The month of October culminating in Halloween is known as the season of the witch. And while we all might think we know what a witch is — thanks to The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and other onscreen interpretations — the stereotypical green skin, pointy hats, and blood-red fingernails are more fiction than fact. A Wiccan herself, author Judika Illes knows a fair amount about witch folklore and the modern witch, and in her new book, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z For the Entire Magical World ($35), she explores the history and mysteries of witches. Here she shares 13 of the most unusual facts about witches paired with excerpts from the book:
- Halloween is not the only night that witches celebrate. Other holidays include Beltane, which marks the first day of May, and Midsummer's Eve, which coincides with the Summer solstice.
- In Sweden, Easter is associated with witches. It was once believed that in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, Swedish witches would fly up chimneys on their brooms to meet and revel on mountaintops. These days, children dress up as witches and go door to door seeking treats, similar to trick-or-treating.
- Witches come in all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, ethnicities, and genders. There are plenty of powerful male witches. However, just as in years past, all over the world, women are most likely to be identified as witches.
"Whether one admires, detests, or fears powerful women will have a lot to do with how one defines and perceives the witch."
- Witches perform many roles. Rather than being dangerous, they tend to be of service to others:
"Witches around the world participate in all kinds of activities, ranging from healing to divination, from spell casting to spiritual guidance and leadership."
- Not all witches are Wiccan, although many are. Witches follow many religions and also none. There are atheist witches, just as there are Christian witches, Jewish witches, Buddhist witches, and witches who follow virtually any other religion you can name.
- Although many witches still practice ancient traditions, others are cutting-edge modern. Technowitches utilize computers and other forms of technology as magical tools. A fictional example of a technowitch is Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Jenny Calendar.
- Fairy tales feature witches living reclusively, hidden deep within forests. In fact, many witches are sociable city dwellers. Glamorous city witches are featured in the movie Bell, Book, and Candle, which stars Kim Novak as Gillian Holroyd, a Greenwich Village witch with a fabulous wardrobe.
- Fairy tales are filled with "wicked witches," but historically it has been the witch or those accused of being witches, who have been persecuted. Unfortunately, this continues today.
- Witches have many kinds of familiars, not just black cats. Other popular familiars include dogs, ferrets, rabbits, and snakes. Celebrity witch Sybil Leek's familiars "included Mr. Hot Foot Jackson, her jackdaw, and Miss Sashima, a boa constrictor."
- Witches are worshiped. Among the most famous witch goddesses are Hecate, Diana, Lilith, and Freya.
- The witch goddess Circe inspired what is considered the first ballet in 1581.
"Catherine de Medici, mother of the French king and an alleged sorceress herself, sponsored a dance company, La Ballet Comique de la Reine, whose first production was an over six-hour-long extravaganza featuring dance, songs, and elaborate floats devoted to the saga of Circe."
- Witches have historically been associated with dancing. The waltz derives from dances enjoyed at secret witches' balls during the 16th century. It was initially very scandalous:
"Elegant, masked observers of witches' balls learned the dance and began enjoying it elsewhere. . . . The dance was called shameful and indecent. Dancers were warned that it would stimulate miscarriage and murder."
- First published in Spain, the book widely considered to be the first true Western novel, is named after its central character, La Celestina, a witch:
"La Celestina, published at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, mocks the gentry, while simultaneously expressing empathy for witches, prostitutes, and poor struggling women in general."