Chapter eight - The Great Literary Figures
by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
A traveler knew he was lost, and by his own doing. The night before, he had foolishly decided to continue on his way, instead of staying safely at an inn. He shivered under the icy wind of the early morning. The pale winter sunlight streamed through the tops of the gigantic, dark conifers of the Russian forest. The traveler cursed himself for being so headstrong and stupid, and then crossed himself hastily, casting frightened looks around him. Who could tell what lurked in the depth of the great forest? His curse might conjure something he didn't wish to encounter, like a wood spirit or a devil.
Murmuring a prayer, the traveler continued along the narrow lane. It was too cold to stand still, anyway. With luck, perhaps he would meet a woodcutter or a hunter. He strained his ears for the cheerful sounds of a barking dog, or the ax felling a tree, but the silence was deep. Suddenly, he noticed the faint smell of smoke. Cautiously, afraid of losing the trail, he followed the scent. He couldn't tell if it led him deeper into the forest, but after a short distance he came upon a clearing.
In the middle of the clearing stood a small hut, made of dark, weathered wood. It had a low roof, beautifully thatched, and small windows with heavy wooden shutters. Tremendously relieved, the traveler started running toward the little hut. Suddenly he stopped short, catching his breath. The hut stood on two giant chicken legs!
The traveler could see the rough, pebbly skin, and the sharp claws on the feet. The legs twitched occasionally, making the house sway softly. The traveler watched, horrified, as the smoke from the chimney swayed and danced with it. He hid carefully behind a bush. Better to be lost forever, better to be devoured by a bear or a pack of wolves than to be caught by the owner of this hut.
For this was the house of Baba Yaga. The greatest, most powerful, malevolent Russian witch. Once caught, man, woman or child would be her slave, and eventually, her dinner. Baba Yaga's favorite food was human flesh. True, sometimes a person could trick her, or perhaps even gain her affection, and be released. Sometimes she had a favorite, and became the person's Godmother. This was great honor. But generally, it was best to avoid her.
The house lifted one leg, shook, and started turning around. A door now faced the traveler. It opened and out came Baba Yaga. She looked like an ordinary old woman, wearing a simple peasant dress and a red scarf around her head. Her black, beady eyes darted around, and she sniffed; very likely she smelled the traveler. But she must have been in a hurry, and didn't want to bother with him for the moment. She whistled. From around the house came a giant wooden mortar and a bronze pestle, walking and tumbling clumsily. Baba Yaga jumped into the mortar and grabbed the pestle. She moved it though the air like an oar, murmuring a magic charm to herself in a singsong voice. The mortar leapt into the air, and sailed off with a rush of wind, high into the tree tops.
The traveler wiped his brow and went in the opposite direction. He made good speed, and in a few hours came across some woodcutters. He said nothing of his encounter and followed their directions out of the cursed forest. It was better not to talk of Baba Yaga.
But people did talk of her. There is a huge body of folktales about Baba Yaga in Russia, and many similar tales in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. German folklore called her Brechta, Bertha, Holde, or simply, The Witch. You probably know her from the old tale of Hansel and Gretel, the two children who visit her in the famous gingerbread house. Strangely, this monstrous figure sometimes took on endearing qualities. She was very wise, demanded justice, and sometimes protected abused children or young maidens. The Cinderella story, where the Fairy Godmother helps the young girl marry Prince Charming, is originally based on this fearsome witch.
Perhaps it's not really that strange. The folktales are old and wise, too. The tellers knew that good and evil always mixed in everyone, even in the soul of a superhuman figure. And they had plenty of time if they wanted to think about such matters in those days. During the long, Northern evenings, you could think about life, protected from the frozen wind in your warm hut. Or you could meditate under the huge stars of the lovely Mediterranean nights, while tending your sheep, or sitting in a garden full of fragrant white flowers, chosen to match the moon. The storytellers developed an understanding of human nature that was probably better than that of the modern psychologist. Every witch, goblin or fairy symbolized a trait of human nature. Every act of heroism, cowardice or justice explained something about ourselves, our emotions, our thoughts. As we haven't really changed much, we can still benefit from knowing those tales.
Further North was a land of even darker magic. When sea faring merchants wanted to insure a safe trip, they went to the famous Finnish wizards. The Northern magicians had power over the icy oceans. They could ride whalebones instead of ships, and make good time doing it, too. They controlled the winds and the waves. A careful, intelligent captain would go to a good wizard to buy a "wind rope" before setting sail. It looked like a simple sailor's rope, but the wizard himself tied three knots in it. During the trip, if the captain needed a steady breeze, he untied the first knot. The second knot produced a strong wind. The captain hoped he would never have to untie the third knot. Only in a great emergency he risked it - and created a violent storm.
The greatest Finnish wizard was Vainamoinen. Like many other Northern wizards, his power hid in sounds. He invented the harp, and sang magical melodies. Born of air and water, he controlled these elements, as well as the land. His song drove the icy oceans to storms, moved earth, and grew plants. Vainamoinen could sing objects that were not there into being, and make other objects disappear. He once sang an entire forest to the ground so that his people could grow barley.
The power of the word, the sound, and the song is not lost. Every religion has words that are forbidden, that should never be pronounced. Many have the notion that naming things brings power over them. In modern Witchcraft, every magic spell is the legacy of those old magicians and their control of sound.
Legends tell that some of the Northern magicians learned their craft in Spain. The Devil owned the "Black School," as they called it. On a sun-drenched, nameless mountain, a hole in the ground opened to reveal ancient stairs, cut directly in the rocks. They led down to the eternal gloom of a huge, damp underground cavern.
No human teachers ever taught there, and the students got their instructions in two ways. Every morning, glowing, burning letters appeared on the moist, oozing stone walls. They arranged themselves into the daily lesson. Also, the books were blank, without any writing. When you opened them and turned the pages, bright letters suddenly appeared, gleaming softly in the darkness. They would stay there for the day and then disappear until tomorrow.
The students did not pay for the schooling with money. However, the last person to leave each class had to give his soul to the Devil. Not that the students objected to the bargain. They knew well in advance that studying in the Black School led to a partnership with Satan. They considered it worthwhile.
Another great singer/wizard was Taliesin, a Welsh musician who lived in the 6th century. He left The Book of Taliesin, a collection of sad songs of battles and loss. Many legends were written about his magical powers, but the strangest legend is the story about his birth.
His mother, a sorceress herself, gave birth to an incredibly ugly son. She wished to give him happiness by making him wise. Using various herbs, she created a special potion that would give her son wisdom. Unfortunately, a young assistant magician tricked her and used the potion himself. The furious sorceress chased the thief for days. He was clever, and both were expert shape-changers, so the chase was fast and furious. Both took the shapes of various animals or plants. Finally, he found a heap of barley, turned himself into a single grain and mixed with the rest. But there was no escape. The sorceress saw which grain was really the young magician, turned into a bird and ate the grain.
So now she carried the magic seed inside her. When she turned back into a woman, she realized she was pregnant - the seed turned into a baby. She swore to kill it as soon as it was born. But she gave birth to a boy so beautiful, so glowing and sweet, that she could not keep her vow. This was Taliesin, born of magic and pain. Unlike the dishonest assistant magician he replaced, Taliesin was always good and faithful, loved by his people, obeyed by the elements. But he carried this pain with him forever. He never sang any song of joy.
In the old stories, sadness always comes with magic. It is as if the human soul, given power, has to pay a price. Few paid a higher price than Merlin, probably the most famous magician to exist.
There are too many stories, too many legends about Merlin, making it difficult to find the core of truth. His youth was shrouded in mystery, until he appeared in the court of a usurping British king, Vortigern. There he made himself known as a magician, and told the king that the rightful heir, Uther Pendragon, would soon kill him and reclaim his thrown. All events happened exactly as Merlin predicted. He arranged the marriage between Uther and Queen Ingrain, and the boy Arthur, the greatest British king, was born
Battles raged between tribes, and conflicts among factions. Merlin knew Arthur's life was in constant danger. This had to be prevented, for the sake of the nation. Merlin took the child, with his parents permission, and disappeared with him for fifteen years. Arthur's childhood with Merlin is a secret. No one knows where they hid, or how Merlin educated the child. But obviously everything was done properly. Arthur emerged as the stuff of legend. If you are interested in Arthur, you can find many wonderful books about him in any library. But this is not the place to describe the Arthurian legends, since it is Merlin's story we are dealing with. He directed Arthur, even constructed the round table for him, and Arthur's reign simply cannot be separated from the greatness of Merlin's natural magic.
He could not prevent the bitter end of Arthur's reign, however. And in the end, knowing the future disaster, he disappeared. The better known legend of Merlin's end is not inspiring. Supposedly he fell in love with a young woman, a fairy or an enchantress. She imprisoned him in a tree, where he was to wait, sleeping, until his people needed him again. The story is not in character for Merlin. He was too old, too wise, too dignified to fall for a young, half-educated sorceress. In addition, the tale is too similar to other stories about the fall of mighty heroes caused by some charming woman. It seems to be a simple folktale.
The second story, though less known, is much more fitting. Seeing that the end of Arthur's kingdom was near, Merlin took Britain's thirteen treasures with him into hiding. The place he chose was an invisible island, somewhere off the Welsh coast. He is still there, waiting until his people call him to come back. He will then return, carrying Britain's treasures with him. Perhaps he will bring Arthur, too.
So the magician never died. Interestingly, neither did Vainamoinen. When life was no longer worthwhile, he just sailed a pure copper boat into a secret place between heaven and earth. The theme of immortality is forever played in Witchcraft.
Take Dr. Faustus, for instance. He was a distinguished German scholar in the university of Wittenberg. During the day he studied religion, but at night the young scholar studied Black Magic and Necromancy. Eventually, he became obsessed with the Black Arts and stopped his religious studies. In addition, he led a fast life and drank so heavily that he aged before his time.
Unhappy with his life, he conjured a devil called Mephistopheles straight from hell. The devil was eager to make a pact with the scholar. They negotiated, and in the end Faustus sold his soul to the devil. The rewards were twenty-four years of supreme supernatural power, and a youthful appearance.
He got all he wanted. He became young and handsome again, and for twenty-four years he had unlimited power, which he regularly abused to harm his neighbors. And even in the end he acted dishonorably. Rather than submit to his fate, he repented, or pretended to repent, exactly a month before he had to join Mephistopheles in hell, and spend all his time lamenting his sins. But the trick didn't work. At the appointed night, in the presence of many of Faustus' friends, the messenger from hell came to take him. They saw him vanish in a gray, thin vapor, accompanied by Mephistopheles.
It is interesting to note that in all dealings with the devil, it is invariably the human who tried to cheat. Apparently Satan is a gentleman - always keeping his word, giving everything he promises. Many times, the human wins his freedom. But, then again, human life is short, while Satan has eternity. He can afford to wait. There are always new human souls for the taking.
There are many other great literary figures of witches and sorcerers. You can read about them in the folktales of the brothers Grimm, the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, and in many world mythologies. In modern literature, few witches are better than The Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, in Frank Baum's Oz series. They are marvelous books, and it's unfortunate that so many people just see the movie and neglect the wonderful literature. Also, there are the great Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The wicked witch there has all the qualities of the great literary witches.
And finally, there is Gandalf. In modern literature, he stands alone. Since Merlin, there has never been such a magnificent Wizard. Gandalf is the central figure in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit. In a way, Gandalf is Merlin, orchestrating the salvation of an entire world from a power of evil that will certainly destroy it. No student of the history of Witchcraft should miss the joy of Tolkien's books.
But the literary world is also full of stories of nameless witches. Particularly interesting are the stories of country girls in the British Isles who marry into Fairyland. The connection between the Little People, Fairies, and witches has already been discussed in a previous chapter. The men who married fairy wives had also been discussed. But how did the young women marry fairy husbands?
Usually, the girls are beautiful and clever, but a bit lazy. They dislike their chores, they dream of something other than common village life. Sometimes the girl herself is suspected of having supernatural powers; sometimes she is just a little different from everyone else.
One day the girl is alone, perhaps washing laundry by the river, or driving the domestic animals home. Accidentally, she encounters a handsome young man. They start to meet often, but always secretly. The girl knows that her people will disapprove of the stranger.
In some stories, after a while, the girl's secret is discovered, and she has to run to her lover's people for protection from the irate villagers. In other stories, the girl simply decides to leave the village and join him wherever he lives. Either way, she is led to a green hill. A door miraculously opens and she enters into what seems to be the inside of a mountain. Often there are deep stairs cut into it. However, she really enters Fairyland, where she marries the young man who turns out to be either the king of Fairyland or one of his sons or nobles. She lives an enchanted life, sometimes finding immortality, and surrounded by untold wealth.
It is interesting that while seemingly disapproving of the girl's conduct, the tellers always described the great rewards of living in Fairyland. As usual, the charm of the Little People won over principle. Perhaps this is the strength of Witchcraft, real or literary, then and now - once you know it, once you really understand, it has an irresistible appeal. So despite the persecutions, horrors and misunderstanding, the Old Religion is still very much alive. And in the next chapter, you will see the way it is practiced today.
Go to chapter 9: Witchcraft Today »