by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In cultures around the world, stories are told of women who have some extraordinary power: the gift of foretelling the future; of casting spells to alter reality; of mysteriously healing the sick; of cursing their enemies and their enemies’ descendants; or bending men to their will through sexual enchantment.
They have been known by many names: Circe, Baba Yaga, Hecate, Medea, Morgan Le Fay, and countless others.
One of the very oldest witch stories comes from The Poetic Eddur, anglicized as Eddas. John Bruno Hare describes them as “the oral literature of Iceland, which were finally written down from 1000 to 1300 C.E. The Eddas are a primary source for our knowledge of ancient Norse pagan beliefs.”
The Eddas lore has inspired music from Wagner to Jethro Tull, visual art from W. G. Collingwood to Marvel Comics, and the writings of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman.
As with any ancient text, the Eddas are open to many interpretations. I have pieced this reasonable version together as suits my theme.
That most ancient witch, The Völva, who knew nine worlds before the present World Tree,Yggdrasil, sprouted from the ground, is the “she” who remembers the first war between the rival deities, the Æsir and the Vanir, of which the trial of Gullveig, “Gold-Brew,” is a triggering incident. Gullveig was tried as a witch in the High Hall of Odin, and sentenced to death. Three times they raised her, struck through on their spears, but she still lived, so then three times she was burned, yet still she lived.
After Gullveig’s ordeal, she traveled from place to place, and was known as Heidr, “Bright One” or “Of the Heath” (related to the word heathen – pagan – someone who worships outdoors in nature.)
This translation is by Henry Adams Bellows (1885 – 1939).
Völuspá – “The Vision of the Witch”
She remembers the first war in the world
When Gold-Brew was hoist on the spears
And in the High One´s hall they burned her
Three times they burned the three times born
Often, not seldom, but she still lives!
She was called Bright One when she came to the settlements
The greatly talented Carrier of the Wand
She performed magic, ecstatically she performed it
She knew how to cast spells
She was always loved by wicked women.
Women writers have often used witches and magick imagery in their work. Here Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950) writes as a man enchanted by the witch who will never completely surrender to him, however much he longs to possess her.
She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.
She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ‘tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.
She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.
In Her Kind, Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974) claims kinship with those women who have been feared in age after age.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Jane Baxter wrote this poem after reading a book called The Devil’s Children, which includes an account of a woman burned at the stake in Scotland, and the story of her children.
Burning Of A Witch
The whip it rose the skin was scourged
It wealed and then it bled
The whip it rose and rose again
Till they thought the lass was dead
A man stood there alone apart
Who once stood proud and tall
With spirit cowed and broken heart
A witness to it all
“Release! Release!” the whispered voice
Kept pleading piteously
“Dear God! Have mercy on my plight,
And make them set me free!”
But her cries they fell on deafened ears
And eyes that burned with lust
No hand was raised to help her
For they said that she was cursed
This curse that brought her to her end
When she was naught but still a child
Was her beauty so fair
Twas beyond any compare
Her beauty so wondrous and wild
She was the envy of dried up old women
And she set men aflame with desire
But knowing that they could not have her
They condemned her to death on the pyre
The man who’d stood alone apart
Cried out, “Dear God, you’re wrong!”
But well he knew within his heart
He had stayed his hand too long
Then death approached
Through the fagot’s smoke and pitch
Welcomed then by she who burned
A girl and not a witch
For all the power attributed to witches, women accused and tried for witchcraft often died by burning, hanging or drowning. Victims were singled out by witch hunters because they were “different.” Women who were too intelligent and strong-willed; or conversely mentally ill or impaired; women who had birth defects or distinctive birth marks; healers and midwives; the desperately poor or those more fortunate; “loose” women; and most often of all, women whose neighbors had some grudge against them – all could become targets.
The hideous hag, the beautiful seductress, the nosy neighbor, the woman who kept herself to herself – witches are whatever humanity finds to fear or desire in women. We women are all “her kind” in some way.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Völuspá, st.21-22 (“The Vision of the Witch”), Poetic Edda
Witch-Wife from Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, © 1956 by Norma Millay Ellis, Harper & Brothers
Her Kind – from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. – Houghton Mifflin.
Burning Of A Witch © 1974 by Jane Baxter, Dorset England
- Odin and the Völva by the Danish artist Lorenz Frølich
- Baba Yaga – artist not credited
- Head of Benin Inyoba (Queen Mother) 18th Century
- Raising a Witch for Burning – artist not credited
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud