successful childbirth, their powers beseeched to quicken a child stalled in the womb or birth canal.
In the North American Pacific Northwest, the mink (a form of weasel) is the embodiment of the cultural trickster hero. He prepares Earth for human habitation. Mink differs from other trickster heroes like Coyote, Raven or Rabbit because of his suave, amorous, untiring nature; he is the lover-boy supreme!
In Apuleius’ tale The Golden Ass, a man is paid to guard a corpse from Thessalian witches. The witch ultimately approaches, stealthily and successfully, in the form of a weasel. She gets what she wants and simultaneously manages to play an enormous trick on the hero of the story, too. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: The Golden Ass.)
According to Greek myth, Hera sought to prevent or at least painfully delay Hercules’ mother, Alcmene, from giving birth to him. Depending on the version told, she posted either a childbirth deity or a pack of witches before Alcmene’s birth chamber with instructions to delay her at all cost. Seven days of hard labor later, Alcmene was in agony and near death. The plot was finally foiled by Alcmene’s devoted servant, Galanthis, who stopped the jinx with a trick. In the midst of all the angst and misery, in the presence of the goddess or witches, Galanthis laughed with gusto. Her laughter broke the spell; they assumed Alcmene had given birth and ceased their spell-work. Hera punished Galanthis by transforming her into a weasel, as a rebuke for trickery and too much cleverness. Weasel-shaped Galanthis ran off to the midwife-witch goddess Hecate, who offered admiration and respect for Galanthis’ ability to provide successful, safe delivery despite formidable odds. Hecate adopted the weasel as her sacred servant.
Flies play various roles in witchcraft: as witches’ familiars; as witches’ weapons; as the vehicle for the shaman’s wandering soul. Flies were anciently associated with the mysteries of birth and death. Once upon a time, especially in the Middle East, flies were understood as souls of the dead searching for new incarnations. Souls were believed able to travel between lives in insect form. The Philistine deity Baal-Zebub, an aspect of the masculine fertility spirit Baal, is Lord of the Flies, the Shepherd of Souls. He would eventually become demonized and transformed into Beelzebub, a synonym for Satan.
Flies also represent the shaman’s journeying soul, whether literally or figuratively. Flies were envisioned as flying in and out of the entranced shaman’s open mouth. Should the fly be unable to return, the soul might be stuck in limbo, the shaman forever unable to awaken from the trance.
Flies may also be spirits in disguise and not particularly nice ones either. According to Arabic legend, King Solomon once transformed a mass of malevolent djinn into flies, imprisoning three million of them within a black glass bottle, which was then hidden inside a well near Babylon. Centuries later, local people searching for treasure came upon the bottle and broke it, releasing the flies/djinn, who were free but, unable to break Solomon’s transformation spell, were more spiteful and malevolent than ever.
Flies serve as witches’ familiars, especially in Scandinavia. Flies journey out to do the witch’s bidding (not always malevolent) and scout out information. Those imprisoned on accusations of witchcraft were often inadvertently betrayed by flies or other insects. Although they might emphatically deny the charges, even under torture, witch-hunters would claim that the presence of persistent, hovering flies was proof that the person had a familiar and was thus a witch. Of course, considering the standards of sanitation and cleanliness in a medieval prison, plus the presence of blood and pus from untreated, infected wounds incurred during torture, how could there not be flies?
Sometimes accused witches died before they could be executed, acquitted or otherwise released, whether because of suicide, miscalculated torture or deliberate murder. Because witch trials were legal proceedings, none of those scenarios was officially acceptable. The truth of the situation was often hushed up by blaming it on the flies; allegedly Beelzebub had sent emissaries in the form of flies to help the witches “escape” judgment.
Flies are often perceived negatively within traditional witchcraft.
Saami shamans allegedly kept flies in magic boxes to be sent out as desired to cause injury, or at least so claimed their non-Saami neighbors.
Not all flies are bewitched flies but the ones that are may be fatal: throughout Tanzania, special flies allegedly attack and kill victims at night as directed by the sorcerers who control them.
According to Pueblo Indian folklore, witches control flies and other insects, directing them to nefarious, destructive purposes.
Foxes are intensely identified with witchcraft in East Asia, and most profoundly in Japan where they are the witchcraft animal supreme. Foxowning is a specific form of witchcraft, unique to Japan.
The fox’s role in witchcraft may derive from its ancient importance in Japanese spirituality. Inari is the ancient but still immensely popular Shinto spirit of rice, food, and nourishment. Inari brings prosperity, fertility, and abundance and has shrines in every Japanese farming village. The fox is Inari’s sacred animal, messenger and, sometimes, alter ego. Stone or wooden foxes are always found in front of Inari’s shrines. The fox and Inari merge to form one being: the question of which came first, the fox or the human shape, is irrelevant. They are parallel forms of the sacred being.
You’ll notice I haven’t used either “he” or “she” to refer to Inari; that’s because Inari’s gender(s) remains subject of debate. Today Inari is most commonly depicted as a bearded man carrying bundles of rice, however Inari also manifests as a beautiful woman or as a female fox. Inari’s female manifestation is believed to be older, predating the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. There is much debate in spiritual and academic communities as to whether Inari has always possessed both male and female manifestations or whether the original, primal spirit was female but over time, for socio-political and religious reasons, the male form became preferable and more common.
Inari in her feminine aspect is also intensely involved with sex, fertility, reproduction, and the magical arts, not only agricultural abundance. Similar but exclusively female fox spirits possessing strong ties to magic and witchcraft exist in China, India, and Tibet.
Once upon a time, Japanese fox spirits were protectors, teachers, and sponsors of witchcraft. Even now some fox spirits are saintly and helpful. (And the foxes that serve as Inari’s messengers are miracle workers, understood as sacred and godly.) However, as centuries passed, attitudes towards witchcraft became more ambivalent, and fox spirits became feared. Why?
Fox spirits are held responsible for illness and misfortune. They possess victims, similar to possession by demons, dybbuks or zar spirits. (This isn’t ritual possession or channeling; it’s involuntary and unpleasant—see MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.) Sometimes full possession (spiritual takeover) results; sometimes only individual symptoms of possession. Symptoms of fox possession include hearing voices, insatiable and indiscriminate appetite, nocturnal feelings of suffocation plus increasing facial resemblance to a fox: The person begins to develop a visible “snout.”
Eventually the fox may push the true individual out, taking over body, soul, and personality, either full-time or just intermittently. The fox spirit speaks through the person’s mouth, often indulging in obscenities, frequently sexual, which the person would normally never use. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Tarantella.)
Specific individuals and families are believed to control fox spirits. The solitary fox-owner is most frequently believed to be a corrupt and degenerate sorcerer or exorcist, the proverbial shaman-gone-bad. Although fox familiars are disproportionately female, those humans who put them to evil use are usually male.
Although most fox spirits are perceived as greedy or power-hungry, spiritual motivation may exist as well; what the fox spirit may really desire is a shrine and daily offerings. The only way for them to make their desire known is through a human mouth, similar to African zar spirits.
Solitary sorcerers dispatch foxes to carry out nefarious deeds. The old extortion racket may be at play: what seems like a perfectly respectable exorcist who specializes in ridding people of fox-spirit possession may actually be the source of that possession, the one who sent the fox. No wonder he can exorcise the spirit: the fox is his familiar who always does his bidding. Fox spirits may also be rented out to others for a fee, to perform their secret, dirty work as well. (Fox spirits tend to run in packs. As opposed to the concept of one familiar per person, the fox-owner may have a large number of fox spirits to work with. Seventy-five is a typical number, although there may be less. Foxes in the wild do not run in packs incidentally, being relatively solitary creatures.)
Fox spirits are fed daily; in return the familiar performs various magical services on the person’s behalf. It is a mutually beneficial relationship although neighbors may see the fox-owner as threatening and possessing unfair advantages.
Fox spirits run in families. Families who are hereditary owners of foxes typically transmit this hereditary power through the female line. For centuries tremendous fear and social stigma have been attached to families rumored to be fox-owners. Not only is it hereditary, fox-owning may be contagious too. One becomes contaminated (at least by the social stigma) by living in a house formerly occupied by a fox-owner or by possessing his or her property. Contamination may be avoided by avoiding the fox family: don’t visit them, don’t socialize with them, don’t engage in any financial transactions with them, don’t be friends with them (but don’t offend them either; you don’t want them coming after you), and don’t marry into their family—most especially don’t marry their women.
Japan has never had European-style witch-hunts; few witches have been killed. Instead their punishment is intense social ostracism. Occasionally ostracism has evolved into violence: houses burned down as retribution and/or entire families banished.
This isn’t ancient history: in 1952 a young couple committed suicide together because the woman came from a family with a reputation for fox-owning and the man’s family forbade their marriage. Because fox power is transmitted through the female line, they feared its impact (perhaps magically but certainly socially) on their family.
Just like real foxes are believed to surreptitiously raid chicken coops, fox spirits are believed to rob the neighbors. (Fox-owners are believed to gain wealth at the expense of others. To become suddenly, mysteriously wealthy is to leave oneself open to accusations of malevolent witchcraft—particularly if anyone else in the area is simultaneously suffering misfortune.)
In China, fox spirits retain their positive identity. Among their primary roles is the protection of archivists and librarians. Should a document be lost, missing or otherwise unable to be located, offerings are made to the fox spirit. After the offering is made, the archivist leaves the room for a little while to give the spirit space and opportunity to work its magic. Upon his return, the document, book or scroll should stick out or somehow draw attention to itself.
Despite the ostracism, you’d like a fox familiar. If you’re not from a family associated with them, where do you begin?
How does one obtain a fox familiar? A late seventeenth-century work contains an account of the Izuna Rite, the magical ritual by which people gain power over fox familiars:
1. Find a pregnant fox.
2. Feed her, care for her, form an alliance with her during her pregnancy but especially afterwards when she’s needy and vulnerable.
3. YOU CANNOT TAKE A CUB, NO MATTER WHAT. This isn’t “fluffybunny” magic; I’m not making this up. This is what the seventeenth-century text instructs. If you are meant to have a fox familiar, when the cubs are sufficiently grown, the mother will bring you one and tell you to name it.
4. Name the fox but keep the name secret. Henceforth, if you call the name, the fox will come to you in invisible form. No one else will be able to see the fox spirit, only you. Nothing is ever entirely hidden, however, so be prepared for others to attribute supernatural powers to you.
Frogs and Toads
Frogs and their land counterparts, toads, are probably the most ancient and universal fertility symbols. The toad represented the uterus for the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians. It is a fertility symbol throughout the Semitic world. Some theorize that this association was made because of the appearance of frogs prior to the flooding of rivers, an important herald of fruitfulness in desert lands.
Frogs seemed to call the rain or maybe to announce it. Frogs herald the start of the rainy season in Puerto Rico, too. Here on the other side of the world, years before Columbus, they became the ancient Taino emblem of fertility. Frogs represented fertility to the Aztecs and Mayans and to various indigenous cultures of North and South America. The Aymara of Bolivia and Peru traditionally placed small frog images on hill tops to magically call down rain when it was needed.
Frogs are related to human reproductive issues throughout East Asia. In China, frogs exemplify maximum yin, the ultimate feminine force. There’s no man in the moon, according to Chinese folklore; only a woman, a rabbit, and a frog—each one symbolic of intense yin forces as is the moon herself.
Frogs and toads are amphibians: they begin their lives as water creatures (tadpoles) but eventually shape-shift into land dwellers. According to estimates there are at least 4,360 species of frogs (including toads) worldwide. Frogs are found on every continent except Antarctica.
Maybe people perceived the link between frogs and fertility because, although they need to await proper conditions, when the frog finally does give birth, the tadpoles are so numerous. The tadpole is the Egyptian hieroglyphic for the number 100,000. Frogs appeared in great numbers during the annual Nile floods; they were harbingers of abundance and prosperity.
Maybe the shape of the tadpole and its watery environment were reminiscent of the human embryo. Modern people see a resemblance between the form of a tadpole and the shape of a sperm. Rationales are fascinating but ultimately tell us more about people than about frogs. What is significant is that very early in the development of human cultures and thought, the frog and the toad became symbols of birth and the entire regenerative process.
Eventually, the frog became a Halloween animal—a representation of the witch. This is for a reason: in Europe, frogs represented midwives. In the way that a barber’s pole advises you that haircuts are available, the frog was the midwife’s advertisement: “I can help you have a safe and easy birth.” When midwives became denigrated as witches, the frog was condemned as her familiar, her telltale sign.
Frogs represented the force that initiates life to the Egyptians, symbolic of the sacred powers of fertility, regeneration, and rebirth. In one Egyptian creation story, the world is formed from primordial chaos by the collective efforts of four frogs and four snakes. Heket may be the most ancient of Egypt’s many deities. Controller of human fecundity, the consort of the spirit of the Nile, she was revered as the “Giver of Life, Goddess of Primordial Waters” and as “the great magician.” Her hieroglyphic symbol was the frog. Heket could manifest purely in frog shape as well as a woman with a frog’s head. (Whether Egyptian Heket is or isn’t identical to Anatolian Hecate remains subject to fierce debate.)
Not all frogs are female: ancient Celts called frogs “Lords of the Earth,” identifying them with healing waters and sacred wells. Vestiges of these royal frogs linger in European fairy tales, like “The Frog Prince,” where enchanted frogs lurk in magical wells awaiting transformation into fabulous princes by true love’s kiss. Because toad venom may be hallucinogenic, frogs and toads are also associated with shamanism and divination.
Although most ancient associations with frogs and toads were positive, it wasn’t always the case: Zoroaster declared that all toads should be exterminated because of their venomous, malevolent nature. This exception to the rule eventually became the general perception in post-Christian Europe. Toads and frogs were perceived variously as slimy or warty, disguised demons or witches’ familiars.
Toads’ associations with magic, fertility, and women’s wisdom never disappeared but they were certainly reinterpreted. From Northern Italy upwards through Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine, toads are named by words that also indicate “fairies,” “witches,” and “sorcerers.” In parts of Italy, for instance, frogs are called “fada” or fairy. “Rospo,” the Italian word for toad, may derive from the Latin “haruspex,” the word used for Etruscan diviners.
By the Middle Ages frogs and toads were considered among witches’ most prevalent familiars. According to Reginald Scot, author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, toads were considered second in popularity only to the cat as a witch’s familiar.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the witches say “Paddock calls” they refer to a familiar toad, “paddock” being a diminutive of the Anglo-Saxon word for toad “pad.”
According to testimony given during Basque witch trials (on the French side of the Pyrenees) toads were favored familiars. Great companies of witches allegedly traveled to cemeteries for the purpose of “baptizing” their toads, which were dressed to celebrate in black and red velvet with bells at their neck and feet. One young woman claimed to have seen a noble lady dancing at the Sabbat with four toads: one belled and costumed in velvet riding on her right shoulder, three more naked toads riding on her left shoulder and wrists.
Frogs and toads were perceived as diabolical, disgusting and grotesque. A Swiss woodcut from approximately 1500 depicts a dead witch lying on a table following her dissection. A large toad is shown where her heart should be: this was intended to demonstrate her depraved, inhuman, demonic nature.
Old memories die hard, however; even in post-Christian, post-witchcraze Europe, there was resistance towards abandoning this most potent and ancient of fertility symbols. According to Central European tradition frogs carried dead children’s souls, thus it was unlucky to kill them. A once popular Central European tradition involves offering frog-shaped ex-votos at the Virgin Mary’s shrines as part of a petition for fertility and women’s gynecological health.
Ancient people considered fierce, dangerous mothers desirable. A passive mother who couldn’t or wouldn’t defend her children only left them vulnerable. Thus it’s no surprise that many beautiful goddesses of fecundity also double as war goddesses (Aphrodite, Ishtar, Oshun). Frogs (and especially toads) may be harbingers of abundance, but they’re also potentially dangerous, venomous creatures.
When attacked or injured a toad secretes a thick white poison through its skin. This sometimes hallucinogenic, often lethal substance is now called bufotenine. Once upon a time, it was known as “toad’s milk” and was incredibly feared. Allegedly an ingredient in many witches’ flying ointments, it is typically the key ingredient in Amazonian arrow poison. It was believed that witches dispatched toads to poison their enemies. During Scotland’s North Berwick witch trials, Agnes Sampson confessed (under duress) to attempting to assassinate King James VI with poisonous toad juice. Toad venom may be among the ingredients of the formula that transforms people into zombis.
General wisdom states that goats were the first animals to be successfully domesticated. Goats are involved in a lot of firsts:
Goats are credited with leading people to coffee, once a sacred beverage. (For many, it still is.) An Ethiopian shepherd noticed that his goats were particularly perky; he watched as they chewed coffee berries and tried some himself, thus initiating the cult of caffeine.
Goats brought various fragrant resins to people, most especially rock roses, among Aphrodite’s holy flowers. The aromatic essence was discovered clinging to goats’ beards.
Some of the most ancient existing evidence of magical/spiritual ritual involves the unearthed funeral rites of a Neanderthal child discovered in Teshik-Tash, modern Uzbekistan. The child’s partial skeleton was encircled by ibex horns, a type of wild goat, arranged vertically in pairs, the pointed ends stuck into the ground, reminiscent of later European funerary spells that involve driving spindles into the ground, usually intended to quiet the restless dead.
Goats are responsible for the discovery of the Oracle of Delphi. Before there was ever a shrine, Delphi was a playground for goats, which thrived on the rocky terrain. Humans followed them up the slopes and domesticated them c. 1400 BCE. As legend tells it, a massive earthquake created a chasm or fissure at Delphi through which some sort of vapor emanated. (Modern science has been unable to detect or explain these vapors.) Goats exposed to the vapors were observed to act strangely, suffering spasms and bleating in odd voices. Their keepers began to have similar experiences except that their odd voices were discovered to be prophetic. Delphi eventually became an organized oracular shrine, originally dedicated to Gaia, the Earth and then to Apollo. Goats remained the ritual sacrifice at Delphi.
Goats are associated with love, knowledge, fertility, prophesy, expiation, regeneration, and rebirth. They are intensely associated with sex, sexual energy, and the procreative urge and power. Goats serve as Aphrodite’s mount and as companions of various Middle Eastern fertility spirits, including Inanna-Ishtar and Lady Asherah. Perceptions change: once upon a time, comparing a man to a goat implied admiration. Today’s “old goat” is a pathetic, foolish lecher, kind of like those dumb-ass donkeys.
According to a Germanic magic spell, goat tallow rubbed onto the penis serves as a babe magnet, irresistibly attracting women.
Goats were profoundly involved with a multitude of ancient spiritual traditions including Celtic, Greek, Jewish, Norse, Roman, and Sumerian. Goats are sacred to Aphrodite, Azazel, Dionysus, Freya, Hera, Hermes, Pan, Thor, Zeus: sexy deities, one and all.
Goats were respected, sacred, and beloved in ancient religion. Goats were people’s teachers, companions and in many places, primary food animal, supplying meat, milk, dairy products, and material for clothing and tents.
Goats were not generally considered to be witches’ familiars, nor do witches transform into goats. Goats do frequently serve as witches’ mounts however, and many medieval woodblock prints depicting witchcraft show witches riding on goats’ backs, just like Aphrodite, although this may have been intended to euphemistically suggest that witches copulate with the devil. No animal is more associated with the Christian devil than the goat. Artistic renditions of the sabbat from the Middle Ages to Goya’s masterpieces depict Satan presiding over the witches’ sabbat in the form of a tall man-sized upright goat. Satan is also depicted as a composite creature, frequently with bat’s wings and a snake’s forked tongue, but with goat’s eyes, horns and hooves.
More in-depth discussion of goats’ ancient spiritual roles and the part they were given to play during the Witchcraze are found in HORNED ONE.
The stereotypical African witch doesn’t have a pointy hat or broomstick but she’s still a night rider journeying to secret assignations with other witches. These female witches ride naked atop galloping hyenas, with one foot dragging on the ground, the other on the hyena. (Allegedly this enables the hyena to attain extraordinary speed.) The witch carries a flaming torch, fueled with hyena butter, keeping an extra supply in a gourd slung over her shoulder so there’s no danger of running out.
It’s the hyenas that reveal her identity. Hyenas are believed to be the telltale sign that causes someone, usually but not exclusively women, to be branded a witch in Africa. Any evidence, regardless how flimsy or tangential, linking someone with hyenas may be considered proof of sorcery in African witchcraft trials.
Witches ride hyenas. Witches keep hyena familiars. Witches are hyenas. Witches shape-shift into hyenas. Zambian sorcerers enter trances and send their souls into the bodies of real hyenas. In other areas, there’s no such thing as “real” hyenas: all are magical creatures, witches in disguise or witches’ familiars. There’s no such thing as a hyena that is not somehow affiliated with witchcraft.
Hyenas who are witches take spiritual possession of people, creating a kind of soul-hyena: the victimized person doesn’t physically transform, but inside, where a human soul should be, lurks this hyena. If your best friend doesn’t act like herself, maybe it’s because she isn’t herself: a hyena has supplanted her soul and taken over her body.
People who are witches transform hyenas into human likenesses. They can selectively choose the likeness, too. If your best friend begins to act strangely, maybe it really wasn’t him at all but a hyena in disguise. In other words, there are two of them walking around: the real one and the disguised hyena—something like a Swan Lake scenario but with hyenas instead of swans. Witches are also believed able to create hyenas: their bodies are molded from porridge and brought to life via rituals and herbs.
Witches are believed able to cast sleeping spells on hyenas, transforming them into their own likeness, putting them to bed beside their own husbands so that the witches can secretly slip out with no fear that the husband will ever wake up and discover their disappearance. (During European witch trials, witches allegedly used brooms, branches, and sticks in identical manner for the same purpose. Because this was generally believed, husbands testifying that their wives couldn’t possibly have attended sabbats as they had been home in bed together were thus unable to provide alibis for their wives.)
According to Bantu tradition, real hyenas are perfectly capable of transforming into human form without any help from a witch. The transformation may, however, only be accomplished during the day. Some hyenas shape-shift in order to visit, harass or terrorize humans, but some do it just for the joy of shape-shifting. Whole communities of shape-shifting hyenas are said to exist; although to an outsider they may look exactly like ordinary people. Don’t try to stay in their village, though, no matter how friendly the locals seem; they may look like people but they still eat like hyenas. In order to shape-shift like this, hyenas must obtain a human soul. How this is done varies but hyenas that eat human corpses, as hyenas are known to do, may have the inside track.
Throughout Africa, hyenas allegedly live and bear their young in the houses of witches who milk them daily.
In some areas, although not many, hyenas gain some level of protection from their associations with witchcraft: it’s believed dangerous to kill a hyena because her witch will magically retaliate.
In parts of East Africa, every witch is believed to own at least one hyena, which is branded with her special witch-mark, something like a bewitched cattle brand, invisible to regular eyes although clearly visible to other witches. Witches allegedly refer to their hyenas as “night cattle.” People swear they’ve seen hyenas sporting earrings, either indicating that they’re transformed people or that a person pierced that ear, as even the most magical hyena still lacks the skills for employment in a piercing parlor. (None of these tales actually derive from witches themselves; all are second-hand at best.)
The art of hyena riding is apparently very challenging. Novice witches must be trained at regular bush meetings where mounted witches gather. These rendezvous are reminiscent of European sabbats with one crucial exception. Yes, witches gather for orgies, cannibalism and all sorts of evil works, but there’s no devil in attendance. Like female hyenas, which are the dominant gender of their species, no need for a male director of ceremonies exists.
Observing the powerful identification of hyenas with witches in Africa that exists even today makes one think that this is how it must have been with black cats and witches during the European Burning Times. Any association between a cat and a woman was believed to betray witchcraft: witches rode cats, kept cats, transformed into cats. Even lone cats, sans women, were believed to be witches in disguise. There is one crucial difference though: even at the height of the Witchcraze, cats were understood to be beautiful, sensuous, sometimes useful creatures. They might be evil but seductively so. An element of longing exists: a desire to destroy what one can’t possess or control.
In Africa, hyenas are associated with garbage, feces, corpses, death, cemeteries, decay, and rotten odors. (And there are places where hyenas do live on human garbage and refuse or lurk in cemeteries, although this tends to be in urbanized areas where few other alternatives remain for them.) They are the largest creatures to exist mainly from scavenging. They are ungainly, awkward creatures, shaggy, smelly, and ragged-looking. They get into garbage; they unearth graves. They are not afraid of people, stealthily entering settlements at night in search of food, their identities exposed by glowing eyes and their characteristic, eerie laughter.
Hyenas are actually extremely interesting creatures, with unusual social structures and unusual genital structures, too. Females are the dominant gender within hyena society; unlike many species, females are 10 percent larger than males. Hyena females eat first; males wait to eat whatever’s left over. Of course, this was difficult to determine for a long time. Male and female hyena genitals are virtually indistinguishable from each other, at least for human observers. Female spotted hyenas have highly developed, extremely large clitorises with erectile potential. (Subservient female hyenas—not the alphas—are the only creatures who display genital erections as a sign of submission; hyenas greet each other via genital inspection.) They urinate, copulate, and give birth through these clitorises. Scientists who study sex hormones adore hyenas: females have extremely high levels of androgens, traditionally considered the male sex hormone. These androgens are converted to testosterone, of which female hyenas possess a high level, especially when pregnant. A pregnant hyena’s testosterone level may exceed that of the males. (Hyenas are used in animal research to study hormones.)
Hyenas have their own family group, the Hyaenid. Based on fossil evidence there may have once been more than 69 species. Hyenas were once found in Europe as well as African and Asia, where they exist today. However, only four species survive.
Witch hyenas tend to be striped and spotted hyenas, and most especially spotted ones, which are the species commonly known as “laughing hyenas.”
Animals strongly identified with witchcraft tend to be formerly sacred animals who’ve since lost their reputations and are now feared and despised, like witches and the magical arts. Most of these animals have former spiritual affiliations with profound life-and-death topics: sex, birth, and the after-life. Do hyenas have a similar history? It’s hard to tell; very little information is available. All these tales of night-riding come from outsiders, anthropologists, witch-hunters, missionaries, and story-tellers. There are some clues however:
This association of malevolent witchcraft with an animal species characterized by dominant females with visibly large penis-sized clitorises occurs in areas where female genital mutilation (excision of the clitoris) is a traditional practice. The very lack of discussion of hyenas when discussing mythic explanations for female genital excision is revealing. (The most commonly told myth involves removal of termite hills.)
Some African tribes traditionally dispose of their dead by putting the bodies out in the bush for hyenas to eat, something that smacks of sacrifice.
In Harar, Ethiopia, people feed hyenas and encourage scavenging. It’s become an oddity, something for tourists to see, so there’s little serious spiritual discussion of the bonds between Ethiopia’s “hyena men” and the animals they feed, at personal financial sacrifice and in the face of social ostracism.
Hyenas are traditionally believed allied to vultures, scavengers who are also now feared and disliked but who were sacred birds in Egypt and elsewhere. The word for “vulture” in ancient Egyptian was synonymous with “mother.”
Medieval Europeans believed that there was a stone within the hyena’s eye (there isn’t), which, when placed under a person’s tongue, enabled one to foretell the future.
Hyenas are associated with smiths and other artisans, respected, required members of society who are also feared and associated with sorcery, the original professional magicians. These artisans transform raw materials (ore, clay) into practical, beautiful, sometimes spiritual goods. Hyenas are believed able to transform themselves.
Legendary associations of hyenas and witches make for good stories but like the identification of cats with witches during the Burning Times, this is really no laughing matter.
Associations of hyenas with smithcraft and witchcraft are not only folkloric fantasy tales but have had a massive impact on people’s lives, contributing to tragic prejudice. Hyenas are associated with individuals but also with ethnic groups who are thus tarred by associations with malevolent witchcraft. The word “buda” (also spelled “bouda”) indicates “hyena-person.” During the day budas appear to be ordinary people but at night budas either transform into hyenas or they ride on the backs of hyenas in great packs.
Budas and hyenas are believed to possess the Evil Eye, which leaves their victims drained and debilitated. Specific ailments are also associated with the Evil Eye. There’s no obvious physical attack; there may be no contact, however fleeting, with a hyena. This is a spiritual, magical attack.
Traditionally budas are ironworkers and potters. Wherever people fear the buda, there are professional buda experts, similar to European witch-finders. They are engaged to determine the identity of the buda who cast the Evil Eye.
There are various methods of lifting the Evil Eye:a simple case may be cured via incantation, but in persistent cases an expert may be consulted to determine the identity of the buda, which is believed necessary to break the spell. Sometimes the victim is made to identify the buda, even if they claim complete ignorance. The victim, who by definition is already not feeling too well whatever the cause, is interrogated (sometimes harshly, sometimes for hours) until identification of the perpetrator is made.
The victim may be brought before the alleged buda who is forced to spit upon the victim, his saliva believed to vanquish the Evil Eye.
If the expert buda-finder is unable to determine the identity of the buda, the victim’s forehead may be stamped with a hot iron brand. This signature mark will allegedly show up on the face of the guilty buda, too, providing identification. As you can imagine, buda-finders who resort to this tactic frequently are not in high demand.
Goma smoke is another method of stopping and reversing the effects of the Evil Eye. The ability to use fire characterizes the buda (whether smith or potter). So fighting fire with fire, smoke is generated to counteract and eliminate the effects. This is not just any old smoke: goma smoke is produced by burning tires or chicken feces alongside an assortment of woods. It is not fragrant, quite the opposite. On market days when artisans pass through villages, goma is lit as protective fires before residences.
Goma is also used to identify the buda. Perceived victims of the Evil Eye are tortured by being smoked with goma, which has an oppressively foul smell, until they name the perpetrator. Once the perpetrator is named, the guilty party is summoned to face the victim, apologize and remove the Eye. There’s no such thing as inability; if they can’t, it’s perceived that they won’t. An article of the buda’s clothing may be taken (sometimes right off their body) and thrown into the goma fire. The victim inhales smoke rising from the cloth.
The victim has no choice but to identify someone; he or she is not left alone until this is accomplished (and the victim is typically a child). The accused must also participate in the ritual, no matter how absurd or insulting, or risk being killed by a mob.
Although any individuals may be buda, the term buda is most frequently used in Ethiopia to refer to its Jewish community, the Beta Israel, who are simultaneously ethnic, religious, and professional minorities.
Beta Israel men are traditionally smiths, the women potters—transformative professions viewed by the majority Christian society with ambivalence. Tools and handicrafts are vital, needed, and highly valued yet the practice is despised (working the land being perceived as the only respectable, sanctified occupation) and associated with witchcraft—as are the practitioners, to whom supernatural powers are attributed. To be an artisan is demeaning, yet magically powerful. Forbidden to own land, historically the Beta Israel have worked as tenant farmers for Christians, often in share-cropper-like circumstances.
Available information regarding traditional African witchcraft is virtually always filtered through the eyes of anthropologists or missionaries but there are a few important exceptions: Hagar Salamon’s The Hyena People (University of California Press, 1999) contains interviews with people who survived accusations of being budas. And Nega Mezlekia’s Notes from the Hyena’s Belly (St Martin’s Press, 2000), a memoir of the author’s Ethiopian youth, gives a brief but significant explanation from the victim’s perspective.
Today, should someone suggest that you have an impish smile or impish charm, it’s probably a compliment. Most likely you’re being compared to a charmingly naughty child. Of course, today, should someone call you “little devil” or “little demon” that’s probably a compliment too, not intended to be taken literally or as a threatening, hostile statement.
Perhaps because some people needed to believe that they were inherently superior to animals, many witch-hunters had a hard time fathoming that witches’ familiars, their trusted allies and companions, were really animals. If they had superior powers, they couldn’t be mere animals; they must be little demons or devils in disguise.
Imps were small demons who, commonly disguised as animals, served as witches’ familiars. Because they were supernatural creatures they could be expected to perform services that no true animal ever could, like fly through the air, invisibly cause death and destruction, or mysteriously torment victims of witchcraft. In areas where witchcraft was intensely demonized, it was believed that when a new witch was initiated at her first sabbat, Satan personally gave her an imp, not so much to serve her but to act as her control, ensuring that the witch carried out her assigned quota of nefarious deeds.
Unlike traditional familiars, which behaved like the regular animals that they were, eating and sleeping in the manner appropriate to their species, imps had special needs. Because imps were vampiric, witches were obliged to feed them using their own body fluids, milk if they were mothers, blood if not. (What type of blood imps fed upon is not entirely clear.) Witches were believed to grow an extra nipple just to feed their little imp. The search for supernumerary nipples became a common feature of later witch-trials, although it might be “found” in odd parts of the body and in odd forms.
Should the witch’s own fluids be insufficient, the imp might go and milk neighboring livestock completely dry. These imps would travel in the form of familiar animals like bats, hedgehogs, ferrets or cats leading to strange, implausible fears about certain animals being harmful to cattle. Hedgehogs are still commonly believed to steal cow’s milk, as are bats; of course the old stories never referred to real animals—thefts were caused by supernatural imps in masquerade.
The root concept of the imp may derive from small shape-shifting spirits previously understood as friendly and helpful. Pagan European households, from Italy to Lithuania, once cherished snake-spirit household helpers. Some spirits weren’t exclusively tied to one animal form: Finland’s para, for instance, are domestic spirits known to assume the forms of cats, frogs or snakes. Attached to a person or family, they magically increase supplies of butter, milk, grain, and cash. (In later folklore, para are classified as goblins.)
As the witch-trials faded from memory, the older pagan conception of animal-shaped, mischievous domestic spirits re-emerged. Imps, those little devils, became figures of fun, mischief, and humor, albeit sometimes with a nasty edge. Imps entered the lexicon of Halloween via Victorian postcards, where they are not depicted as animals but as bright red devils, an image borrowed from the Central European “devil,” Krampus, who starred in his own postcard series. This type of imp, fun, lascivious, and joyful, is drawn to perfection in Kipling West’s The Halloween Tarot.
Iynx is the name of a nymph, a bird, and an ancient Greek love charm. The famous charm consists of a miniature spinning wheel to which a wryneck bird is attached. It’s a very primitive device; it could be a child’s handmade toy, except for that poor suffering bird. The wheel is ritually spun, accompanied by incantations to draw and bind a lover. As the spellcaster murmurs and chants, she spins the toy, which makes a humming noise, similar to heavy breathing.
Iynx the nymph was a daughter of Pan and Echo. She invented the device that bears her name as an attempt to get back at Hera who had stolen Echo’s voice. Iynx used the device to force Zeus to fall for Io. Not to be outdone in this witch-war, the furious Hera promptly transformed Iynx into a wryneck.
What does the bird have to do with the charm? Why specifically a wryneck? The Greek word for the wryneck, a species of woodpecker, is iynx, named for its cry. (Allegedly the nymph announces her name so that family and friends will recognize her in her altered state.) The bird gets its English name, “wryneck,” from the characteristic movement of its head. When the wryneck is endangered or otherwise stressed, its defense mechanism is to extend its neck further than one would believe it could, twist it around and simultaneously fluff up its head feathers. With that long neck and puffed-up head, the wryneck resembles a snake—.causing its predators to think twice before attacking, and causing people to draw some other sexually-oriented comparisons.
Not surprisingly, the charm was a woman’s tool; its goal to make the man she desired behave like that wryneck—or at least the appropriate parts of him. (And if he wasn’t easily charmed, he’d be caught like that helpless bird. This isn’t a particularly nice spell—its intent is to assertively bind, rather than sweetly seduce.)
Perhaps wrynecks became scarce, perhaps the inherent cruelty became distasteful, or perhaps it was discovered that the spell worked better without the bird. Eventually the wryneck component was abandoned and the spell cast with only the wheel. Even so, it retained its name. Eventually the name came to refer to any sort of aggressive love spell, and then finally to any sort of malevolent spell, romantic or otherwise. That usage survives in English, albeit with the Latin spelling, “jinx.”
Jaguars are ubiquitously identified with witchcraft, sorcery, magic, and shamanism throughout Central and South America. This reflects indigenous belief, existing long before European contact. (European-styled Latin American witchcraft exists too; the most typical familiars are cats, bats, and black dogs. Of course, black panthers/jaguars may be understood as supernaturally giant black cats.)
In this region, jaguars are simultaneously the most feared and revered of animals, playing a very prominent spiritual and magical role. The jaguar is the largest feline in the Western Hemisphere and is considered the most successful predator. Jaguar imagery pervades Central and South America from the Andes Mountains to the swamps of Eastern Mexico. The animal’s range once extended from Argentina north through the southern United States. The jaguar remains the most powerful jungle predator of Central and Upper South America, although its range has been drastically curtailed because of habitat loss, and also because it has been relentlessly hunted as a competitive species, for sport and for its beautiful fur.
The jaguar embodies Earth’s untamed, primal powers. Solitary, secretive creatures, jaguars are comfortable in all possible realms: they kill monkeys in trees, tap their tails into water to attract fish, jump into water to catch caimans, and hunt all sorts of other creatures on land. Jaguars cross boundaries: they are the biggest, fiercest, smartest, most mysterious animals in the jungle. They are believed to cross boundaries of species as well: many legends tell of liaisons between male jaguars and human women.
In Amazonian mythology, the jaguar is considered the Master of All Animals. Jaguars are often portrayed as the central image in depictions, adored by other animals.
The animal manifests in two varieties. The more common, a golden cat with black spots (really rosettes) bears a very strong resemblance to the leopards of the Eastern Hemisphere. Jaguars may also have black fur. (If one looks closely in the light, the rosettes may still be observed.) Completely black jaguars and leopards are both known as black panthers.
The Mayans associated jaguars with the night sky, especially the black panther. Spotted jaguars symbolize the stars in the night sky. Their golden color represents the sun, while their glowing eyes mirror the moon.
Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” Aztec Patron of Sorcerers has a jaguar as his nagual or shadow soul. Jaguars’ shining eyes are identified with mirrors and Tezcatlipoca sometimes travels in the guise of his sacred creature. Among Tezcatlipoca’s many manifestations is one as Tepeyollotli—“the Jaguar Who Lives in the Heart of the Mountain,” Earth’s core. According to Aztec belief, supernal jaguars live in caverns beneath the Earth, occasionally emerging as the need arises. A modern Lacandon Mayan prophecy warns that life as we know it will end when these jaguars emerge from their underground cavern home to devour the sun and moon.
Aztec and Mayan shamans specifically identify themselves with jaguars but the association permeates virtually all shamanic cultures throughout the continent. Shamans dress as jaguars. The Mayan word “balam” signifies both “magician-priest” and “jaguar.” The word for “jaguar” also indicates “shaman” in various unrelated indigenous languages. The jaguar protects and teaches the shaman. Many believe that the shaman actually transforms into a jaguar. Real jaguars are also believed to act as jungle shamans. In some tropical rainforest communities, snakes are believed to serve as these jaguar’s familiars.
Jaguars are also profoundly associated with various Amazonian psychoactive plants including ayahuasca. Jaguar motifs decorate paraphernalia needed for preparing brews and powders from these plants. It’s been suggested that real jaguars may chew hallucinogenic vines twined around jungle trees in the manner that domestic cats sometimes chew grass. Perhaps the jaguar literally taught shamans about these plants. (This may or may not be true but the concept isn’t absurd: reindeer have been known to eat the fungus fly agaric: see BOTANICALS: Amanita Muscaria.)
Amazonian shamans still identify with jaguars. Jaguars remain among the most popular subjects of Mexican mask makers, frequently formed with mirrored eyes.
Leopards still roam through parts of Africa and Asia, although their range is seriously curtailed because of habitat loss and hunting. Leopards once lived in Europe as well although they are extinct there now. Large, beautiful, solitary wild cats, leopards are fierce, stealthy, nocturnal hunters who are, in theory at least, not averse to hunting a lone human.
Leopards physically resemble jaguars although they are smaller and their spots are really spots, not rosettes. Like jaguars, there are two varieties: golden with black spots and pure black. A pure black leopard would be almost impossible to see at night without illumination, except for its burning, glowing eyes. Author Bruce Chatwin posits that it’s the leopard who lurks as the primordial human fear, the animal power who once scared us most.
Images dating from c. 5700 BCE from Anatolia show goddesses riding leopards. Leopards are integral to the myth of the Anatolian deity, Kybele, the Mountain Mother. Leopards raised her when she was an infant left exposed to die in the forest. Suckled on leopard’s milk, she grew up to be the first root-worker and witch, a queen and great goddess. Leopards flank her throne. (See DIVINE WITCH: Kybele.)
The leopard was sacred to Dionysus, Kybele’s sometime compatriot. Dionysus appears in the form of a leopard; panthers draw his chariot and appear in his entourage. As the word “panther” was also used as a synonym for Dionysus’ female followers, the Maenads—it’s tempting to wonder whether those panthers in his midst were intended to imply women transformed into huge black cats.
Leopards are associated with royalty throughout Africa. Many royal clans count leopards as their primeval ancestors. In some regions, wearing a leopard skin was reserved exclusively for royalty or for the most elite spiritual societies. Artifacts recovered from Tutankhamun’s grave show King Tut riding on the back of a panther. Leopards are also considered ancestors and spiritual sponsors of various African shamanic societies. Leopards were identified with Kenya’s Mau-Mau. Belief that the Mau-Mau could transform into leopard-men contributed to their fearsome reputation.
In Mali, the Bamana/Bambara witch-goddess Muso Koroni manifests as a black panther or as a many-breasted woman. (Some believe that the many-breasted deity from Anatolian Ephesus, commonly identified as either Artemis or Diana, is really that other leopard woman, Kybele.) Muso Koroni oversees initiations: it was believed that she stimulates menstruation by scratching girls with her leopard’s claws. A nocturnal spirit, like a leopard, she rules the boundaries between civilization and wilderness, straddling the balance between chaos and order.
See CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Cat People; DICTIONARY: Maenad; DIVINE WITCH: Dionysus; Muso Koroni.
The magpie is large, curious, active bird with a harsh call and a swaggering walk. It originally inhabited scrublands, forests, and other areas with dense foliage but it is now adapted to other areas, including urban habitats. Omnivorous, it eats pretty much whatever it can find: insects, seeds, fruit, small mammals, or carrion. It is a very clever bird and has a reputation for stealing and hoarding shiny objects.
Magpies inhabit North America, Europe, Northwestern Africa, the Middle East, Central and East Asia. Virtually wherever they are found, they are associated with witchcraft either as familiars or, more frequently, as the form into which witches transform. One Russian nickname for witch is “soroka-veschchitsa,” “magpie-witch.”
Magpies are members of the corvid family like jackdaws, crows, and ravens, but they have their own section here for two reasons:
Magpies were understood as a different type of bird. The other three very closely resemble each other in color (solid black) and nature. Magpies are dramatically black and white, although depending upon the light their black feathers may appear blue, green or purple.
Magpies possess very different magical and mythical associations, often specifically identified with romantic and women’s magic.
Magpies are associated with female power, romantic magic, and prophesy. In Macbeth, Shakespeare notes that magpies were used as augurs. Russian folk belief suggests that magpies announce storms. People who live near magpies will notice that the birds often announce the arrival of visitors or other changes.
Scottish, Swedish, and Russian witches commonly take the form of magpies. Latvian witches allegedly adopt the form especially for Midsummer’s Eve. Siberian witches can allegedly transform into any type of bird or animal they wish to: magpies are their most common choice.
Various legends describe Russian magpiewitches. According to one, Ivan the Terrible gathered together all the witches he could find in order to burn them, but before he could, they transformed into magpies and flew away. According to another legend, there are no magpies in Moscow because church leader Metropolitan Alexei, recognizing them for what they truly were, forbade them to fly over the city. The seventeenth-century usurper of the Russian throne, known as the False Dmitrii, had an unpopular Polish wife widely believed to be a sorceress. She allegedly escaped from Moscow by flying away as a magpie. Magpies were also occasionally burned as witches in Russia, or hung onto peasant barns as a warning to witches.
Not all magpie-witches are living transformed witches. One story suggests that murdered witches reincarnate as magpies. They are true birds but their souls remain those of witches. It’s necessary to be kind and respectful to them, some even suggest saluting them, because otherwise they’ll cast a spell on you.
In Russia and elsewhere in Europe, magpies became identified with Satan. In England, they’re known as the devil’s own bird. In Russia, flocks of magpies are associated with Satan, betraying subtle identification of witches with diabolical forces.
Chinese mythology has happier associations. Magpies form the bridge that, one day a year, permits the sacred Weaving Maiden to be reunited with her beloved husband, the Cowherd. In Chinese the epithet “Heavenly Woman” is shared by celestial goddesses and magpies, which may be goddesses in disguise.
Nahual, Nahualli, Naualli, Nagual
Deriving from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, the word “nahual” indicates different concepts in different regions of Mexico, all having to do with animal alliances. Because the same word is used to describe these linked but different concepts confusion exists. The word is also pronounced slightly differently depending upon region; attempts to transliterate the word into English have resulted in a variety of spellings. None of them is wrong.
Nahual has been translated as “shadow soul,” a human soul’s animal twin. It’s also translated as “mask” or “disguise.” The nahual is an animal ally, although the meaning is more profound than standard modern usage where animal ally may refer to a friend, companion or animal. The relationship is deeper: the nahual may be understood as one’s animal soul. It may or may not refer to a specific individual animal.
Souls and identities of humans and nahuals are bound together; they share each other’s destinies. This is a very shamanic concept, and it exists in Eastern Hemisphere magic, too, or at least once did. In Hungarian witchcraft-trials, cats, dogs, hens, and frogs are perceived as doubles or second bodies of witches.
There are various definitions of nahual.
The nahual is a person who can transform, a shape-shifting witch or sorcerer. These practices were a major concern for Colonial priests in Mexico. In 1600, Fray Juan Bautista warned of native sorcerers who transformed into chickens, dogs, jaguars, owls, and weasels. The seventeenth-century priest Ruiz de Alarcón mentions specific cases and explains the power as deriving from Satanic compact. (The Spanish Inquisition was in full swing in the Western Hemisphere.) However, the concept is of indigenous origin. Satan didn’t exist in the Western Hemisphere before priests brought him.
The Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, the divine sorcerer, was believed able to transform into a jaguar. Nahuals tend to possess specific forms; in other words not every nahual transforms into the same shapes. Not limited to animals, some nahuals may also be able to transform into natural forces, like lightning or (especially) whirlwinds. Some nahuals (this human kind) can also allegedly become invisible and thus transport themselves secretly from place to place.
Nahuals were feared and respected for their power. Although the stereotype, as filtered through the Inquisition, identifies them as malevolent independent practitioner sorcerers, they also served as protectors of their communities. During the Colonial Era, nahuals lead native resistance, which may explain some of the colonizers’ hostility toward them.
Secondly, the nahual may be the animal part of this dyad. Every human being has a nahual. You have a nahual but if you don’t know its form, then you’re only half a person, not operating at your full capacity. Under the Aztec Empire, a priest presided over a ritual on the fourth day following birth to determine a baby’s nahual and bind the relationship. This nahual serves as the person’s guide and protector, offering various psychic gifts and magical or physical powers. Each type of animal is capable of offering different gifts. Every Aztec deity had a nahual. If you share a nahual form with a deity, you share a bond with that deity, too.
If you didn’t receive your nahual as a child, it’s never too late. Another Aztec method is a do-it-yourself ritual:
1. Go into the woods alone and go to sleep.
2. Your nahual will either appear in your dreams or you will be confronted by your nahual when you awake.
3. Once the nahual is identified, you are obliged to enter into a life-long contract with it.
Furthermore, in Toltec and Mixtec traditions, the nahual is an individual’s totem or fateguardian, or perhaps the personification of one’s deepest psyche. Nahual also names the reciprocal relationship between a person and their animal double.
In Oaxaca, the traditional concept is related but subtly different. Naguals, as the word is most frequently spelled there, are a form of animal ally. Every one has one; their identity is disclosed via ritual. At its most superficial level, the nagual serves as a magical assistant, it can help you accomplish your life’s goals if you know how to work with it. However, the nagual may also be understood as a person’s other half; they mirror each other or share a soul, or perhaps the animal is the person’s second soul. Lives of human and animal are bound up together. They’re not identical, not interchangeable, one is not merely the transformed shape of the other but should one die, the other one will too.
No need for a priest here: parents usually determine a nagual’s identity shortly after a child’s birth. Identification of the nagual reveals crucial information about the child’s nature and required upbringing, not to mention taboos, which are very easy to break if you don’t know about them. There are various slightly different methods of determining a nagual. Here’s one:
1. Sprinkle ashes outside the place where a baby was born.
2. The first animal footprint captured by the ashes identifies the nagual and sometimes the baby’s name.
“Strega,” “strix,” “estrie”: these terms are synonyms for “witch,” although literally what they mean is “owl.” Owls were witches’ familiars from ancient Egypt, Rome, and Asia to modern Africa and Native America, with many stops in between. They represent divine yin: night, darkness, magic, and sacred lunar and feminine mysteries.
Owls are associated with wisdom, both conventional and secret, witchcraft, magic, sex, death, and birth. In the Eastern Hemisphere, owls were understood as emblematic of the uterus and as embodying the Great Mother’s power over life and death. Owls are sponsors of shamanism. They bestow gifts of clairvoyance and teach the arts of astral projection. They serve as guides to the realms of the spirits and the dead because, of course, owls can navigate the darkness.
There are approximately 135 living species in the order Strigiformes, varying in size from the six-inch elf owl to the three-foot long Great Gray Owl. Owls have a very distinctive shape. Only their silhouette may be required for identification. Compared to other birds, owls are fairly odd looking, resembling cats with wings. (If seated silently on a tree branch, it may be hard to immediately distinguish an owl from a cat, especially from a distance and in the dark.)
Their eyes are circular, evoking the full moon’s shape and glow. Some owls are even horned, or at least they appear to be.
Owls announce the night like crows herald the day. No bird or animal is more associated with night than owls.
Owls made a very early impression on people: in Les Trois Frères cave in France, home of the “Dancing Sorcerer,” an unmistakable outline of a pair of snowy owls together with their chicks is chipped from the rock face. Paleolithic “Eye-Goddesses” may represent stylized owls.
“Striges” was the Roman name for witch, typically understood malevolently. Owls were perceived as harbingers of doom, trouble, and death—in short bad news; however the Romans also had tremendous issues with women’s power. By the classical period, women were essentially property belonging to men: their husbands, fathers or brothers. Those women who rebelled, for instance those who joined the Bacchanalia, were punished. It was not a culture innately sympathetic to women’s sexual autonomy or to their sacred arts.
Strix came to be understood as a specific kind of witch: grotesque, sexually voracious, baby killing, female cannibals—all the negative stereotypes that still exist. This isn’t an integral part of the word’s meaning, however. Strix and its linguistic derivatives may also be understood to denote witchcraft’s positive attributes: knowledge of Earth’s powers, the ability to journey between realms, and acquisition of great wisdom, especially of crucial, secret topics.
Various sacred female spirits are profoundly identified with owls:
Owls are sacred to Athena. The small screech owl is her emblem and Homer describes Athena as “owlfaced.” It was popularly believed that Athena appeared on the battlefield as an owl during a Greek battle with the Persians.
Owls are identified with the Semitic wind spirit Lilith, whose name is cognate with “screech owl.” (There are those who deny that she appears in the Old Testament because the only clear reference to her may also be understood to literally mean “screech owl.”) Unlike most other formerly prominent Middle Eastern deities, Lilith, identified as Earth’s real first woman, survived to star in worldwide Jewish folklore, where she serves as the prototype of the witch.
Blodeuwedd, the Welsh magical woman, is formed from flowers. Since she is a magical being, she is immortal and cannot be punished by death for betraying and killing her husband Lleu; instead she is transformed into an owl, condemned to hunt alone at night for ever. The implication is that Blodeuwedd, as the embodiment of the lustful, fickle, secretive, plotting, murderous woman now displays her true form—that of a witch.
Owls fly with Tlazolteotl, Aztec witch-goddess with dominion over life, death, magic, and spiritual purification. Tlazolteotl cleans up sin like owls gobble up rats.
Marinette, Vodou sorceress lwa, manifests as a screech owl. Those whom she temporarily possesses demonstrate her presence by behaving like owls too.
Owls signify witchcraft. Whether this is understood positively, negatively or neutrally reflects cultural and individual perceptions of witchcraft. Owls famously serve as witches’ familiars and messengers and most frequently as the guise into which witches transform.
Some Siberian shamans’ coats are cut to resemble owl wings and tail.
Apuleius witnessed the successful transformation of the witch Pamphile into an owl in his novel, The Golden Ass.
In central and southern Africa, sorcerers are believed to fly at night like owls to steal food and valuables from their neighbors.
African witches who prefer not to shape-shift into hyenas are believed most likely to choose the shape of an owl instead.
Aztec nocturnal shape-shifting sorcerers were known as “tlacatecolotl,” “owl-men.”
The Aztecs associated owls with caves and mirrors—the same magical world of sorcery inhabited by sacred jaguars and presided over by the divine sorcerer, Tezcatlipoca.
Owls signify birth and women’s power, especially their reproductive and sexual powers:
In Ecuador and Peru, dating back at least as far as 300 BCE, owls representing the divine mother are favored decorative motifs on spindle whorls. The deity is usually depicted in a birthing position. (These spindles strung together are found in abundance at gravesites as well as other sites associated with death, perhaps as charms of rebirth.)
In parts of France and Wales, the hooting of owls doesn’t signify death but its opposite. It’s believed to foretell the birth of daughters.
In the nineteenth century, “owl” became slang for whore or harlot.
Circe, the sacred sorceress, notoriously transformed men into swine; historically however, pigs are more usually identified with powerful goddesses and witches than with their transformed victims.
Perhaps no animal evokes as passionate a reaction as does the seemingly humble pig. Few cultures are traditionally neutral towards pigs; instead pigs tend to inspire either intense reverence or loathing. Some ancient cultures, the Celts for instance, perceived pigs as sacred, holy animals; other cultures understand pigs to be just the opposite. Most famously, pork is a tabooed food for Muslims and Jews. Perhaps in reaction, in certain parts of medieval Christendom, to eat pork developed almost a sacramental quality: one could prove one were a good Christian by eating pork with gusto.
So some cultures perceive pigs as bad, while others see them as good. It seems so clear, doesn’t it—almost dualist? Well, when one approaches the sacred, nothing is ever that simple, and perceptions of pigs are no exception.
Prohibitions against consuming pork in what is now considered the Middle Eastern region pre-date both Islam and Judaism. The ancient Egyptians also refrained from eating pork under religious taboo, perhaps because of its associations with the dangerous sorcerer deity Set. Swineherds occupied the absolute lowest niche in ancient Egyptian society—the equivalent of India’s Untouchable caste. (Although one wonders, if no one was eating pork, why there were any swineherds at all?)
There is a belief common to many anthropologists and scholars of religion that intense food taboos virtually always arise only when something is too holy to be eaten. In general, tabooed meat derives from an animal that is (or once was) a culturally sacred totem. In plain English, the forbidden animal was once a holy beast; too sacred to eat, often too sacred to even discuss freely, so that later generations may no longer recall or understand the true original impetus for the prohibition.
Conversely, in Christian areas, pigs were simultaneously perceived as lucky and treated with contempt. Today, if someone is described as a “pig” virtually anywhere on Earth, not only in Jewish or Muslim areas, it’s almost inevitably meant as an insult.
Pigs are frequently used to represent the epitome of sloth, greed, carnal pleasures, and slovenliness.
In medieval Christian art, the pig symbolized gross materiality and the inherent bestial nature that humans should strive to rise above.
In Buddhist iconography, the pig epitomizes desire in all its forms.
People first domesticated pigs some five to seven thousand years ago, however, like cats, there are only slight distinctions between wild and domestic pigs. Abandoned domestic pigs return to a feral state easily and are notoriously self-sufficient. The term “boar” is used to refer to the wild European pig once widespread throughout the forests of Europe and the British Isles and believed to be the ancestor of modern domestic pigs. “Boar” also names the adult male domestic pig. (The female pig is a sow.) To avoid confusion, the term “pig” is used in this section to refer to the entire porcine family, wild, feral, and domestic, unless specified otherwise.
Pigs, in some ways, occupy a sacred niche similar to that of the bear, an animal whose sacredness is also considered too potent to even discuss. Like bears, pigs are associated with dangerous but fiercely devoted mothers, lunar deities, herbalism and root magic, and Earth’s gestation during winter. Bears and pigs also featured in similar sacrificial rituals and practices. Male and female bears are also called boars and sows respectively.
Pigs are highly intelligent. Today they are frequently kept as pets and many people claim that pigs are more easily trained than dogs. However, pigs are also notoriously stubborn and strong-minded. (As they can grow to be quite formidable in size, it may also be more physically challenging to persuade a recalcitrant pig to change its mind.) They are potentially destructive creatures. They do not graze like sheep; instead, they famously root, overturning the Earth in search of the delicacies they enjoy. (It is believed that pigs introduced humans to the pleasures of truffles; from a folkloric or mythic perspective, pigs are associated with mushrooms in general, and with Amanita muscaria in particular.)
Pigs are large, fierce, and stubborn. Although pigs are not predatory—they do not seek to harm humans—neither will they back down from a fight. Once they are in an aggressive mode, they may even pursue a fleeing person. A fast, angry, stubborn pig is a dangerous one. The most formidable pig ancient people would have met would have been a mother pig.
Wild boars form groups called “sounders.” Each sounder has approximately 20 members, although some have considerably more. Each sounder consists of several sows with their offspring; adult males only join during the breeding season but otherwise live alone. Sows are quite capable of providing for their piglets as well as protecting them independently or in conjunction with other sows.
Ancient people thus identified sows with the ideal of the fierce mother who protects her young no matter what, similar to the bear or crocodile mother. Pigs became identified with the goddesses who also epitomized the ideal of the aggressive, fervently devoted mother.
Pigs do not deserve their reputation as filthy, slovenly creatures. They lack sweat glands and thus find relief by lingering in water or wallowing in mud when they are hot. (According to one legend, the healing properties of the thermal waters of the city of Bath were discovered after pigs were observed wallowing in its mud.)
For a variety of reasons including this affinity for water, their propensity for “rooting” in Earth in the manner of a root-worker or herbalist, their identification with fecund but fierce mothers, and, not least, because of their lunar crescent-shaped tusks, ancient people identified pigs (even male ones, because of those tusks) with the female principle, with the moon, witchcraft, and with powerful magically potent female deities.
No creature is as identified with Earth’s pleasures, gifts, and comforts as is the pig.
No creature is as identified with the Corn Mother as is the pig.
However, as Earth’s pleasures became increasingly suspect, the pig’s reputation sank. Part of this ambivalence toward pigs may stem from the profound role pigs once played in pagan ritual; part may derive from the roots of why pigs played that role: the powerful identification of pigs with Earth’s bounties as well as with fierce, fertile female power.
Pigs were associated with sex, birth, new life, regeneration, fruitfulness, abundance, prosperity, divination, and love. Pigs also epitomize male and female reproductive sexuality. Sows are emblematic of fecundity. In Italy, as well as those areas once dominated by Rome, the word “pig” was used as a nickname for the vulva, similar to the modern usage of “pussy.” Small gold and silver pig-shaped charms were worn as amulets by Roman women to ensure fertility, and cowrie shells were frequently called “pig shells” in Europe, not because of their resemblance to swine but because of their resemblance to the vulva.
Pigs are associated with almost as many deities as are snakes. In fact, the deity whom pigs are most closely identified with today, Demeter, has two sacred creatures: pigs and snakes.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone, was the most significant spiritual ritual in ancient Greece. Its ceremonies were initiated by the sacrifice of a pig.
When Persephone is kidnapped, only two voluntarily assist Demeter: the young swineherd who is the only eye-witness to the abduction (some of his pigs fall into the chasm that opens up to swallow Persephone) and the witch-deity Hecate, whose sacred animals also include snakes and pigs.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were not Demeter’s only sacred rites. She also presided over the Thesmophoria, a women’s annual autumnal mystery whose rituals involved both her sacred creatures, pigs and snakes. Because it was a “mystery” cult festival few details survive, however this much is known: during the ritual, pigs, cakes, and pine branches were thrown into underground chasms (or vaults), which were then covered so that they were contained within Earth. Snakes lived in these grottoes as guardians: they may have consumed much of the offerings. During the next year’s festival, the decayed remains were removed and incorporated into ritual. This ritual may have reproduced Persephone’s descent into the Underworld and her ultimate emergence.
Ceres, the Italian Corn Mother, eventually became profoundly identified with Demeter. Pigs were kept in underground enclosures of her shrines. Those seeking healing dreams were invited to sleep among the pigs. (See below for more information regarding pigs and dreams.) Silver and gold pigs were among Ceres’ votive offerings.
Artemis’ shrines were often decorated with boars’ heads or with their tusks. She famously sent the Calydonian boar to ravage the land as punishment when a king neglected to offer her what she perceived as her share of first fruits of his hunt.
Among the deities depicted as riding pigs are Arduinna, Baba γaga, Demeter, Freya, and Isis. Freya and Baba γaga will eventually come to be explicitly identified as witches.
Cerridwen, the Welsh witch-goddess, is sometimes called “The White Sow.” Pigs are her sacred creatures.
Among Brigid’s many animal familiars is one known as the King of the Swine.
The ancient Celtic deities known as hags are frequently described as having boar’s tusks.
Sometimes Hecate is depicted as having three heads facing in three different directions: although there are variations, a pig is almost inevitably among one of the three creatures. Hecate also occasionally manifests in the form of a black sow, particularly when she is in an aggressive mood.
Ezili Dantor is the Haitian lwa who epitomizes the aggressively independent, self-sufficient mother. Her sacred animal is the black pig, and she is powerfully identified with the small black self-sufficient pigs that once ran wild through Haiti and upon which rural Haitians depended for food and income. Those pigs, like Ezili Dantor, represented economic independence: as demonstration of their economic importance, the same word was used to name these pigs and banks. (In the 1980s, these pigs were eradicated and replaced by higher maintenance white pigs during a United States-sponsored program that remains controversial.)
Pigs, and specifically pig-sties, are also identified with oracular powers. An ancient method of incubating a prophetic dream was to sleep in a pig-sty. Although it seems humorous today because pigs are now commonly perceived as silly, lazy, useless, slovenly creatures, this method was once taken very seriously and is common to German, Italian, Romanian, Romany, Scandinavian, and Slavic traditions.
The one requirement is that the pen must contain at least one sow with her young.
It was once a German custom to nap in the sty on either Christmas Day or the day of the solstice to obtain lucky dreams and good fortune.
In Italian tradition, the ritual may be accompanied by invocations to St Anthony for maximum effectiveness.
White sows have particularly powerful lunar associations. The porcine profile can change dramatically—expanding and slimming down—in response to diet, pregnancy, and birth. This rhythmic shape-shifting was perceived as similar to that of the moon. Black sows are particularly identified with witchcraft. Black pigs, particularly small, fast ones, were often understood to be transformed witches engaged in spell-casting missions. Witch-hunters accused witches of offering black pigs to Satan.
See also Bears, Snakes, Transformation; BOTANICALS: Amanita Muscaria or Fly Agaric; CALENDAR: Yule; ERGOT; DIVINE WITCH: Artemis; Baba Yaga; Cerridwen; Circe; Freya; Hecate; Isis; Set; HAG; HORNED ONE: Chimneysweep.
The animal once most associated with European witchcraft wasn’t the cat, which for a long time was rare, but rabbits. Rabbits serve as witches’ familiars and messengers and are the form into which European witches once most frequently transformed.
Most rabbit and hare species graze at twilight. Little brown rabbits camouflage well; they suddenly appear and disappear, as if by magic. Rabbits’ defenses are limited to speed, brains, and fecundity. Rabbits survive and thrive because they can reproduce faster than they can be killed. No surprise, then, that the rabbit is the fertility animal extraordinaire. They are associated with sex, reproduction, and the moon. Classic tricksters, they represent success, survival and joy despite all odds, which, after all, is the primal stimulus for magic and witchcraft.
The gestation period of a rabbit is 28 days, one lunar month, akin to a woman’s menstrual cycle. The Egyptian word for “rabbit” translates as “the opener” and also indicated “period” in both the calendar and menstrual sense. Sacred rabbits, female and male, had dominion over women’s reproductive abilities. Vestiges of that pagan belief survive in the bunny that delivers eggs, emblematic of birth, at Easter, the Christian holiday that closely corresponds to the Vernal Equinox, the time of Earth’s rebirth. Easter bunnies are most frequently depicted as sweet, juvenile purveyors of candy eggs; the hares they’re based upon were understood as wild, raucous, very phallically empowered magical creatures. The consort of the pagan goddess Ostara, whose name is recalled in “Easter,” was a man-sized rabbit. (See CALENDAR: Easter; Ostara.)
Around the world, rabbits are associated with the moon, the celestial body ruling magic, romance, and reproduction. In many areas there’s a rabbit in the moon, not a man.
Throughout Central America, the moon was uniformly associated with rabbits. Classical Mayan imagery depicts a beautiful, youthful woman sitting on a crescent moon, cuddling a rabbit in her arms. The Yucatan goddess Ix Chel, lunar deity of women, magic, storms, and spinning has a consort who manifests in the form of a man-sized rabbit.
In China, rabbits are associated with witchcraft, sorcery, and alchemy. According to Chinese myth, a rabbit keeps the Moon Lady company in her lonely palace—not just any old rabbit though: the rabbit on the moon is an alchemist rabbit, seen pounding out the secret elixir of immortality with his mortar and pestle.
Rabbits are trickster spirits in Africa and now, via transplantation, in the United States as well, the classic examples being Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. They represent rabbits’ powers of rebirth and regeneration: no matter how much trouble Brer and Bugs get into, even when doom seems certain, they always miraculously slip out of trouble (or resurrect) to survive and thrive. They are magical creatures, too smart for their own good; their curiosity, quest for knowledge, and inability to mind their own business inevitably leads them into trouble, which they always then manage to remedy and survive. They are somewhat dangerous creatures, too, reminding us that tricksters aren’t just cuddly bunnies but typically also possess a sharper edge that can lead others into trouble, as well as extricating them again.
Historically, when English witches transformed into animals, it was most frequently a rabbit. Unlike on the European mainland where wolves were the most common form, there’s little British tradition of werewolves. Christina Hole, author of Witchcraft in England, suggests that this powerful identification with rabbits occurred when wolves were eradicated in the British Isles.
The British Isles are filled with tales of rabbits serving as witches’ alter egos:
According to legend, Anne Boleyn haunts her parish church in the form of a hare.
Isobel Gowdie, perhaps Scotland’s most famous witch (for reasons unknown, she volunteered her witchcraft confession), claimed that she traveled in the form of a hare.
On the Isle of Man, gorse was set on fire on May Day to flush out the witches, believed to take the form of hares on that day.
In Ireland, rabbits found amid cows on May Day were once summarily killed because they were believed to be shape-shifting witches with wicked designs on cattle, milk, and butter.
Even people with little knowledge or interest in magic spells are familiar with the concept of the lucky rabbit’s foot, typically carried as a gambling charm. “Lucky for whom?” asks the old joke. “It wasn’t lucky for the rabbit!” Indeed. This “charm’s” origins derive from magical witchhunting techniques similar to those advocating slaughtering rabbits on May Day.
The custom of carrying a rabbit’s foot charm is now associated with gambling luck but that wasn’t the original intent. The magical rabbit’s foot isn’t some ancient spell but is of relatively recent origin. Although popularly associated with African-American conjure traditions, the charm has British roots. Similar charms were used in nineteenth-century England to protect against witchcraft.
Not just any old rabbit’s foot would do. Slightly different versions of this spell exist, some more difficult than others, but to turn the trick, it originally had to be the left foot of a rabbit killed in a cemetery at midnight, sometimes on a Friday or a Friday the 13th; on a dark moon Friday or any dark moon. Some American versions specify that it must be an African-American cemetery, which may indicate something about the spell-casters beliefs about witchcraft. Other versions stipulate that the rabbit must be killed with a silver bullet. (Silver is the moon’s metal.)
There are various ways of understanding this spell:
The rabbit may be understood as a transformed witch, who is now destroyed and her power stolen for the killer’s personal use.
It may be understood as similar to traditions like nailing bats or owls to barn doors to scare away witches; an announcement that what can be done to the crucified witch can be done to others.
It’s possible that the spell-caster’s goal was to obtain a rabbit familiar or even spiritual possession of the witch in rabbit form.
The rabbit may also be understood as a revenant or powerful ghost; caught outside its grave, it’s now finally really dead and unable to rise and walk again.
Scorpions’ profound association with witchcraft and magic is reflected in the astrological sign of Scorpio, the sign with dominion over magic, death, and sex. Scorpio rules the reproductive organs.
Astrological associations of scorpions with sex, death, birth, and rebirth derive from ancient Egyptian mythology. The Egyptians both feared and venerated scorpions. The power to harm is the power to heal and vice versa. Scorpions were potentially deadly, as were scorpion deities, who were worthy of fear and respect but also invoked for protection against scorpions and other deadly dangers. Scorpion-power may be understood as witchcraft; the ability to channel potentially dangerous energy positively or negatively as desired, and especially the ability to heal and over-ride damage caused by others—spiritual and magical poisons as well as physical ones.
Scorpion goddess Serket (also spelled Selket or Serqet) is among the Egyptian deities most associated with magic and witchcraft. Serket is usually depicted as a beautiful woman wearing a scorpion on her head (she also manifests in crocodile, cobra, and lion form). Serket travels in Isis’ entourage. She is a protective spirit who is among the four primary deities (alongside Neith, Isis and her sister Nephthys) guarding entombed coffins. Serket’s title “Mistress of the Beautiful House” is a euphemistic expression for that ancient funeral parlor, the embalming pavilion. Serket is invoked in many spells to protect and heal poisonous bites. She served as matron of those practitioners of magical medicine who specialized in such cases.
The scorpion-girls who serve as Isis’ escorts when she is in hiding with baby Horus may be understood as witches. When the Egyptian culture-hero Horus grows up, he married one of them.
Scorpions in Chinese magic are symbolic of great harm and danger, as well as of the power and ability to counteract them.
The mating habits of scorpions are similar to those of spiders, their relatives. The male scorpion is smaller than the female. Sex begins with a copulation dance, tails entwined. At the conclusion of the act, the male, who apparently knows what’s coming, usually tries to escape; the female, for her part, tries to devour him as her post-coital snack. (She’s allegedly successful only 10 percent of the time.)
Scorpions have a long pregnancy even by human standards: a year and a half before delivery. A long-lived species (15—25 years) scorpions don’t reach sexual maturity until they hit the magic number seven. Scorpions are fierce, devoted mothers; after the birth, baby scorpions stay safe by riding on their mother’s back for two to six weeks.
The term “skin-walker” refers to the same concept as those nahuals (sorcerers) who are able to change forms. It is the English translation of a Navajo term. Although traditional Navajo culture is shamanic, with a long tradition of magical healing and positive magical practices, the word “witchcraft” in Navajo is virtually always understood as malevolent. Use of the word “witch” almost always refers to a shaman gone bad or to a corrupt sorcerer or some sort of malevolent practitioner of magic. Traditional Navajo philosophy prizes harmony and places emphasis on the welfare of the community. Witches are understood to place individual desires above those of the group.
Navajo witches most frequently transform into wolves or coyotes. They may be distinguished from a regular wolf or coyote, at least by someone who is familiar with the genuine article:
Transformed wolves and coyotes may be unusually large.
They carry their tails in a different manner than real animals do.
They may betray themselves by wearing or carrying something associated with humans, like jewelry.
Snakes are so central to witchcraft, spirituality and magic that a thousand-page book could be devoted to that topic alone. Of necessity, this has been compressed. What follows is only a brief synopsis, the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Snakes play a profound role in witchcraft as familiars, companions, teachers and transmitters of magic, guardians of knowledge, and as witches themselves, transformed or otherwise. A Ukrainian word for “witch” is synonymous with “snake.” This may be understood as the stealthy dangerous snake in the grass or as a mysterious, powerful, holy being, however you choose.
Snakes are symbolic of birth, life, immortality, rebirth, fertility, sexuality, health, and wisdom—especially women’s wisdom. Snake venom potentially kills or cures, as do shamans, healers, and witches.
Hibernating snakes burrow within Earth; emerging in the spring, they’re believed to carry Earth’s secrets as well as her sacred generative powers with them. No animal is as identified with the powers of Earth or Great Mother Goddesses as the snake.
Snakes are emblematic of sex, generative power, and childbirth. Snakes unite the male and female generative principles as surely as does the pestle in the mortar. Snakes are understood as animals that resemble both female and male genitalia. Male resemblance is obvious—how many blues singers boast of being “crawling king snakes” or similar serpentine forces? No need to make the comparison any clearer; that’s a metaphor anyone can figure out. The resemblance to female genitalia is more subtle. The snake possesses an unhinged jaw that enables it to open up so wide that it can swallow prey bigger than its head. This was understood to symbolize the vagina, which magically opens to disgorge a baby.
Although snakes are associated with healing in general, they are particularly associated with women’s reproductive health. In Rome, it was believed that contact with snakes improved a woman’s health. It’s believed in many places that snakes actually taught women the techniques of childbirth, undulating their bodies in demonstration. Snakes are literally brought into the birthing chamber in areas as far apart as China and Arabia, sometimes for the express purpose of entrancing the laboring woman for an easier, speedier, safer birth. If snakes aren’t available or convenient, belly dancers substitute, especially snake or sword dancers, shimmying with sinuous movements to help lead the birthing mother in the childbirth dance.
Neolithic pottery from near Kiev shows snakes surrounding a pregnant womb, protecting the treasure within. Horned snakes were emblems of fertility, regeneration, and healing in Celtic Europe.
It has been suggested that the identification of women with snakes reveals women’s attachment to Earth, to Earthly (material) things and powers—an attachment that prevents them from attaining salvation and spiritual freedom. And of course, the snake most people are familiar with is the one that tempted Eve. Based on this story, snakes eventually became identified with Satan, known as that old serpent. (Other versions prefer a female snake; identifying it with a diabolized Lilith, the former childbirth spirit who shed her skin to become the Queen of Demons.)
Because the Bible is often used to rationalize violence toward witches and witchcraft as well as hostility toward snakes, it’s worth taking a brief second look. The Bible has famously been interpreted and reinterpreted to suit many purposes. The word that characterizes attitudes towards snakes in the Old Testament isn’t horror or disgust but ambivalence. The snake’s appearance in the Garden of Eden isn’t its only appearance: snakes are a common motif in the Jewish Bible.
Various versions of the Adam and Eve tale posit a different understanding. Ancient Gnostics, who understood material Earth to be created by a deceptive usurping demi-god, not the true Creator, perceived that the snake was trying to warn and save Eve. In some versions, the snake may even be the Creator deity. A modern Hasidic take on the story suggests the snake ultimately did us a favor; no potential for human growth exists in Paradise. It’s like the womb; no matter how comfortable you are, ultimately you have to get out and start living if you want to survive.
The most famous serpentine appearances include the following:
The Garden of Eden (Genesis 3: 1-24): However else you may interpret the story, one thing is true: the snake never lies to Eve. The snake speaks directly to Eve; this was once understood to mean she was more vulnerable to sin and temptation. It may also reflect women’s ancient spiritual association with snakes. Eve is punished with painful childbirth—the once cordial relationship between people and snakes is broken. This may be understood as observation of the results of snake-spirituality suppression, rather than as something inevitable or even desirable. If the relationship is sundered and if snakes symbolize women’s primal wisdom, the end result will be that women lack the information required for easier, less painful labor.
Rods before Pharaoh (Exodus 7: 8-13): Rods are magically turned into snakes, a trick quickly reproduced by the Egyptian magicians, because, as every anthropology book points out, this common trick is still played by Indian snake charmers. Of course, the real magic comes when Aaron’s rod-turned snake eats the others. This snake is a dangerous, mysterious but sacred sign from God, who may be understood in this context to be affiliated with snakes not opposed to them.
Fiery serpent of the desert (Numbers 21: 5-9): In a bit of prophylactic magic, when the children of Israel are plagued by snakes in the desert, the Lord instructs Moses to create a brazen serpent, indicating the presence of magical metal workers. Again, the snake is not identified with any evil being or impulse but with safety, protection and with God himself.
Any identification of the snake in the Garden of Eden with Satan was not explicit until the first century after Christ. That connection was initially established in a number of first-century texts, either entirely Christian in origin or influenced by Christianity.
Hezekiah breaks fiery serpent Nehushtan (2 Kings 18: 1-4): The brazen serpent was preserved and named (Nehushtan, a name with linguistic roots similar to words for “magic”) and eventually moved into the Jerusalem Temple, where it remained for 500 years as an official cult object before it was pulverized in a fit of religious reformation.
That snakes would be associated with the biblical Creator shouldn’t be surprising; snakes play the role of Creators themselves in sacred stories from around the world.
In China, the goddess Nu Kua, half-snake, half-woman molds humans from clay and puts the universe into order.
The Pelasgians were early inhabitants of Greece. According to their creation myth, in the beginning Eurynome, the All-Goddess, rose from Chaos. Dividing the sky from the waters, she began to dance on the waves. Out of the wind, Eurynome created a huge serpent and named him Ophion. They danced together, then Ophion coiled about her and she conceived. Eurynome transformed into a dove and brooded over the waters. She laid the universal egg and bade Ophion coil around it until it was time to hatch. Out of that egg emerged all of Creation, Earth’s planets and all living creatures, all children of a goddess and a primordial snake.
Wunekau, solar deity from New Guinea, is the Creator of the universe. Still actively involved with creation, Wunekau directs winds to make women conceive. Among manifestations of his divine presence is a giant snake.
Snakes are guardians of Earth’s hidden treasures and secret knowledge. Snakes protect all that is most valuable and control its distribution—wisdom, material wealth and treasure, health, and children.
Snakes are associated with the water element throughout much of the world. They are perceived as rain bringers and famously appear to people all over Earth in the form of the rainbow. There are some 50 species of sea snakes, almost all of which are venomous. Sea snakes aren’t restricted to the ocean. Some live in rivers, others in swamps or lakes.
According to Carl Jung, snakes represent the underworld, primordial matter, the dark, the unknown, the primal, the Earthy, the watery, the elemental.
Snakes have a long association with worship of the Great Mother, especially in Mediterranean region. The Egyptian hieroglyph for what would be understood today as “goddess” is expressed by the image of a cobra. Unke, the German snake guardian, is depicted as either a crowned half-fairy/half-snake or as an entire snake wearing a crown and carrying keys. She presides over a family of snake spirits, the Unken (plural), who watch over babies in their cradle. It was considered unlucky to kill or injure a snake as this might result in loss of prosperity or the death of a child.
Once holy, snake spirits would eventually become demonized just like real snakes: the Libyan snake goddess Lamia was transformed into a strix, a witch-like fiend thirsting for children’s blood in classical Greek mythology. Semitic snake spirit Lilith later emerges as a baby-killing vampire spirit, the Queen of Demons.
These are just a few deities associated with snakes. There are many more:
Asklepios and his daughter Hygeia (Greek) Athena (Libyan, Greek)
Damballah and Ayida Wedo (Damballah, the white snake, is the most ancient member of the Vodou pantheon; his wife Ayida Wedo is the rainbow serpent)
Ezili Freda Dahomey (Vodou)
Ix Tub Tun (Mayan snake goddess; spits rain and precious stones)
Kadesh (Semitic spirit of sexuality, beloved in ancient Egypt)
Kebechet (Egyptian: Anubis’ daughter manifest in snake form; she is the purifying libation of water that revitalizes the dead)
Mami Waters (West and Central African)
Medusa (Libyan, Greek )
The Nagas (Indian)
Ogun (West African)
Persephone (Greek )
Quetzalcoatl (Aztec “plumed serpent”)
Serapis (Hellenic Egypt)
Simbi (Congolese guardian of fountains, marshes, and fresh water)
Snakes are emblems of death. Etruscan Hades grasps a snake while his wife, Persephone, has serpents entwined in her hair—as does that other death deity, Hecate. Shiva and Kali, India’s deities of sex, birth, magic, and death are also both ornamented with snakes.
Snakes are emblems of immortality too. Snakes’ characteristic shedding of skin is emblematic of regeneration, rebirth, immortality, and restoration to health. They ensure that cycles of life continue, that generative powers can be renewed, revived and remain undiminished. Snakes are regarded as stimulators and guardians of life energy.
Snakes are emblems of prophecy: from the earliest times snakes have been connected to oracular power and divination. The women who served as the mouthpiece for the Oracle of Delphi (in truth, they were the oracle) are typically called “priestesses” in English. The actual term for them, however, was “pythia” or “pythoness”; they were understood as snake women. Originally Delphi was a snake shrine dedicated to the Earth Mother. When Apollo violently installed himself as the oracular spirit in charge, the snakes were killed. However, even afterwards, it was reputed that the vapors that stimulated prophesy emanated from the snake corpses left to rot under Apollo’s shrine so, dead or alive, the snakes remained responsible for the oracle.
According to ancient European tradition, if a snake bit someone, they would inherit the ability to prophesize. Vestiges of this belief survive in the snake-handlers of the Holiness tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
Snakes are also emblems of healing, an identification that remains today. The symbol of the medical profession is the caduceus, Hermes’ double-snake entwined staff. (The emblem is often identified with Asklepios, the Sacred Physician, however his staff only has one snake.) Snakes are the original healing animals. They lived in the very first official hospitals, the temples of Asklepios, and were believed integral to the healing process. The appearance of a snake to an ill person, whether in person or in dreams or visions, was understood as an omen of healing and renewal, not death.
The sangoma are traditional Southern African healers, frequently female. Their medical career is often initiated when they are called by an ancestral spirit, usually during puberty. This calling manifests in various ways; frequently the ancestor visits in a dream during an illness. The person must then seek out an experienced sangoma for training. Resisting the call leads to illness and breakdown. Dreams vary in content; however, according to those individuals who’ve chosen to share their experiences, they virtually always somehow involve a snake.
The practice of handling poisonous snakes in spiritual ritual is found independently throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Snake-charming, which now most frequently relies on illusion, is a derivative of this magicalspiritual art. Genuine snake handling survives in pockets around the world, most famously among the Hopi Snake Dancers of Arizona, and perhaps most surprisingly in the Christian Holiness tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
Snakes serve as personal guardian spirits and the equivalent of household familiars. Zaltys, the Baltic grass snake, was revered and kept as a living guardian in shrines. Maintaining Zaltys in one’s home, in the form of a grass snake, was believed to bring blessings and good fortune. The snake was kept under the marital bed or near the home stove. In Baltic regions snakes were understood to radiate life energy and so were never killed.
Polish bishop Jan Lasicki, writing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, reported that once a year, domestic snakes were charmed out of their hiding places by pagan priests and offered the finest food to eat, in an attempt to guarantee a prosperous new year.
Dragons, also identified with witchcraft, are a subcategory of snakes.
Hecate drives a chariot drawn by dragons.
When the Norse hero Sigurd tastes dragon’s blood in The Volsung Saga, he immediately understands the speech of birds—luckily for him, as this ability will save his life.
Dragons symbolize paganism. When Saint George and other knights slay dragons, they are emphasizing Christian victory over other traditions.
Dragons symbolize menstruation. When Saint George and other knights slay dragons, well…
In Japan snake familiars are considered similar to fox spirits. However, while fox spirits run in packs, typically there’s only one snake spirit per household. The snake lives in a pot in the kitchen and is fed on the family’s food plus offerings of saké. The snake is believed sent out to cause harm to others. The chief symptom of snake-spirit attack is sudden, severe pain in the joints.
Arachne was a master weaver of fabrics and tapestries at Colophon in Lydia, the daughter of a man involved with the trade in the rare purple dye then reserved for royalty and the spiritual elite. There are various versions of Arachne’s story but somehow she ended up in a tapestrymaking contest with the goddess Athena, credited by the Greeks as the inventor of weaving. Both wove tapestries; the general population was permitted to choose the winner. Arachne won, with a cynical tapestry mocking the lifestyles of the gods, especially Athena’s father Zeus’ prodigious love life. Daddy’s girl was enraged. Exactly what happened next depends on the version of the story:
Athena transformed Arachne into a spider
Athena hanged Arachne and then changed her into a spider
Arachne hung herself but Athena, out of pity, changed the rope into a web and Arachne into a spider, the ultimate weaver.
Spiders are now classified as belonging to the Arachnid family, as are scorpions, emblems of Egyptian goddesses. The word “spider” derives from the Old English spinan, “to spin.” It is thus closely related to “spinster,” which although given the colloquial meaning “old maid” with the added implication of being dowdy and undesirable, technically refers to an unwed, independent woman. Spinning was once not only an occupation and art associated with women but a spiritual and magical tradition. Spiders are sponsors of spinning and emblems of witchcraft.
There are perhaps 100,000 species of spiders on Earth. They are a unique species; only spiders create webs from within their bodies. The web is the spider’s home and the manner in which she captures her prey. On the outside of her body, spiders possess four or six (depending upon species) spinnerets. Liquid spurts from these teat-like organs, which solidifies almost immediately on contact with air, forming spider silk. Spiders can employ one or more spinnerets as desired. Seven different types of spider silk exist; all spiders can produce three while some can produce more. The tensile strength of spider thread is second only to fused quartz.
Spider webs can be beautiful. Dew shining on spider webs in the sun resembles sparkling diamonds. Complex, artistic webs are spun by female spiders. Designs are maze-like and may have inspired labyrinths and mandalas. Spiders inspired the art of spinning; magical theory says spiders themselves taught women how to spin.
True artists, spiders spin webs out of their own bodies, in similar fashion to the way women birth babies and produce milk.
“’Come into my parlor,’ said the spider to the fly…” All spiders are predatory. They suck their victims empty of fluids, leaving nothing but dead husks behind, in the manner of vampires or succubi. Various species, not only the black widow, cannibalize their mates and children.
Spiders terrify many people, disproportionately to their ability to harm. Arachnophobia is the scientific name for fear of spiders (and scorpions, too, which are also arachnids).
This primal, irrational fear is evoked in the gigantic threatening spiders in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Return of the King and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shelob, the female spider in the Tolkien book, particularly evokes some kind of terrible, primal, chthonic goddess. Her hunger and ferocity transform her into a veritable guardian spirit, albeit not for Frodo.
Black Widows truly are dangerous. Once you know what they look like, they’re hard to mistake: shiny, glossy black spiders, the females wear a red hour-glass shape on their underside. Their color scheme and venomous potential, combined with their conjugal habits, make Black Widows the spiders most identified with witchcraft, their name synonymous with femmes fatales.
Mating habits of spiders are pretty unique, too. Their mating terrifies and fascinates people, often especially men. Having consummated the relationship, the female spider, usually the larger of the two, often attempts to consume the male, quite frequently succeeding. (There’s one male who won’t kiss and tell!)
Spiders have been used as metaphors for the dangers of sex, both literally and also in terms of sex being the trap that leads to the death of men’s immortal souls.
Because spiders give birth to huge quantities of young at one time they are also ancient emblems of fertility and female generative power. Spiders are associated with birth, death, sex, immortality, destiny, and the acquisition of wealth, power, and magical knowledge. Because spiders (and spinners) are understood to spin and cut the threads of life, many deities take the form of spiders or are allied with them.
Spider goddesses include:
Askhe-tanne-mat, the Ainu spider goddess, manifests as a long-fingered woman who guides babies through the birth canal.
Female spider deities are heroines of Native North American spirituality; variously known by names like Spider Woman or Old Spider Grandmother they rescue people from disaster, sponsor culture heroes and perform miraculous actions like providing people with fire.
Morticia of the Addams Family, whose tight black spider gown is intended to evoke the magical Black Widow (although Morticia verges on the saintly!)
In Hungarian tradition, spider webs are the gossamer thread spun by fairies. In Germanic areas, spider webs are considered threads from Mother Holle’s spindle. (See DIVINE WITCH: Hulda.)
Chinese mythology looks at both sides of the spider controversy. Spiders are sacred to the saintly Weaving Maiden, the romantic guardian spirit of young women. On the other hand, female spiders, bored with male spiders and seeking to up the ante, transform into the shape of beautiful women. Men, Chinese folklore warns, should you meet a mysterious, seductive maiden, be on your guard! She may be a spider transformed into a girl, out to ensnare you.
Spiders show up in classic Halloween iconography; fake spider webs decorate haunted Halloween houses. Halloween witch costumes frequently may as well be spider costumes. (Several years ago a witch dress named Spiderella was popular.) A spider-witch plays the role of the Weird Sisters in Akira Kurosawa’s film interpretation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood.
Perhaps in remembrance of their former sacred status, it’s believed unlucky to kill spiders. To do so is to risk losing wealth and spiritual protection.
See also WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning. Transformation
There are various forms of transformation:
Witches and sorcerers willingly transform into animals and back to their original form.
Animals willingly transform into people and back to their original form.
People are victimized, most frequently by witches, and forcibly transformed into animals. Under a spell, they lack the power to transform back at will but need magical assistance.
Werewolf literally means “man-wolf,” however there is some evidence that the word was originally used to indicate “one who knows how to change form.” That said, that word’s historical nuances and implication have cause werewolves to be unique phenomena, somewhat different from standard shape-shifting. Werewolves are discussed in depth together with wolves. See Wolves and Werewolves.
People Who Transform Willingly into Animals
Witches are famed worldwide for the ability to transform into different shapes at will, in popular terminology: shape-shifting. According to story, legend, and myth, this ability is accomplished literally. Whether witches would agree with that assessment is subject to lots of debate. In general, stories about shape-shifting are told by observers, not the witches. Of course, those very same stories frequently describe witches as secretive and evasive, so what can you expect?
According to many witches, channeling the spirit of an animal is what is significant rather than literal transformation. Others would suggest that transformation is real but occurs on a shamanic or dream level.
Whether transformation is literal, soul-journey or something else, real witches consider their magical abilities to be sacred and private and will, thus, rarely brag. How, then, do other people know of these transformations? Easy, legend says: they’ve been witnessed or even experienced. Although countless stories recount tales of transformation, there are basically only a few themes:
The story-teller actually witnessed the process of transformation. Thus Lucius Apuleius saw the witch Pamphile change into an owl (a strix or strega).
Having witnessed the transformation or otherwise picked up some fragments of magical knowledge, the story-teller attempts to copy the witch and transform, too. Sometimes it works, although usually not too well—as with Lucius Apuleius, who only manages to turn himself into an ass.
In the most common theme, an animal, initially understood as a real animal, is somehow injured. Sometimes a human is then found to have an identical injury, betraying her as a witch.
Sometimes an injured or killed animal is discovered with something, usually an item of jewelry, that betrays their human identity.
The classic tale of the transforming witch involves Lady Sybil of Bernshaw Tower in Lancashire, a beautiful heiress who loved to walk to Eagle Crag where she would gaze into the wooded gorge below. The power of the woods lured her; she became a witch. Beautiful, brilliant, and independently wealthy, Lady Sybil took to rambling through the ravines of Cliviger Gorge in the form of a white doe. She attracted the attention of a man named Lord William, variously identified as either being of Hapton Tower or Townley Castle. He became obsessed with her and requested her hand in marriage but she refused.
Not taking “no” for an answer, Lord William hired Mother Hellston, local witch, to prepare a spell for him. She advised him to capture the white doe and hold it captive within Hapton Tower. She gave William an enchanted silk cord and loaned him her familiar, a black dog. On May Eve, he captured the doe. At dawn, the doe turned back into Lady Sybil in her human form, under his spell.
The story now takes one of two twists:
Either, Lady Sybil renounces witchcraft and marries Will. Whether this renunciation was sincere or not initially, Lady Sybil eventually returned to her craft. One day, while she’s playing in the form of a white cat at Cliver Mill, the miller accidentally cuts off her paw. (Italics mine; this story is usually told with a very straight face.) However, Lady Sybil’s magical skills are such that she can restore her hand. (See MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Millers.) Or, in the second version, Lord William forgets to pay Mother Hellston; the spell lasts one month and then it’s broken. Sybil, now married to Will, comes to her senses, discovers herself a married captive, and wants to escape. William holds her prisoner. A servant named Robin is set to watch her. One day Robin sees a white cat slipping from the room. He cuts off its paw, which instantly transforms into Sibyl’s hand, identifiable by its ring. After her hand has been chopped off, Sybil languishes and quickly dies. She’s buried, as per her request, in Cliviger Gorge.
Either way, local legend says that to this day on May Eve, a white doe, a black hound, and a ghostly hunter haunt the gorge.
Throughout Africa, witches transform into hyenas, bats, nightjars, and owls.
Throughout the British Isles, witches transform into cats and rabbits.
In India and Java witches transform into leopards and tigers.
Jewish and Mexican witches transform into bats, black cats, and black dogs.
In Scandinavia and Finland, witches transform into flies.
Baltic, Russian, Siberian, and Swedish witches transform into magpies.
Siberian shamans, understood as distinct from witches, transform into bears, eagles, boar, elk, and wolves.
Transformation stories and techniques exist worldwide. In Central America and the Andes, there’s a whole hierarchy to shape-shifting. The animal into which you transform reveals your power and status. The most important and powerful sorcerers transform into eagles, jaguars, quetzal birds or natural forms that are associated with status and royalty such as lightning bolts, whirlwinds or pools of blood. The less powerful are only able to transform into lowerstatus creatures like mice, turkeys, and vultures—although with practice and the acquisition of powers they can move up the transformation ladder.
According to witch-hunt era Christian theology, witches could potentially transform into any form, except that of a lamb or a dove, which were perceived as utterly pure, sacred creatures.
The powerful lwa Ezili Zandor is the matron of the Haitian sorcerers’ secret societies known as The Red Sects. Members travel at night in the form of black cats, black pigs, crocodiles, horses, leopards, owls, and wolves. Witches of the Pueblo Indian nations transform into animals for purposes of travel. It’s the most convenient way to get around: easy, quick and discreet. The most popular forms into which to transform include cats, crows, canines, owls, dogs, wolves, and coyotes. Different animal forms are more prevalent in some pueblos than others.
The methods of transformation vary. According to BaKongo belief, every individual possesses multiple souls. A certain type of soul, sort of an “image soul,” can adopt different appearances. These appearances are known as yunga or shells. The shell is an outward covering and it can be changed as desired. The most powerful witches, sorcerers, seers, and prophets can possess and/or develop multiple yungas.
A Portuguese technique leaves the form you attain somewhat to chance:
1. Go to a crossroads during a Full Moon.
2. Spin repeatedly while howling until you get so dizzy or exhausted you collapse on the ground.
3. You will transform into the shape of the last animal to lie there.
(To avoid transformation into a vole or worm, you may wish to observe the area for several hours—or even days—prior to spell-casting.)
According to the tenets of Taoist magic, all living beings can learn the art of changing forms. It’s easiest for humans, easier for animals and harder still for plants. What’s stopping you from shape-shifting? It’s not lack of magical ability, but laziness and lack of discipline.
Two methods of transformation exist.
1. The ethical method: study various Taoist classics and eventually the ability is gained.
2. Sex magic: the partner who first achieves orgasm gives off energy, which may be acquired by the other partner and used for purposes of transformation. One partner essentially vampirizes the other’s vitality and magical powers. Yes, it’s potentially harmful for the other partner.
According to another Taoist magical belief, extended longevity may earn you the ability to shape-shift. If you can live long enough, the ability may just develop naturally. Of course, there’s a hidden implication in this method: how does one achieve really extended longevity? Answer: alchemy; the acquisition of the philosopher’s stone. If you study alchemy intensely, one of the side-effects may be transformative power.
Other traditions use other methods of transformation:
Witches from the Pueblos of the American Southwest jump through twisted yucca fiber hoops. (In various legends, Coyote teaches these transformation skills.)
Russian witches transform via similar athletic means. One method is to somersault backwards over copper knives thrust into the ground or into a treestump; to return to human form, somersault back over the knives in the opposite direction, retracing your steps, so to speak. If someone removes the knives, while you’re out roaming, you’re stuck.
European witch-hunters believed that transformation was only possible because of a diabolical pact. The witch didn’t really have the power to transform; Satan did it for her, or at least supplied the illusion. Other schools of philosophy understand the ability to shape-shift as a gift from a deity. Frequently the form into which one transforms is one that is sacred to that deity. In essence, by transforming, you become the deity’s sacred animal or messenger. This may or may not be understood literally. Thus Diana’s “dogs” and “wolves,” sons of the bitch goddess, may not have expected to literally transform into canines.
That literal transformation wasn’t necessarily expected is indicated by the use of masks and costumes to transform. If you really literally expect to change forms, who needs a mask? Why go to the time, trouble, and expense? Masks, costumes, and rituals assist ritual channeling of the animal; once the spirit of the animal is received, the costume completes the picture.
According to the powerful and sophisticated traditional schools of magic in Java, you can transform yourself. Javanese sorcerers most frequently transform into tigers by memorizing entire books of magical chants, which must then be repeated perfectly from memory during ritual. Transformation may also be effected via magical fabrics, in the case of the tiger, a special striped cloth.
Transformative energy may be the gift of a spirit. The Vodou lwa Ogou ge Rouge is renowned for bestowing this power, as is the Norse spirit Freya.
According to some schools of magical philosophy, no method is necessary. The ability to transform, to change shapes, is hereditary. Certain animal forms run in families, kind of like the old horror film, Cat People.
Animals Who Transform Willingly Into People
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Shape-shifting is a hall of mirrors; one mustn’t always assume that the human form is the original form. Some cultures believe that some animals have the intelligence, desire, and magical skill to assume our form to accomplish various purposes.
In Russian magic, it’s believed that animals may be transformed witches, wizards or spirits. Spirits usually take the form of black dogs or cats while magical practitioners are white or gray.
Shape-shifting is a common theme in Japanese folklore but the typical scenario of witch transforming into animal is reversed. In Japan, animals, most typically cats, foxes, snakes, and tanuki (known as Japanese badgers), transform into human form. Transformation by snakes usually involves some sort of romantic motivation. Tanuki are mischievous and greedy but rarely malevolent. Sacred clowns, their Shape-shifting may even stem from spiritual intent: their favored form is as a Buddhist priest. The tanuki stands up on his hind legs and distends his scrotum so as to become a drum, in order to make people laugh.
Cat spirits frequently possess malevolent intent; in their transformed state as humans they may be understood as witches in the worst sense of the word. In the standard form of the Japanese legend, a malevolent cat spirit eats an old woman, usually the village blacksmith’s mother, and then assumes her shape in order to harm travelers. These cats disguised as women typically lead packs (covens) of wolves. Because she looks exactly like Grandma, the cat gets away with evil deeds for a while but is eventually exposed by the telltale clue that she is a disguised animal: she always eats alone. (This is because she must eat like an animal with her face directly in the bowl and not as a human, sitting up with utensils.)
Foxes are far more complex: their motivation might be mischief, magic or malevolent soulstealing. To complicate matters, transformative foxes may or may not be real foxes. Spirit foxes may be able to clothe themselves in various bodies, vulpine and/or human. Foxes may also engage in amorous adventures but it tends to be for vampiric purposes, as a method of alchemical sex magic.
Malice or revenge are typical motivations for fox spirits; and it can be for something as simple as startling it when it’s asleep or stepping on its tail, escalating to killing a cub or a mate. (In this, fox spirits are very similar to djinn, which also take the form of animals, typically dogs or cats, which must not be harmed, frightened or molested lest the hidden djinn retaliate.) Other motivating factors may be greed, lust or desire. They may want sex or food, especially treats they’re not likely to get in fox form.
According to Taoist belief, any fox that attains fifty years of age can shape-shift into a standard human. If the fox can make it to a hundred, he’ll be a skilled sorcerer, too. There are various beliefs regarding abilities earned through longevity. An alternative view is that foxes and wolves that survive eighty years can transform into humans. If these animals can achieve one thousand years, they’ll be divine. (And how does a fox or anyone live to be a thousand years old? Through alchemy.) Older people are likewise able to develop the ability to shape-shift.
A classic example from Japan: a samurai walking home one night spots a fox and shoots an arrow at it. The fox is wounded but doesn’t fall. It keeps going. The samurai follows it but is unable to catch up. Even wounded, this fox is too fast. He keeps following and eventually the samurai discovers that the fox has led him home. Suddenly, the fox transforms into a man and sets the samurai’s house on fire. Before the dazed and confused samurai can react, the fox transforms back into its original shape and escapes into the forest.
Victims of Transformation
Among witches’ notorious “crimes” is the transformation of human victims into animal form. The most famous example is Circe, the witch goddess of Homer’s Odyssey who transforms men into apes, pigs, and lions. Of course, one could say, as Circe does, that she isn’t transforming them, she’s revealing their true essence. (She regrets the prevalence of pigs and the paucity of lions, suggesting that Odysseus would have been a lion.) And of course, Circe doesn’t come looking for these men; she lives on a rock in the middle of the sea—they come to her. The motivation of fairy-tale witches who transform victims into animals isn’t always clear, but the witch is almost always depicted as the aggressor.
Victims are transformed into animals, most frequently horses. The victim isn’t treated gently but ridden hard, saddled, bridled or struck with the bridle.
What’s the evidence of transformation? There’ll be wounds on or in the mouth, traces of the bit. Another indication is when tack or riding equipment is missing. The victim may wake up suffering from dizziness, fatigue, covered in cold sweat or black and blue marks—“blue in the face”: all evidence of having been “ridden.”
Another fear is that animals may be indistinguishable from all the others. This may date from guilt about the treatment of formerly sacred animals. Once transformed, the victim who, unlike self-transformed witches who always seem to retain their human capacity for speech, loses the power to speak, and so is treated just like any other animal.
Circe’s spell is first discovered when Odysseus’ hungry sailors almost eat their comrade, transformed into a pig.
Artemis punishes the hunter Actaeon for a transgression by transforming him into a stag. His own dogs are unable to recognize him, he’s unable to call them off, and they rip him apart.
In the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, the heroine Chihiro yearns to rescue her bewitched parents, transformed into pigs, but they’re in a pen with hundreds of other pigs, destined for the dinner table. They can’t identify themselves to her and so it’s an impossible task.
Wolves and Werewolves
Depending upon what one understands a werewolf to be, the line between wolves and wolfmen may be very fine indeed. Mirror-images of each other, they can’t really be separated and so are considered together.
The emotions evoked by wolves and the treatment accorded to them parallel those toward witches. Some find profound beauty, spirituality, something indescribably unique and special about wolves; words aren’t sufficient to evoke the holiness many perceive. On the other hand, the passion, hostility, determination to exterminate wolves—out of all proportion to any damage they might possibly do—parallels emotions toward witches: the urge to kill off something wild, free, and independent.
Like witches, wolves are demonized. Wolves have historically been hunted and exterminated just like witches, shamans, and diviners.
By 300 BCE pagan Celts were breeding wolfhounds especially for killing wolves.
Vargr, “wolf,” was the term used in Icelandic law codes to refer to outlaws who could be hunted down like wolves. The word also implies that wolves could be hunted down like outlaws, the worst offenders.
In Anglo-Saxon England wolves were sometimes hanged near criminals. The Saxon word for gallows is “varagtreo,” “wolf tree.”
In France, in approximately 800 CE, Charlemagne founded an order for the purpose of exterminating wolves, the Louveterie.
In 1281, King Edward I hired a man, Peter Corbet, to destroy all the wolves he could find in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Worcestershire.
The desire to eliminate wolves was frequently translated into what may be considered a “wolf-craze” similar to the European Witchcraze. In various parts of Europe and North America, it wasn’t sufficient to merely kill wolves; instead they were brutally tortured to death. There is a sadistic quality to the history of the extermination of wolves that more closely resembles the witch-hunts than extermination of other animal species. In the United States, for instance, wolves were captured alive and dragged behind horses until they were torn to pieces. Other wolves captured alive had their jaws (and sometimes penises) wired up and then were released.
Wolves, shy and wary, very rarely attack humans. (Not a single case of a wolf killing a human has been recorded in North America.) Dogs and automobiles are responsible for a vastly greater number of human death and injury, yet both are beloved. Wolves have been known to prey on livestock, but only when humans have encroached on their territory. It’s not wolves who’ve spread out—their territory has consistently diminished over the last two thousand years; humans have spread out, cleared and destroyed wilderness, removing wolves dining alternatives.
However, for some, wolves are the essential spirit of the wild. Without wolves, some magical earth power is also extinguished. In Lakota, the word for “wolf” translates as the “animal that looks like a dog but is a powerful spirit.”
Wolves are identified with witchcraft:
In Germanic tradition, wolves are witches’ mounts and were believed to carry them to sabbats.
In the Navajo language, the same word is used for “wolf” and “witch.”
Vargamors were forest-dwelling Swedish wild women who communed with wolves.
The connection between wolves and witches is so powerful that when some European Romany hear a wolf howl, the automatic reaction is to advise caution as the sound may signal the approach of a witch.
In myth and legend, wolves nurture humans: Zoroaster was allegedly suckled by a mother wolf; Siegfried, Teutonic hero, allegedly had a wolf for a foster-mother, and the founders of Rome, the abandoned babies Remus and Romulus, were found and nursed by a she-wolf.
The wolf was once Rome’s totem animal. The primordial horned spirit Faunus negotiates the balance between deer and wolves, the way the Greek deity Artemis sets the balance between wolves, deer, and hunters. The Lupercalia, Rome’s festival of fertility and purification, was held in honor of Faunus, also known as Lupercus, the wolf spirit. Remnants of the holiday linger in Valentine’s Day traditions. And Feronia was the Italian sacred spirit of magic, prosperity, and freedom. Her sacred animal is the wolf. Once upon a time, if slaves sat on a stone in her shrine, they gained their freedom. Feronia survives but not as a goddess; her most common manifestation is as a witch who roams the marketplace, once women’s place of power.
Wolves are identified with ravenous appetites, whether for food, sex or pleasure. They are identified with strong male sexuality, as in wolf whistles. A wolf is a euphemism for a sexually predatory man. One observes the evolution of demonization of wolves in the tale Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf Little Red Riding Hood meets in the earliest forms of the story is clearly a man. He forcibly gets her into bed; she only escapes by insisting that she needs to use the bathroom—this of course in the days prior to indoor plumbing. Later versions, cleaned up for children, suggest that the villain Little Red Riding Hood encounters is a real wolf, albeit a talking, cross-dressing one.
What exactly are werewolves? Monster-movie material or something real? During Europe’s Witchcraze, a concurrent werewolf panic (centered mainly in France but also present through other regions of Europe) resulted in the deaths of many men. Just as witchcraft was identified with women, werewolves were identified with men.
Johannes Nider, author of an early fifteenth-century witch-hunter’s manual The Formicarius, discusses male witches who transform into wolves. Werewolves may be nothing more than male witches. During the witch-hunts, as witchcraft became increasingly identified with women, public perception and theology may have required that men be classified differently—if men and women can both be witches, then all this theology about women being the gender more susceptible to Satanic wiles goes out the window. To wear a wolf’s skin may be a euphemism for walking the shaman’s or male witch’s path.
European werewolves, similar to Navajo skin-walkers, may not look exactly like real wolves. They may walk upright and have no tail, which sounds suspiciously like a person. Other descriptions suggest that werewolves have a human body but a wolf’s head, like an Egyptian deity or like a masked human.
Although they might or might not literally transform, once upon a time, many people strove to be identified with wolves.
According to Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ grandfather was named Autolykos—“He who is a Wolf.”
The desire to identify with wolves is demonstrated by once popular boy’s names: Adolf, Rudolph, Wolfgang, Wolfram, and plain old Wolf.
The blues singer called Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Burnett. His adopted name may be understood as a magical name, a veritable boast of primal male and magical power. In many of his songs he explicitly identifies himself with the creature, as a source of pride and power.
The Pawnee nation, Plains Indians from presentday Kansas and Nebraska, identified so profoundly with wolves that the Plains hand-signal for wolf is the same as the one for Pawnee. Others referred to them as the Wolf People.
Odin’s warriors behaved like wolves, hence the name “wolf-warriors.” Sixth- to eighth-century CE helmets and scabbards found widely through Western and Central Europe were decorated with figures that may be werewolves or berserkers.
The earliest written report of werewolves derives from Herodotus, the fifth-century BCE Greek writer. According to him, a tribe known as the Neuri, living north of the Black Sea, had members who turned into wolves for several days each year. Today, this is thought to refer to Scythian shamans.
Werewolf transformation manifests in two distinct ways:
those who shift back and forth between human and werewolf manifestations
those who assume the form of a wolf full-time
People become werewolves voluntarily and involuntarily. People become werewolves accidentally or intentionally. People transform themselves into werewolves or others do it for them. The second manifestation, the full-time wolf, is virtually always an involuntary transformation and is frequently the result of a curse.
How else do you become a werewolf?
Ancestry may be blamed. Someone from a family full of werewolves may be more likely to be one.
Simply sleeping in the moonlight may do the trick.
Taking off one’s clothes and howling in the moonlight is considered effective, too.
The notion that being a werewolf is contagious is popular nowadays but derives more from movie traditions than from any folk wisdom. It may derive from confusion between vampires and werewolves.
In Ojibwa tradition, eating meat that was previously tasted by a real wolf leaves you prone to transformation.
In the Harz Mountains, the witches’ playground, there is a “werewolf stream.” All one must do is find it and drink the water.
In the Balkans, there’s a special werewolf flower. Pick it and transform.
Various spells refer to magical belts which when worn help one transform.
European werewolves allegedly concoct salves similar to witches’ flying ointments to effect transformation.
Order of birth: being born the seventh son of a seventh son or the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter is good.
Someone born with teeth and/or a caul may indicate a potential werewolf (see DICTIONARY: Taltos).
Curses cause transformation, as do evil spells: Polish witches can transform you into a werewolf via methods of “spoiling.” The witches form a belt from human flesh. This is secretly placed over the threshold of a room where a wedding reception is expected. Should someone step over the girdle, they’re doomed to roam as werewolves. (Doom isn’t expected to be permanent; the witches’ goal isn’t malice, it’s extortion: you can pay them to remove the spell.)
A fairly international tradition recommends that you drink rainwater collected from a wolf’s footprint.
In Brazil, the notion of becoming a werewolf involves the acquisition of an animal alter-ego. Accomplishment takes some long-term planning: for three years in a row, intensely petition San Cipriano and roll in the ashes of St John’s Eve bonfires.
According to the witch-hunt era Roman Catholic Church, one can only become a werewolf by making a pact with the devil or by being a child born outside church-sanctioned marriage. No other methods exist. (So much for being the innocent victim of a werewolf attack!) However, according to various unofficial traditions Christian transgressions may be punished by involuntary transformation into a werewolf, including:
being born on Christmas Day, a day also associated with the winter solstice and the power of the sun. Prior to Christianity, this day was understood as falling within a time period when Earth’s innate anarchistic forces were at their most powerful. Another, possibly related superstition, suggests that those born on Christmas Day possess the ability to talk with animals.
being born a Roman Catholic priest’s son
Breton folklore suggests that anyone who doesn’t go to confession for ten years is vulnerable to transformation to a “bisclavret,” the Breton werewolf.
Lest one think that only male werewolves exist, there are tales of fierce, female werewolves too:
A Welsh prince allegedly had his werewolf daughter eliminate his enemies.
In the Russian tale Ivan of Shiganska, a female werewolf kills the abusive husband her parents forced her to marry.
The loups-garoux of Haiti and the French Caribbean are a fusion of Breton werewolf traditions and African secret sorcerers’ societies. These island loups-garoux tend to be female. Typically the ability to transform is passed from mother to daughter. Loups-garoux can be violent; attacks tend to be random although children of enemies are particularly vulnerable.
This may be lore or legend but werewolves are no laughing matter. Many people died because of werewolves: not because werewolves killed them but because they were suspected or accused of being werewolves. As with witches, despite all the talk of harm, malevolence and bestiality, it’s the werewolves who have historically been victims, not victimizers.
Concurrent to the European Witchcraze, there was a werewolf-panic, most famously in France but also elsewhere. (Werewolf-panic did not strike the British Isles, perhaps because wolves were already extinct.)
Like witchcraft, it’s extremely hard to prove you’re not a werewolf, especially a diabolical one. The human being is allegedly taken over by the spirit of a wolf, thus transforming into a werewolf. The alleged werewolf may be sleeping in bed or locked up in jail while his soul roams free. Using this kind of definition of werewolf, anyone might be convicted as a werewolf even if far from the place where the “crimes” were committed. (And they’re may have been crimes; just because the werewolf didn’t commit the murder doesn’t mean that the murder didn’t exist. One wonders how many accusations of witchcraft were used to deflect attention from true perpetrators.)
As with witch-trial transcripts it’s very difficult to know which part, if any of the testimony is genuine. Confessions were obtained via torture, terror, and duress and aren’t reliable. At the same time, hidden within some of the transcripts are interesting tales that suggest real, true witchcraft may not have been eradicated in Europe.
Among the most famous historical werewolves are the following:
Gilles Garnier: A number of children disappeared in the vicinity of the French city of Dole, beginning (as best as can be told from surviving records) in 1572. The rumor spread that a local werewolf was responsible. In response, the local government passed a law permitting the people of their district to hunt werewolves although it was “out of season.”
At twilight on November 8, 1573, hunters, hearing screams in the woods, discovered a severely wounded little girl fighting off something lupine. The creature fled into the woods. Some of the hunters insisted that it was a wolf. Others said they recognized it as a man, Gilles Garnier, known as the Hermit of St Bonnot.
Garnier lived with his wife in a hut near where the attack occurred. He was a red-faced, long-bearded unattractive man with bad posture and a unibrow. On November 14, a ten-year-old boy disappeared in the area. Garnier was arrested and interrogated. He said that years earlier he had met a man in the woods who taught him to shape-shift into various forms, including those of a lion or leopard but, as Garnier pointed out very reasonably, wolves were most convenient because they were least noticeable. He claimed he spent most of his time in wolf-form and used his powers to obtain food for his impoverished family. Tortured, he confessed to the murders. On January 18, 1574 Garnier was burned alive and his ashes scattered to the winds.
Peter Stump: In 1590, Peter Stump was arrested in Cologne and charged as a werewolf for a series of murders, including that of his own son, which had occurred over a 20-year period. On March 31, 1590, Stump was executed as a werewolf. An illustrated pamphlet was published detailing Stump’s career as a werewolf. The pamphlet was translated into different languages and was a bestseller of its time.
Jean Grenier: In the spring of 1613, children began mysteriously disappearing in the St Sever district of Gascony, France, including a baby from its cradle. An aura of fear pervaded the area. Other children began to report unusual occurrences. Finally 13-year-old Marguerite Poirier reported that while tending cattle, a huge, ferocious canine with reddish fur and a short, stumpy tail jumped from the bushes and attacked her. Marguerite fought it off with an iron-tipped staff. (This may be understood as a clue to the beast’s supernatural identity. If this were really a wolf, a child with a club wouldn’t stand much of a chance; iron is feared by virtually all supernatural beings. It breaks virtually every spell and offers spiritualmagical protection.)
Rumors soon spread that Jean Grenier, aged approximately 13 or 14, was boasting of attacking Marguerite. He claimed that if it hadn’t been for that iron-tipped staff, he would have killed and eaten her as he did others. Grenier, the son of an impoverished laborer, traveled about seeking work with local farmers. He never lasted long at any job, usually being fired for neglecting his duties. Whether he was uneducated or mildly retarded is unknown, but it was noted during his trial that he had the mental capacity of a much younger child. When unable to find work, he begged.
Soon 18-year-old Jeanne Gaboriaut came forward and testified under oath that while she and some other girls had been tending cows, their sheep dogs began to growl and whine at something. The girls investigated and discovered a filthy, red-haired, feral boy with a unibrow. Jeanne asked him why he looked so strange. According to her, he responded, “Because sometimes I wear a wolf’s skin.” The puzzled and intrigued girls asked him to explain. He claimed that a man named Pierre Labourat gave him a wolf skin that, when donned, enabled him to transform into a wolf and hunt. He boasted that he killed and ate many dogs but that these weren’t as tasty as children. The girls fled to the authorities.
A search was made for the boy who was soon found and arrested. Jean Grenier claimed to come from the village of Saint’Antoine de Pizon. His father beat him so he ran away, earning a living as a cowherd and beggar. About three years earlier (this would have been when he was about 10) another boy took him into the woods to meet the Lord of the Forest, who turned out to be a tall man, dressed in black, riding a black horse. Jean met him several times and agreed to serve him. Jean described the children he’d killed and eaten. Witnesses came forward to corroborate his story. The court pronounced him a werewolf and sentenced him to life imprisonment in a monastery.
Grenier is unusual in werewolf-lore because virtually all other convicted European werewolves were burned to death, in the manner of witches. In Grenier’s case however, the Chief of the Court made a speech suggesting that questions of witchcraft and diabolism should be disregarded. Instead the court should consider the boy’s age and mental capacity.
Thiess, the Livonian Werewolf: In 1692, in Jurgensburg, Livonia, an 80-year-old man named Thiess was interrogated. Thiess had long been under suspicion; local Christians considered him an idolater. He allegedly killed small livestock in wolf form although he cooked the meat, not eating it raw.
Thiess perplexed and frustrated his inquisitors. Yes, he confessed to being a werewolf but insisted that he was a holy werewolf, a benevolent one, a werewolf of God. Furthermore, he wasn’t alone: he belonged to a werewolf society. According to Thiess, members of this society went to Hell and back three times a year to fight the devil and his sorcerer minions. (The three nights were St John’s Eve, St Lucy’s Night, and Pentecost.) Thiess initially told his interrogators that Hell was at the “end of the sea.” After further questioning, Thiess amended this to the more conventional “underground.” He claimed there were male and female werewolves but specified women, not young girls. Thiess called werewolves “the dogs of God.” He claimed there were also German werewolves but that they fight in a different hell. The werewolves fought with iron whips. The sorcerers were armed with broomsticks wrapped in horsetails. They fought for the fertility of barley and rye fields as well as the sea’s bounty of fish. Sorcerers stole shoots of grain; if the werewolves couldn’t get them back, there would be famine.
The inquisitors had wanted a standardized werewolf/witchcraft/heresy trial; instead they had stumbled upon a magical shamanic scenario. Exactly what fate befell the aged Thiess is unknown.
Some context may be needed to truly appreciate the Livonian werewolf: Today Livonia is in southern Latvia but in 1692, Livonia was a Baltic province of Russia, bordered on the north by Estonia and on the east by Lake Peipus. It was a true crossroads area, with various ethnic groups present including a high proportion of Swedes.
Pockets of old religion are believed to have survived as well as a shamanic tradition that may have merged with Christianity, thus creating a kind of “double-faith.” Latvian werewolves belonged to the society of the Hairy Martinians, which may be understood as a male witch society. They roamed on certain nights, especially Midsummer’s Eve, to drive away the demons of infertility. They gathered at full moons and at New Year in the forest. Islands in the Latvian River Brasla were among their favorite meeting places.
Count Jean Potocki: The Polish count Jean Potocki was born in 1761. A writer, traveler, and diplomat serving Tsar Alexander I, Potocki traveled widely in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, where he claimed to have flirted with various secret societies. Considered among the founding fathers of ethnology, Potocki was also an early Egyptologist. His claims to fame include his death and his mysterious novel, which was published posthumously. Chapters of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa were published beginning in 1797, however the novel was still incomplete at the time of Potocki’s death almost 20 years later. Sections of the original text were lost; however, a version remains in print, including an English translation. The book is a complex series of intertwining stories featuring a cast of characters including Gypsies, a Kabala master, Moorish princesses, and assorted members of secret societies. It has been compared to The Arabian Nights.
In 1815, Potocki committed suicide using a silver bullet from a melted-down samovar, allegedly convinced that he was a werewolf.