Witches and Wizards

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Witches and Wizards



Alternate Names

Sorceresses, Warlocks

Appears In

Various myths around the world



Character Overview

Witches and wizards are people thought to possess magical powers or to command supernatural forces. They appear in the myths and folktales of many cultures. The word “witch” usually refers to a female, though male witches exist in some traditions. Men who possess the powers associated with witchcraft are often known as wizards or warlocks.

In many myths and legends, witches are evil, dishonest, or dangerous. Some cultures do not consider them fully human. If not evil by nature, witches may be possessed by demons or wicked spirits determined to harm humans. Yet ordinary men and women may learn magic for the purpose of hurting others. Such people are sometimes called sorcerers and sorceresses rather than wizards and witches. African tradition distinguishes between good magicians, or medicine men, and bad magicians, or sorcerers. Both types are distinct from the nonhuman witch.

Not all witches and wizards are evil. Some myths and folktales feature good spirits or magicians who help people. These are said to practice “white magic” rather than the “black magic” of the evil witches and wizards. The Wonderful Wizard ofOz, the modern children's book that became a famous movie, features both kinds of witches. It is easy to tell them apart—the wicked witch is an old hag dressed in black, while the good witch is a beautiful, soft-spoken woman dressed like a princess.

The magicians that appear in myths and folktales, however, are not always clearly labeled. They may be unpredictable and of uncertain character—neither completely good nor completely evil. Their treatment of humans may depend on how they are treated. Often people meet old women, not realizing that they are dealing with witches. In such cases, the witch may reward kindness and punish rudeness.

Legendary Witches and Wizards Witches take many forms. The traditional image in European and American folklore is that of a wrinkled old woman, perhaps wearing a black robe and a cone-shaped hat. These witches communicate with evil spirits called familiars, which often take the form of a black cat. According to legend, Japanese witches have owls as familiars, and African witches have monkeys.

Flight is often associated with witchcraft. In American folktales, witches usually travel through the night skies on enchanted broomsticks. In some parts of Africa, witches are said to fly on bats. African witches often take the form of animals and eat human flesh. In the mythology of some cultures, witches can change into animals to prey upon their victims.

The tradition of witchcraft is ancient. The book of Samuel in the Old Testament of the Bible contains an account of a sorceress called the Witch of Endor. Saul, the first king of Israel, banished magicians from his kingdom but finally asked for advice from the Witch of Endor, who had “a familiar spirit.” Assured that she would not be punished for practicing magic, the witch called up the spirit of Samuel, a dead prophet of the Israelites. The spirit predicted Saul's defeat in the battle that was to take place the next day.

In the Odyssey, an epic of ancient Greece, the hero Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs) and his men met a witch named Circe (pronounced SUR-see). The daughter of a god and an ocean nymph, Circe had the power to turn people into animals and monsters. Her island home was populated with lions, bears, and wolves—all had once been human, but were transformed by her magic. Although she turned some of Odysseus's men into pigs, the hero used a special herb that protected him from her magic.

Witchcraft and magic played an important role in the Arthurian legends of Britain. Merlin , a powerful wizard, guided and influenced King Arthur throughout his life. A witch named Morgan Le Fay also appeared in the legends and took care of Arthur after he was wounded in battle.

Slavic folklore of eastern Europe and western Russia has a witch called Baba Yaga (pronounced BAH-buh yuh-GAH), a thin old woman whose nickname means “bony legs.” Baba Yaga lives alone in a hut deep in the forest. The hut stands on the legs of a chicken and is surrounded by a fence decorated with skulls. Visitors who wish to enter must recite a magic formula. Although Baba Yaga sometimes helps the hero or heroine of a story, she is generally a dangerous figure who must be outwitted.

One Baba Yaga story concerns a prince named Ivan who needed a very fast horse to rescue his wife from the clutches of a monster. Ivan learned that Baba Yaga had some special horses and asked her for the use of one. The witch said that he must first guard her horses for three nights. She was sure that Ivan would fail at the task because she ordered the horses to gallop away each night. However, Ivan had shown kindness to various animals and insects, and they gathered the horses together for him. Finally Ivan seized one of the horses and rode off to save his wife. Baba Yaga chased him, but he outran her.

Witches and sorcerers occur frequendy in American Indian myths. Unlike shamans and healers, they are fearsome and destructive beings. The Navajo of the American Southwest have stories about the adilgashii, witches who travel at night in the skins of coyotes or other animals and who use poison made from the ground bones of babies to harm the living. In English, the adilgashii are called skinwalkers.

The Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest believe that a man with an unfaithful wife becomes a witch by drinking from a dead shaman's skull. This first witch then creates other witches, both male and female. They acquire dark powers by lurking in graveyards and handling the dead. In a theme repeated in stories from many cultures, the Tlingit witches make dolls out of the hair, clothing, or food of those they want to harm. By placing these dolls in graves to rot with corpses, the witches cause their victims to become sick. A witch can reverse the spell and cure the victim by rinsing the doll in salt water.

Witches and Wizards in Context

Many cultures around the world include legends or myths about witches and wizards. The way a culture addresses the idea of magic is reflected in these myths. For example, in Christian cultures, magic is almost always considered to be an act of the Devil. In Christian stories, then, witches are evil beings who seek only to cause harm. It is worth noting that many beneficial magical events are described in Christian stories, but these are nearly always referred to as “miracles” instead of magic.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the belief in witches was widespread. Witches were said to be worshippers of the Devil. Thousands of women and some men were tortured and executed after being accused of witchcraft. The English who setded in North America brought along a fear of witches. A witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 resulted in the execution of nineteen people. Even today, accusations of witchcraft can lead to violence in some parts of the world.

In many belief systems, such as Hinduism, magic is seen as something that can be good or bad. In these cultures, wizards and witches might be considered helpful characters or even heroes. Very often there are magicians whose sole purpose is to combat evil magic or protect someone from its effects. The wizard Merlin, found in Romano-British legends, uses magic for reasons that are presented as positive or helpful in most cases. In modern times, witches and wizards are viewed rather positively, with many films, television shows, and video games featuring such characters as heroes. This may reflect the feeling that magic and other supernatural forces are taken less seriously because, due to advances in science, they are no longer believed to be the causes of tragic events.

Key Themes and Symbols

The central theme in stories about witches and wizards is the ability to control people, objects, and events in supernatural ways. This includes everything from making objects disappear to secretly causing a person's illness. In most stories, this control is motivated by a desire for great riches and power, or a desire for revenge. Sometimes the motivation is love, in both good and bad ways. Circe turned the beautiful nymph Scylla (pronounced SIL-uh) into a monster when a man chose her over Circe.

One of the symbols most commonly associated with witchcraft in European cultures is the broomstick. This is an object traditionally linked to women and their domestic duties, and therefore reflects the view that women were considered to be more attuned to the supernatural. Another common symbol across many cultures is the stick or wand used by a witch or wizard; this is often a tree branch or something made of wood or bone, and symbolizes the importance of nature in channeling magic.

Witches and Wizards in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Throughout history, witches and wizards have never failed to capture the imagination of writers and artists. Artists have traditionally pictured witches as hideous hags, though some characters—such as Circe—are depicted as beautiful and seductive. Authors such as Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Sir Thomas Malory included wizards and witches as key characters in some of their most important works. In modern times, L. Frank Baum, Stephen King, and J. R. R. Tolkien have created similar memorable characters. Many television shows have been based on the notion of witches and wizards existing in secret as a part of mainstream society. Some notable examples include Bewitched; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; and Wizards of Waverly Phce.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Stories about witches and wizards continue to fascinate the public and to inspire writers. In addition to providing an otherworldly atmosphere, such stories often reveal truths about ordinary human existence. In the Harry Potter series of modern fantasy books, British writer J. K. Rowling describes an entire society involved with magic. The reader follows Harry, an ordinary boy, as he studies at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Between adventures laced with dragons , magic potions, and flying broomsticks, Rowling shows how Harry learns about values such as friendship, loyalty, and courage. The first book in the seven-book series is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (also known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone).

SEE ALSO Circe; Devils and Demons; Merlin

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