Monday, April 13, 2009

The Etymology of the word Witch

I am taking various sources for this examination, whether they are correct or not, we will consider in a discussion, and then you can make up your own mind. What I would like to do is first take what can be found on the Online Etymological Dictionary ( ). This site has been compiled from various sources of which a full list can be found here , however it does include Weekley's "An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English," Klein's "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language," "Oxford English Dictionary" (second edition), "Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology," Holthauzen's "Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Englischen Sprache," and Ayto's "20th Century Words.".

Then I am going to examine and compare certain Old English words referred to using two main sources that are considered to be scholarly. The first source is the online “Angelseaxisce Ealdriht Asatru and Heathen Pages” which can now be found at (I still have the original pages) and The Troth which used to be online but has subsequently been removed to form the book Our Troth.

From the Online Etymological Dictionary:

O.E. wicce "female magician, sorceress," in later use esp. "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts," fem. of O.E. wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic," from verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft" (cf. Low Ger. wikken, wicken "to use witchcraft," wikker, wicker "soothsayer"). OED says of uncertain origin. Klein suggests connection with O.E. wigle "divination," and wig, wih "idol." Watkins says the nouns represent a P.Gmc. *wikkjaz "necromancer" (one who wakes the dead), from PIE *weg-yo-, from *weg- "to be strong, be lively." That wicce once had a more specific sense than the later general one of "female magician, sorceress" perhaps is suggested by the presence of other words in O.E. describing more specific kinds of magical craft. In the Laws of Ælfred (c.890), witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the W. Saxons:

"Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban."

The other two words combined with it here are gealdricge, a woman who practices "incantations," and scinlæce "female wizard, woman magician," from a root meaning "phantom, evil spirit." Another word that appears in the Anglo-Saxon laws is lyblæca "wizard, sorcerer," but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, since the root of the word is lybb "drug, poison, charm." Lybbestre was a fem. word meaning "sorceress," and lybcorn was the name of a certain medicinal seed (perhaps wild saffron). Weekly notes possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and Ger. weihan "consecrate," and writes, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents." In Anglo-Saxon glossaries, wicca renders L. augur (c.1100), and wicce stands for "pythoness, divinatricem." In the "Three Kings of Cologne" (c.1400) wicca translates Magi:

"Þe paynyms ... cleped þe iij kyngis Magos, þat is to seye wicchis."

The glossary translates L. necromantia ("demonum invocatio") with galdre, wiccecræft. The Anglo-Saxon poem called "Men's Crafts" has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means "skill with horses." In a c.1250 translation of "Exodus," witches is used of the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: "Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben." Witch in ref. to a man survived in dialect into 20c., but the fem. form was so dominant by 1601 that men-witches or he-witch began to be used. Extended sense of "young woman or girl of bewitching aspect or manners" is first recorded 1740. Witch doctor is from 1718; applied to African magicians from 1836.

"At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch,' or 'she is a wise woman.' " [Reginald Scot, "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," 1584]

Firstly we should look at the Old English word wicce and wicca. In OE a double C, i.e. “cc” is pronounced “ch”, therefore the actual pronunciation of these OE words are “wich” and “wicha” which derived into the Modern English “witch”. The word wicce indicated a female magician and wicca a male magician, however, because there were various terms in the Teutonic languages to describe the tasks of different magic users, we need to find out what kind of magicians the wicce or wicca were. This is not an easy task however as there is no earlier references to the wicce and wicca as there may be with spæ, seidhr or galdre. It doesn‘t however refer to “wise one“ as this was witega in the OE language, the cognate of vitki from the Old Norse (however now more commonly translated as “magician”). The closest we can get and to which scholars have found, the word wicce “…either derive(s) from an Indo-European *wik- meaning "to bend," or another Indo-European root, *weg- related to words for "lively, watchful." “ To bend in terms of magic is to bend the Will in accordance with one’s surroundings, be it Nature or your own circumstances or that of another. Therefore, the wicce was someone who used magic to alter that which is around them, but was also aware (lively,watchful). To be aware is to be awake, and in the spiritual world, this can refer to someone who traverses the Worlds, i.e. a similar reference can be made to the Tungus word shaman.

However, does this mean that a wicce is a “female magician, sorceress”? In broad terms, yes it does, but does it mean, “a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts”? This is, as noted, from later sources, when certain practices were already being abolished. It smacks of the more recently discovered poorly researched work of Margaret A. Murray.

Let’s move on to the associated words mentioned. Firstly gealdricge, which is said to mean “a woman who practices "incantations"”.

From various Gealdres and Bedes, the word gealdor refers to spell, glamour, charm, used in the form of singing, such as the line in the Acer-Bot metrical charm:

“þæt ic mote þis gealdor mid gife drihtnes”

“That by grace of God I might this glamour”

(although this is possibly translated by the Christians to refer to God, as most of these charms were. The word drihten means lord and was often used in reference to Odin).

Also from the metrical charm to deal with Water-Elf Disease:

“…ofgeot mid fealaþ, do hæligwæter to, sing þis gealdor ofer þriwa”

“…mix with ale, add holy water to it, then sing this charm three times”

And finally from the Nine Worts Galdor or Nine Herbs Charm:

“…ond singe þon men in þone muð and in þa earan buta and on ða wunde þæt ilce gealdor, ær he þa sealfe on do.”

“…and sing it in the mouth and both ears of the man and the same spell on the wound, before he applies the salve.”

Therefore we can correctly deduce that a gealdricge is in fact a woman who practices "incantations”, i.e. sings her charms or spells.

We then start to move a little left field with the mention of “scinlæce "female wizard, woman magician," from a root meaning "phantom, evil spirit."”

A scinnlæce is in fact a shape shifter. In Teutonic terms this is a person who travels with, or as, their Fetch, Filje or Fecce. The Fecce is part of the Soul. The Anglo-Saxons believed that the Soul was broken down into eleven parts, the Fecce is thought to be “…one's guardian spirit and is said to appear as an animal resembling one's disposition or as a member of the opposite sex” of which it is further mentioned “…the fetch…usually controls the allocation of one's mægen in accordance with one's wyrd. The fetch also records one's actions in one's wyrd. Fetch’s are said to flee the wicked in the Eddas.”

The OE word scinn translates to phantom, but not to evil-spirit. The phantom referred to here is what we may call the Shadow Skin, and so it the shadow of the person, the animal spirit or fetch that the wicce goes forth in to travel to distant places or to the Inner Worlds. In Kabbalistic terms this could in fact refer to the Tzelem ha-Nefesh or the “shadow body of the Lower Self” or possibly the Nefesh Behamit or the “lower bestial”.

We then move on to the mention of “lyblæca "wizard, sorcerer," but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, since the root of the word is lybb "drug, poison, charm."”. As we see throughout there is no proper definition between the skills, all forms being noted as witch, wizard, magician or sorcerer, but as has been noted, there was a specific job or skill for each magic worker. A lyblæca was actually a herbalist, nothing more to it. They used herbs to perform their magic, either directly on the body of the person or indirectly through Sympathetic Magic – “Also perhaps held to be seperate from witchcraft was the use of herbs or lybbcraeft.”

Further from the Etymological Dictionary - “The glossary translates L. necromantia ("demonum invocatio") with galdre, wiccecræft.”

Maybe I am misunderstanding the meaning here, but I am not quite sure how necromancy is associated with the galdrecræft. Galdre, or Galdor has been noted as a Man‘s Craft in that it belonged to the God Odin, who taught it to the Goddess Freya in exchange for her teaching the Craft of Seidhr to him, which is noted to be a Woman‘s Craft. Galdre is mostly the use of runes in magic, wheras Seidhr and Spæ are the act of moving to the Inner Worlds to read a person‘s Wyrd or to commune with the Gods and the Dead. In the case of Speaking with the Dead, it is in line with Ancestral Worship, which in broad terms could be refered to as Necromancy, however, if we are speaking in terms of Necromancy being the act of raising the dead to divine events, then it is nothing of the like.

“The Anglo-Saxon poem called "Men's Crafts" has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means "skill with horses." “

Now this is interesting (just to note, I could not find the poem referred to in order to do any cross-referencing). Firstly wiccræft, which is more commonly spelt wiccecræft would in fact originally have referred to the Craft of the Wicce, being female, but here we find the “ce” dropped, and I can’t find any reference to the word or prefix wic in the Teutonic languages to explain this. However, to have a “skill with horses” was the realm of the old horse-whisperers, the Toad-Bone Men, which in later years became greatly connected with the Masons. Andrew Chumbley speaks of this subject quite extensively in his essay The Leaper Between in section III.II. The bone as a horse-controlling charm.

And in conclusion, we find another interesting reference. After so many derivative manners in which the word witch has come to be used by the Christian Church, we find something positive in the Bible – “In a c.1250 translation of "Exodus," witches is used of the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: "Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben." – but of course considering the general manner in which some Christian folk view the Judaic people, it is no surprise that they would consider even this reference to be of an evil nature.

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