The Meaning of Witches

As a kid growing up in America, I’ve always loved Halloween, especially the mystery and fear associated with it. We often wonder where such strange holidays come from. I’ve done some research in the past on American holidays and the odd symbols and creatures associated with them. And that is where I started to uncover the source of the witch in our Halloween celebrations.

What is it about this strange holiday called Halloween that conjures up images of evil old women dressed in black? Years ago when I got into mythology and started reading ancient text about the Irish and English versions of the celebration, I started to recognize the same symbol of the witch in much older folktales. Those dark images seemed to crop up over and over in many types of Western myth and story. It made me wonder where witches came from since they, for millennia, have filled all our Western fairy tales, books, and art.

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz (1939)
Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz (1939)

Here’s actress Margaret Hamilton from the Wizard of Oz. She is one of many people that have portrayed witches in modern film. Here her image is free of what I call “commercial purpose”. In this film the modern interpretation of the witch is pure and seems more connected to its original myth, unlike so much of our over-commercialized views of the witch, today.

It’s interesting that this archetype still continues in our culture. Most equate the witch with some New England witch trial, or wiccans, or counter culture religions, or even modern cults. But those are just modern manifestations of the witch that have no true meaning or connection to its original archetype. It’s the ancient archetype that does, as it’s that which continues to reverberate through Western culture and through time long after we are gone. The “myth of the witch” shall live on and on, for our kids and even our grand-kids…….but why?

The theme of the dark feminine archetype, or Western Witch, is actually a European form of the ancient Earth Mother form our ancestors used as a personification of the earth and her power over the cycle of the seasons – the movement of the sun and its dramatic change in the seasons in the northern hemisphere of Europe. Cultures near the equator do not have seasons like we have. So our Western mythology reflects mythological archetypes involving dramatic seasonal changes and the stories filled with change and conflict, good vs evil, light vs dark, etc. It is this “fatal sense of life and death” that has defined all of Western culture and the stories our ancestors have constructed. Such is the case of the witch in story.

Western entertainment has revolved around conflict and the endless battle of opposites reflected in the movement of the cycling sun. And the Witch in the fall is the expression of the dying earth – its plant life dying with the disappearing sun. And so this feminine figure also appears aged like the earth, her virginal beauty fading as the sun fades. But we know her archetype is of something much more eternal. For becoming the witch she merely changes masks as the living earth changes masks, never dying but reborn again in the spring – beautiful and young again as the infinite feminine she represents.

To the Celts of Europe and the English isles, Halloween and autumn wasn’t about bad, dark, scary, or evil things as we celebrate it today in America. It was about the coming of winter after a bountiful year of harvest. The Earth Mother as Witch was a representation of one of three forms that supported her essential archetype in western thought: The Virgin in Spring, the Mother in Summer, the Hag in Winter.

Her three forms were needed to show the masks of the one divine form that controlled their lives. You see, this is the power of “3” in all our literature….the Three Bears, the Three Norns or Fates, Paris and the Three Apples of Greek myth, etc etc. When you see “3” in Western culture some of its meaning is about the three masks of the Earth Mother, her trilogy that is eternal and forever appears in Western movies and story today.

The male forms of her myth were always dualistic or associated with twins or two males forms that forever fought for her love. This is the true source of good versus evil in so much of modern Western culture and religion, as well. Apollo and Hades fought over the Earth Mother who was Persephone in Greek story. They were always black and white, light and dark – both her sons and lovers. They always came from her, fought for the Mother Earth in Summer and Winter. They represented the sun and moon and the two halves of the year supported by the gates or junctures that occurred on May 1st of May Day and November 1st after Halloween.

It was the Earth Mother as witch that controlled the gates on Halloween. It was her time, of the Hag, the dark female form that was there to usher in winter, etc. And so it is the Earth Mother in her darkest guise that we truly celebrate and why we see witches at Halloween.

But her sons or hero twins were from her. Their battles over light versus dark fill our fiction and movies even today, and form the patriarchal abstraction of Germanic Patriarchy layered over her much more ancient and hidden Matriarchal powers in modern symbology. Look at Princess Leia and Hans and Luke in Star Wars, or Guinevere and King Arthur and Lancelot, etc. The woman with two loves is the Earth Mother and the two sons of the two seasons. It’s a myth now shown in the vampire Twilight Series, and many others – too many to list here. We tell the same stories over and over and over, though modern story tellers seem blind to what they write.

But when modern Western writers write about that eternal conflict it comes from this more ancient idea of myth derived from the movement of the sun from summer to winter and our ancestor’s view of the earth and the sun. The witch and her sons are simply seasonal myths our ancestors cultivated for thousands and thousands of years to explain the Natural world. And they cultivated them in culture and story, reinvented them over and over until they became part of our very DNA.

The witch to them was frightening though not evil. She was meant to be powerful and all-knowing, to remind us of Nature’s cruel ability to take back the harvest, devour her own kids, to summon the ice, slay the weak, and to welcome her dark son, Lord of Winter, to his domain. It was the Druids job to celebrate and respect her as they did her Virgin-form and Mother-form. If they did not honor the Winter Solstice and her devouring of all-life, the world they saw would plunge into eternal winter. Now that’s a scary thought, isn’t it. Thus we have the fearful archetype of the Witch at Halloween. We unknowingly celebrate her archetype. And the strange fear of her image and myth by our children at Halloween has thus remained intact, as it should.

We can’t escape the pagan archetypes our culture still hides from itself. But by seeing where they come from and their subconscious forms, for what they are in our minds and imagination, we can use them in our writing for what they mean to us in the larger culture. But we should also use them based on our own personal mythology – exploring the darkness that still lives inside each of us and the holidays and entertainment we still celebrate that call those dark and powerful archetypes back up into us each year of our lives.

–  the Author

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