What is a witch? What is witchcraft?

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*To those of you who may wish to know more about primitive witchcraft, Júlia, co-owner of Occvlta, is working on a book on witchcraft in the Pyrenees that will soon be published.

** In this text we use bruxa (primitive witch) as a genderless entity.

As most of you may have observed by now, we do not consider witches to be equivalent to sorcerers, herbalists, poisoners, folk magicians, or nothing of the sort. We have never called ourselves witches, and there is a reason behind that: we understand the witch the same way as it was observed before the Early Modern witch hunt. This primitive witch, bruxa as we call it, roamed the rural communities of Europe as a supernatural entity, a discarnate being that brought death and misfortune to humankind. BUT WAIT. BEAR WITH US HERE before you start hyperventilating.

The bruxa is a supernatural entity and/or the manifestation of a spiritual Double which, through opposition, secures balance between light and dark, life and death, good and evil, day and night. This is not our theory though, it has been proposed by historians and anthropologists such as Carlo Ginzburg, Claude Lecouteux, Emma Wilby, Alejandro Campagne, or Pau Castell. According to them, witchcraft and the figure of the bruxa suffered a profound transformation during the late Middle Ages, as it merged with the prosecution of heretic groups that was being carried out by theological elites, which culminated in the Early Modern witch hunt. Witchcraft was, originally, an experience of contact with Otherness and the Underworld, perhaps one of the last remaining vestiges of spirit journeying in the western tradition.

This is proven by etymology. The word bruxa comes from the old Catalan bruxar ‘to crush’, the action that the bruxa was believed to perform on the chests of sleepers. If we look at other European languages, the corresponding word will be strega in Italian or the Romanian strigoi (from the Greek strix or στρίγξ ‘to screech’, used now to refer to the barn owl family), and the Latin lamia, ‘vampire’. As you can see, these names do not talk about practitioners of magic or herbalists, but they refer to nocturnal entities that were initially believed to kidnap or suck the blood of children, were thought of as the cause of night terrors and nightmares and were also blamed for the misfortunes of a community, for example, bad weather or the death of livestock. Their magical abilities were attributed to their supernatural origin, not to their sorcerous or healing abilities.

So, how did the bruxa go from a supernatural entity to a flesh and blood individual? Could a human being become a bruxa? and more importantly, why would anyone want to be a bruxa or be part of the Underworld?

In order to understand the evolution of the bruxa, we must look at the 1424 law present in the Ordinacions i privilegis de les Valls d’Àneu, the first civil legislation on witchcraft in all of Europe:

ordinacions
Image of the Ordinacions text of 1424.

First of all we establish and order: if from now on there is a man or woman from that valley who has gone with the bruxes [witches] at night to the Boc de Biterna [the Devil]; to whom he will pay homage by taking him as his Lord; denying the name of God (…) who will kill little children at night or during the day (…) that such a man or woman who will commit such crimes loses his body and all his property, as well as his furniture, are confiscated from the lord (…). (1)

 

 

In this law, neither men nor women are categorised as bruxes, but it is said that some people go with the bruxes, and that they commit the same actions that are attributed to these entities. This law presented witchcraft as a new crime, so those who accompanied them could be tried for engaging in evil activities and harming the community. Although the individual could not be a bruxa, he or she could join them in spirit form and engage in their cannibalistic and nightmarish activities. The social and religious authorities had now transformed a supernatural threat into a tangible, familiar menace. Those who practised folk medicine, magic, herbalism, or sorcery would be the first to be prosecuted. In time, the witch hunt would extend to wider areas and groups of the population. The bruxa had become human, tangible, more in line with the “rational” point of view of the times, far from the superstitious beliefs that predominated in ancient times.

Let’s not forget how things were seen in origin: the individual did not become a bruxa but joined discarnate entities. These entities engaged in spectral processions present in all western mythologies: wild hunts, malandanti and benandanti, mesnie hellequin, santa compaña, spectral processions that circulated through desolate roads. People used talismans and amulets to prevent nocturnal entities from entering their houses, and left offerings for them in case they got to enter. These customs have endured until very recently in some rural communities and in Catholic countries (food offerings left during the festivities of the winter cycle is proof of that).

But what about the individuals that went with the bruxes? As you have seen, the first laws and sermons on witchcraft tell us is that certain individuals were able, for a few moments or during the night, to join them in spirit and commit atrocities, to finally return to their bodies. Burchard of Worms said so in his commentary to the Canon Episcopi (11th century):

Have you ever believed or participated in that infidelity, (…) that in the silence of the quiet night, when you have settled down in bed, and your husband lies in your bosom, you are able, while still in your body, to go out through the closed doors and travel through the spaces of the world, together with others who are equally deceived, and that without visible weapons, you kill people who have been baptized and redeemed by Christ’s blood and together with others you cook and devour their flesh; and that where the heart was, you put straw or wood or something of the sort; and that after eating those people, you bring them alive again and grant them a brief spell of life? If you have believed this, you shall do penance on bread and water for fifty days (…). (2)

This text seems to indicate that the belief in spirit journeying was quite widespread (Burchard wrote the commentary because he wanted to stop people from believing that). And that leads us to the last question: why would anyone want to contribute to causing misfortune, becoming part of the Underworld and joining of ghosts and intangible entities to terrorize sleepers? BECAUSE IT’S FUN, THAT’S WHY!

witch attacking devil jacob wink
Witch attacking the Devil, Jacob Binck 1528.

Now, seriously, behind the practice of witchcraft, there is no therapeutic, pragmatic, self-healing purpose (only the collateral effects of transcendence). The practice of witchcraft only takes place when the spirit (or rather, spirit Double) is separated from the body to join the spirits of the Underworld. The practice of witchcraft consists of abandoning the tangible world (with various techniques) and transcend to the Other side, thus helping to balance the energies of both realities. All we do as practitioners (or rather, experiencers) of witchcraft is, voluntarily or involuntarily perpetuating the cycle of life and death, night and day, light and darkness. In other words, by experiencing witchcraft, we become an agent of opposition for a while.

Witchcraft is not meant to help YOU in any way. Witchcraft is not about self- empowerment. Perhaps we should move the focus from the self and put it on the collaborative entity that is nature, and help it regain balance. Primitive witches or bruxes were feared because they brought death, but death was (and still is) the only way to guarantee a renewal of energy, a perpetuation on the life cycle. Right now, this is more important than ever. The practice of witchcraft aims to rebuild this link, and although to do so it may be necessary to assume the taboos of death and darkness and lose a part of our personal identity, that in which we place so much importance today.

Footnotes:

  1. Transcription of the Ordinacions de les Valls D’Àneu in Padilla i Lafuente, J.J. 1999. L’Esperit d’Àneu. Esterri d’Àneu: Consell Cultural de les Valls d’Àneu. Translated by the author.
  2. Wilby, Emma. 2013. “Burchard’s strigae, the Witches’ Sabbath, and Shamanistic Cannibalism in Early Modern Europe.” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Summer 2013. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press: p.18-48, p.19.

Interesting links:

Gremi de l’Art: https://gremidelart.org/

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