Hexennacht: A History Lesson

Hexennacht was last week and I dropped the ball on posting this blog on time. I still want to share it despite posting it late so I hope you will enjoy reading it just as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Hexennacht literally translates to “Witches’ Night” and in Germanic folklore, the night from 30 April to 1 May, Hexennacht is the night when witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken, a sacred mountain in Germany and await the arrival of spring. The celebration has been growing in popularity among pagan communities and is held on the same night as Sankt Walpurgisnacht, which translates to “Saint Walpurgis Night”.

On this night it is said that Christians prayed to God through the intercession of Saint Walpurga in order to protect themselves from witchcraft. Christians feast on this night to celebrate the canonization of Walpurga. Given that witches gathered on this Hexennacht, the Western Christian Church established the Feast of Saint Walpurga on the same night in order counteract witchcraft.

In my opinion Walpurgisnacht is a celebration of the hostile stigmatization of pagans, while Hexennacht is a day for us modern witches to celebrate and remember our pagan ancestors who were ostracized and killed because of the beliefs that we are now freely able to express.

Modern knowledge of witches often comes from manuals written by inquisitors, religious judges and testimony by accused witches, much of which we know now was produced under duress or torture. The truth is we can’t trust a lot of the descriptions as reality, so my goal this Hexennacht is to post a blog that inspires you to learn about where the stigmas and symbols of witches and witchcraft come from.

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Two of the earliest and most persistent visual markers of witches were the cauldron used to brew up toxic potions and the ability to fly. Though they seem like harmless icons of a magic and possibility, the cauldron and broomstick have unique origins.

A cauldron in general is a large metal pot or kettle for cooking and/or boiling over an open fire, with a large mouth and often with an arc-shaped hanger. Although the cauldron has fallen out of use in the industrialized world as a cooking vessel, a more common association in Western culture is the use of a cauldron in witchcraft. A cliché popularized by various fictions, including Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” and other more modern fiction.

In Celtic lore the cauldron is the symbol of the Underworld. The afterlife for ancient Celtic people, and many in Wicca today, is known as “The Cauldron of Rebirth” (Tír na nÓg, Tir na nog or the Land of the Ever-Young). The belief is that those who die pass into the Cauldron of Rebirth before being reincarnated. Learn more about the cauldron’s origins on Knot Magic 101!

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A witch riding through the air became an established symbol for witchcraft in the 16th century.   According to legend, witches used herbs with psychoactive properties like henbane, mandrake and nightshade in their potions, or “flying ointments.” Some historical accounts suggest witches applied these ointments to their nether regions. And what better applicator than a wooden staff? They literally used the broom to “get high”.

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The broom is an image of witchcraft that comes from sources during an era when fears about witchcraft were at its peak, making much of the information unreliable and biased. For whatever reason the broomstick is one of the wild accusations that stuck and continues to be shared without knowledge of its history today. To learn more about where the iconic witches broom comes from, check out this article by The Atlantic.

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Although experts aren’t sure exactly when pointed hats became associated with witchcraft, pointed hats were worn throughout ancient history as symbols of ceremony and ritual.

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The most critical evidence for the use of the pointed hat to indicate witchcraft likely comes from the opinion of the Church. In the medieval period, it is believed that the clergy and devout practitioners of the faith despised the pointed hat because it reminded them of the horns of the Devil. Read more about the possibilities of the pointed hat on Ancient Origins and Slate!

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Some witches derive their power from symbols. Nineteenth-century occult groups like the Golden Dawn held that the point-up pentagram represented the alignment of Spirit over the physical elements, while a point-down pentagram represented the descent of Spirit into matter or matter absorbing Spirit. It is largely this interpretation that led the religion of Wicca to adopt the point-up pentagram and Satanism the point-down version as their representative symbols. To the followers of Pythagoras, the pentagram was a sacred symbol of wholeness and health. Learn more about the pentagram on Exemplore!

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Although being able to cure illnesses that were previously thought to be incurable was not necessarily a reason to accuse someone of witchcraft, it was scary to think that someone had power or knowledge beyond what humans were thought capable of. During the height of the European witch-hunting craze in the 1500s and 1600s, very few accused witches were healers or medicinal practitioners (source) because healers and midwives were considered invaluable resources. The reality is that most witch potions and brews probably contained folk remedies that still contribute to modern medicine today. Check out this article by The Smithsonian on how Witches’ Brews helped bring modern drugs to the market!

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The use of magic such as using charms to bring good luck or leaving offerings for deceased loved ones can be found in almost every culture across the planet. Witchcraft typically entails common or low magic worked via simple spells, charms, and curses, as opposed to complex rituals of high or learned magic. Those who performed the latter spells and charms were often thought to have received help from dark and demonic forces, for they had knowledge beyond what was thought capable of humans.

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In Rome there was discussion about witchcraft and magic to the degree of which magical practices were condemned, legally or some other way. Law prohibited any magical practices such as concocting potions and ointments, casting spells and performing works of magic aimed to commit a crime, such as murder or theft. Ancient laws usually focused on the effects of magic rather than magic itself. In the Greek world, a person could go to court over wrongful harm magic had caused them. The penalties could be as severe as any for committing an actual, physical injury or crime. To read more about the history of magic, check out this article called “A Brief History of Witchcraft” by Jasmine W.

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A familiar is a shape shifting spirit or minor demon believed to serve a witch or magician as domestic servant, spy and companion, in addition a familiar was thought to help bewitch enemies or to divine information. These spirits were most often thought to take the shape of an animal to avoid suspicion. They featured prominently in many British witch trials of the period.

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Many modern neopagans and witches refer to their household pets as being their “familiars” but the concept of a witches familiar originally meant something darker. It was thought that spirits would agree to help a witch if the witch would help them in return, usually by feeding the spirit with blood or some other bodily fluid like breast milk. For a modern witch to lay claim to a familiar, the animal must be of spiritual form and have made a pact with the witch. The animal is not actually an animal but is a spirit who takes on the form of one. Learn more about the history of familiars at Exemplore and witchcraftandwitches.com!

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I love to learn the history of things and I hope you enjoyed learning something too. Hexennacht is a day to remember your ancestors, feel the call of the wild and embrace your surroundings. Let go on this night, for there is magic in the air and it is willing you to delight in it!

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