Did you know that the Halloween witch is still one of the most popular costumes chosen by young girls and adults each year? It's amazing. And one needs to ask... what is so fascinating about witches and witchcraft? Well, here's a little bit of history behind real witches, not the Hollywood variety that we so like to copy.
First, something that needs to be made clear is that the word 'witch' is derived from the old English word 'Wicce' (meaning wise one) - and 'Wicca (meaning healer). The witch was considered a wise-woman who lived in harmony with nature and the seasons. They were skilled in the use of herbs and were often called upon to cure the ill. Essentially, the "Halloween witch" of centuries ago was a homeopathic healer.
Being a wise woman and a healer, the witch had an assortment of special items that she utilized.
One of these specialized items was the Athame. This was the witch's personal steel knife and was used in most rituals as it was believed to have been imbued with magical properties. The knife itself was double-edged and often had a black handle.
The broomstick was symbolic of magical powers. Its real purpose? To cleanse the area where magical rituals were performed. So how did the belief arise that the Halloween witch rode a broomstick and flew through the sky?
On All Hallows Eve, witches would often anoint themselves with a "magical" ointment. The ointment made the skin tingle and gave the illusion of being very light, perpetuating the belief that they could fly. A witch walking through the woods on her way to the festival would often use the broom as a means to help jump over a brook or stream. Hence, they were believed to be flying. It's amazing what the imagination can dream up, isn't it?
Of course, we've all seen witches standing over bubbling cauldrons and drinking from large chalices in the movies. The cauldron was a pot used for concocting magical potions and for scrying (looking into the future on the water's surface). The chalice was believed to be a receptacle of spiritual forces. Remember, we're talking ancient witchcraft history here... most beliefs were rooted in supernatural and spiritual powers.
The wands that many witches carried were made of hazel wood, crystal, carved ivory or ebony, silver, or gold. It was believed that these wands were extensions of the life force of the witch herself.
By themselves, each one of these symbols alone wouldn't create much of a stir, but when combined, all these ritualistic items and beliefs in mystical, magical powers would soon convince the general populace that witches had abilities beyond what the normal person should have. Add in the ability to create "magical healing potions" to cure the sick, then superstitions would quickly grow and soon you have tales of witches being able to turn themselves into cats and doing all sorts of strange things.
In conclusion, Halloween is one of the four highest holidays of the pagan celebrations and is often considered the greatest of the four, sometimes called the Great Sabbath. This is when the "Halloween witch" takes the time to observe the supernatural powers of this world and otherworlds, and ponder the mysteries that lie in both. It is a night for honoring ancestors, celebrating the harvest, and ringing in the New Year (which begins on November 1st). Perhaps we should take the opportunity to do the same.