The Meaning of Witches

As a kid growing up in America, I’ve always loved Halloween, especially the mystery and fear associated with it. I’ve done some research in the past on Halloween. Years ago, when I got into mythology and started reading ancient text about the Irish and English versions of the celebration, I started to see the same use of symbols and folktales related to witches. Those same images seemed to crop up over and over in all types of Western myth and story. It made me wonder where witches came from since they for millennia filled all our Western fairy tales, movies, 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. Her image is free of commercial purpose, yet its Modern interpretation is pure and connected to its myth (unlike so much of our over commercialized views of witchcraft today in 2017).

It’s interesting that this archetype continues in our culture. Most equate it with some New England witch trial or wiccans or counter culture religions or cults. But those are just modern manifestations of the archetype that have no meaning. 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 and even our kids and grandkids. The myth of the Witch lives on and on…….but why?

Tthe theme of the dark feminie 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….i.e. the movement of the sun and its dramatic change in the seasons in the far northern hemisphere. Cultures near the equator don’t have seasons like we have so our mythology reflects mythological archetypes involving dramatic seasonal changes and the stories filled with change and conflict, good vs evil, light vs dark, etc. Western entertainment therefore revolves 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 earth as its plant life dies with the disappearing sun. And so she too ages, though never dies in myth. She just changes masks as the living earth itself never dies but is reborn in the spring.

To the Celts of Europe and the islands, Halloween and autumn wasn’t about bad or evil things, it was about the coming of winter after a bountiful year of harvest. And the Earth Mother as Witch was a representation of one of three forms that supported it all: 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 3 Apples of Greek myth, etc etc. When you see 3 in Western culture some of its meaning is about the 3 masks of the Earth Mother.

The male forms were dualistic. Apollo and Hades fought over the Earth Mother who was Persephone in Greek story. They were always black and white, light and dark, and her sons and lovers. They came from her. They represented the sun and moon and the two halves of the year of winter and summer supported by the gates or junctures that occurred on May 1st of May Day and November 1st after Halloween. The Witch controlled the gates on Halloween. It was her time, of the Hag, the dark female form that was there to usher in winter, etc. Thats why we see witches at Halloween. But her sons or hero twins were from her. And their battles over light versus dark fill our fiction and movies even today. Look at Princess Leia and Hans and Luke, or Gwynnevier and King Arthur and Lancelot. 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. We tell the same stories over and over and over…..

When writers write about that eternal conflict it comes from movement of the sun from summer to winter and our ancestors view of the earth and the sun. They are simply seasonal myths our ancestors cultivated for thousands and thousands of years. And the witch to them was frightening though not evil. She was meant to be, to take back the harvest, devour her own kids, to summon the ice, and to welcome her dark son of winter. It was the Druids job to celebrate and respect her as they did her Virgin and Mother forms. If they did not the world they saw would plunge into eternal winter. Now that’s a scary thought. Thus we have the fearful Witch at Halloween.

We can’t escape the archetypes. But by seeing where they come from and their subconscious forms for what they are in our brains, we can use them in our writing for what they mean to the culture, but also use them based on our own personal mythology; exploring the darkness that still lives inside us and the holidays and entertainment we still celebrate that call those archetypes back up each year.


–  the Author

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