Friday, January 14, 2011

Good Witches

As a child I learned, from The Wizard of Oz, that there are good witches, and bad witches. From Caspar the Friendly Ghost I learned that not all departed spirits are to be feared. From Felix the Cat I learned that magic can be put to good use. From Kung Fu I learned that there is wisdom to be found in non-Christian religions.

Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900. Baum famously included two "good witches" in this book. But the idea of "good witches" does not originate with Baum. A year earlier (1899) Charles Leland's Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, already appeared, but even before that (in 1892) he had come out with his Etruscan Roman Remains in which he writes in the Introduction:
"Here in Northern Italy a mountain district known as La Romagna Toscana, the inhabitants of which speak a rude form of the Bolognese dialect. These Romagnoli are manifestly a very ancient race, and appear to have preserved traditions and observances little changed from an incredibly early time .... Among these people, stregeria, or witchcraft -- or, as I have heard it called, "la vecchia religione" (or "the old religion") -- exists to a degree which would even astonish many Italians. This stegeria, or old religion, is something more than sorcery, and something less than a faith. It consists in remains of a mythology of spirits, the principal of whom preserve the names and attributes of the old Etruscan gods, such as Tinia, or Jupiter, Faflon, or Bacchus, and Teraina (in Etruscan Turnis) or Mercury. With these there still exist, in a few memories, the most ancient Roman rural deities, such as Silvanus, Palus, Pan, and the Fauns. To all these invocations or prayers in rude metrical form are still addressed, or are at least preserved, and there are many stories regarding them....

Closely allied to the belief in these old deities, is a vast mass of curious tradition, such as that there is a spirit of every element or thing created, as for instance of every plant and mineral, and a guardian or leading spirit of all animals; or, as in the case of silkworms, two -- one good an one evil. Also that witches and sorcerers are sometimes born again in their descendants; that all kinds of goblins, brownies, red-caps and three inch mannikins, haunt forests, rocks, ruined towers, firesides and kitchens, or cellars ...."
Even earlier still, Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology appeared in 1835. In his chapter on Magic (in volume III) Grimm first makes clear that heathen (pre-Christian) Germans knew of both beneficial magic and harmful magic, but that this distinction became confused with the introduction of Christianity. According to the new religion "all heathen notions and practices were declared to be deceit and sinful delusion: the old gods fell back and changed into devils, and all that pertained to their worship into devilish jugglery."

From here, Grimm launches directly into a discussion of terminology associated with witchcraft: "Before proceeding with our inquiry, we have to examine the several terms that designated witchcraft in olden times." The reader is then treated to eight pages of words related to witchcraft, sorcery, conjuring, potion making, charms, spells, prediction, soothsaying, incantations, etc, in Old High German, Old Norse, Middle High German, Low German, Anglo Saxon, Norwegian, Dutch, Swedish, Icelandic, Old English, Gothic, etc, to all of which Jacob Grimm provides his equivalents in Latin and sometimes, for comparison, the Greek as well.

For example: "The AS [Anglo Saxon] also has the two forms: both wiccian fascinare [first he gives the AS italicized, followed by the Latin equivalent unitalicized], wicce saga, wiccungdom or wiccancraeft ars magica .... The English has witch = wicce; and the AS verb has survived its partic. wicked (perversus, maledictus), and Old English has an adjective wikke meaning the same ....."

Grimm also tells us that the modern (of his day) German word "hexe" could be given in Latin as saga, strix, striga, venefica, lamia, and furia. Grimm also points out that sometimes the hexe is assumed to be an old woman, while at other times she is young, and that the word "hexe" can also be used to complement a beautiful woman, or to mean "wise woman". The bottom line is that the ambiguity and multivalency of the modern English "witch" is not something that has been forced onto this word artificially and only as a result of a self-conscious campaign of politically correct revalorization. Nor have "good witches" been historically limited to the realms of story telling and story collecting, but have been with us always and ubiquitously as living human beings throughout European history, before, during and well "after" Christianization.