We are in the time of year when the witch receives an enormous amount of attention but in yesterday’s Brittany the witch had no impact on Hallowe’en at all. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the dead were believed to return to their former homes and in expectation of this, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’ and the table would be set with a few pancakes and a little milk for the dead to feast on. The souls of the dead were not feared but welcomed as the old friends they had been in life and Brittany’s witches would likely have been as absorbed in preparing for those nocturnal visits as anyone else. So, if the region’s witches were not a feature of Hallowe’en celebrations, what were they?
The Jesuit missions to Brittany in the 17th century described the land as being in the primitive age of the Church. Relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere; magical talismans and charms abounded in common use, superstitions and witchcraft flourished. Even at this late date, the missionaries found prayers were popularly addressed to the moon and that some women taught the mysteries of the sun under the name Doue Tad (God Father). Even into the early 20th century, visitors noted a rural hinterland where the division between the natural and supernatural was often tenuous.
The Scottish author Lewis Spence noted in 1917 that witchcraft was part of everyday life in the region’s more secluded départements and that people could still recall a time when farm and field were ever in peril of wicked spells and the deadly gaze of the Evil Eye. Witchcraft was clearly deeply embedded into the fabric of rural life here but the amalgam of sinister spell casters, magicians and folk healers makes a clear definition of witchcraft and its chief practitioner, the witch, difficult. A task rendered even more challenging if we need to frame our thoughts within today’s definitions and those used by followers of pagan religions such as the Wiccan movement.
To avoid falling down too many rabbit holes, I propose to focus on the question based on the world-view of the rural peasants of pre-World War One Brittany. The popularly accepted characteristics of a witch, whether male or female, here then seem little changed from those noted across Europe in the preceding centuries; they were believed to possess special power and an acute knowledge of how to wield that power so as to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces. The witch was not feared because of any innate capacity for harm and mischief but because people did not know the limits of their power.
We often fear what we do not understand and witches were ascribed an enormous range of fantastic powers; from the removal of warts and locating lost wedding rings to raising hailstorms and talking the languages of beasts. The fact that many of their magical rituals were performed in secret or contained charms that were indecipherable to the ears of others likely fostered a mantle of ‘otherness’ that probably suited both the witch and the wider community.
The trials of witches noted here in the 19th and 20th centuries – mostly for fraud or practicing medicine illegally – reveal a landscape gripped with perceived threats and vague fears; an insecurity that bred an almost permanent state of anxiety that only traditional, familiar superstitions could alleviate and appease. Writing in 1893, the French psychologist Léon Marillier proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately came to mind, was a supernatural one. When one’s family or livestock were struck by some unforeseen misfortune it took no leap of the imagination to view one’s plight as the result of some spell cast against you.
It was then necessary to consult the local witch, known in Breton as the Groac’h; an archaic term that was also used to describe both crones and fairies. The witch was often called upon to identify the spells that had been cast on others and was believed able to both identify the source of any spells cast and to counteract their effects. Lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment seems to have been as significant a part of the witch’s role in rural society as ensuring the good health of people and their livestock or of foretelling the future.
The local witch, despite their wicked role in many folktales, was widely held to possess a profound, practical knowledge of herbalism, healing and potions. In addition to being effective healers, witches were also commonly approached to find water sources and lost objects and to bring-on rain or fair weather. In many instances, they were also thought able to act as an intermediary between the dead and those family members still living. Witches often had an ambivalent role in their community but nevertheless remained an integral part of it. Although natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather, crop blight, illness and death were often blamed on the power of the witch, consulting one was seen as the surest way of countering another’s enchantments.
The Breton countryside also featured characters known as diskanterezed (one who can undo or peel away). Like the Groac’h, these people were noted healers of benign ailments who often specialised in a limited number of afflictions such as removing warts or healing eczema. However, they were also approached for the preparation of charms, concoctions and amulets of bewitchment and un-bewitchment. Traditional healers, known as louzaouer (best defined as herbalists) were once also noted in nearly all communities here; sometimes several being active in a single commune and covering a range of specialities. Typically, these people prepared and administered remedies derived from plants that were either ingested or worn as an amulet. Such preparations were mostly composed of a mixture of bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and seeds although animal products such as butter, eggs, milk and even dung were also used along with minerals such as antimony, mercury, salt and sulphur.
It is quite difficult and probably unhelpful in a blog post such as this to draw clear distinctions between the two former terms that were often interchangeable in parts of western Brittany. Thus, the vagueness inherent in the label of ‘witch’, as applied in Brittany, allows us to highlight the characteristics most closely commonly associated with all these practitioners.
In Brittany, it was believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift to be a diskanterez and that only an experienced practitioner could identify the child worthy of initiation into the mysteries of the craft. Like witches, they were thought to have been bestowed with their powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more favourable than others. For instance, the strongest evil spells were those cast by witches born under a half moon or whose mothers had died in childbirth. The curses wrought by these people were considered especially powerful and were thought more dangerous because their spells could only be lifted by themselves.
The most powerful spell casters were held to be found amongst those born on the afternoon of Good Friday or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer. Likewise, the seventh child of a family of seven boys was thought to possess the gift to cure fevers and scrofula but only on a Good Friday. Only a witch born in May was said to possess the power to stop an expectant mother passing on an unmet craving to her baby in the form of a birthmark or noevi materni.
However, the witch was not the only person believed to be able to cast spells and curses; they were merely those able to cast them at will. It was widely held that others, afflicted with the Evil Eye, had the ability to cast misfortune, such as those who, on the day of their baptism, had remained on the church porch without receiving the sacrament. Beggars, rag-pickers and tailors were also believed to have possessed the power to cast misfortune upon unsuspecting households and their livestock.
An examination of the Breton court records of the latter part of the 19th century also highlights that many spell casters were not the isolated witches of popular tradition but part-time practitioners who also held steady employment as clog-makers or farmers. Many were charged for having sold magical amulets but one witch was prosecuted for claiming to heal people by blowing on mirrors and a master mason from Rédéné, in western Brittany, was accused of cursing another man with “the bad wind”!
Whatever the circumstances of one’s birth or status, the ability to cast spells required knowledge and a deep understanding of the rituals required to affect the desired outcome. The words used by the spell caster were crucial, as was the delivery; several of the old spells that have survived to this day stress the need for a certain tone of voice to be used or for charms to be recited on one intake of breath only; failing to observe these crucial rites was said to annul the spell and even risk the incomplete spell falling against the caster.
In addition to the specific words used and their precise delivery, spells required particular gestures to animate them. For example, to heal eczema, the spell caster would recite the following formula three times in a single breath while continually tracing the sign of the cross with a silver coin: “Go away, go away. This is not your home, neither here nor anywhere. Between nine seas and nine mountains and nine fountains, turn northwest!” Other some spells could only be performed under specific circumstances such as on a particular date or time of day.
Knowing the appropriate remedy to apply or charm to cast against specific situations was one of the key attributes that set the witch apart from other wise folk in the community. This ancient wisdom and secret knowledge was jealously guarded and was often thought to have been the exclusive preserve of a select number of families who only passed-down their precious charge to a privileged few in each generation. Some have speculated that the charms and rituals used by Brittany’s witches in the modern era were likely debased survivors of those once employed by the ancient druids.
In many cases, the charms and invocations used by witches here contained Christian rather than occult terminology and both they and those seeking their services often referred to their spells and charms as prayers. Although specific to each ailment and often to each practitioner, the incantations of healing were very often adaptations of the liturgical prayers of healing recited by the local priest. Likewise, many charms contained supplications to local saints invoking their power to act rather than their grace to endure. Such saints were often obscure, almost semi-legendary, characters whose names might have substituted for those of older Celtic deities as happened during the Christianisation of the land’s sacred springs.
Our modern notions of witchcraft might sit uneasily with Christian beliefs but this was not so in the rural Brittany of old. Many of the spells and charms that have survived to this day called for the invocation of God or particular saints, although the Virgin Mary was notably invoked in a spell to prevent theft. The use of Christian motifs was not some subversive act of heresy but a petition to the ultimate power made by one who was believed to have been blessed by God with the gift of healing. However, some witches were believed to invoke not God and the saints but the Devil and his demons; such people were widely regarded as evil witches who practised sorcery in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others.
Those whose mothers had died in childbirth were thought to make evil witches but it was also said that anyone could, under certain circumstances, become a powerful witch. One means of doing so called for a green frog, caught on the day of the full moon, to be placed in an anthill while reciting a charm requesting the animal to call upon the Devil and plead for his attention. It was then necessary to go to a crossroads where five roads met and, during the chimes of the midnight bell, to pronounce another charm swearing patience and loyalty to the lord of darkness, ending with the promise: “For him, I will run”.
With the utterance of these last words, the Devil was said to appear upon one of the five roads, while a black cat appeared on the opposite road. Of the other roads, one was graced by a white hen, another by the green frog accompanied by an army of ants. The final road was the one by which the supplicant had initially travelled to this fiendish meeting and was free of any danger so that, after the conditions of the Devil’s contract had been accepted, the witch might withdraw without fear of harm. One of the witnesses to this diabolical pact was gifted to the witch to whose service it was now attached; tradition suggests that preference was usually given to the cat.
Another means of becoming a witch, noted in the east of the region, was even more repulsive. The ritual here called for the prospective witch to rub their whole body with the fat of a child that had been torn from its mother’s womb before the expiry of its natural term. The baby needed to be cut into pieces and put to boil over a large fire, its fat was then collected and poured into jars that were sealed and hidden behind the rock of the hearth (a large stone that often acted as a fire back).
Before using this ointment, it was necessary to first present it to a priest, who was also a secret witch himself, so that he might, by reciting certain charms in reverse order, imbue the ointment with the required effectiveness. Finally, this ghastly grease needed to be taken to a crossroads at night and smeared over one’s naked body during the chiming of the midnight bell while reciting a brief charm that ended with the words: “Where all companions are”. It was believed that the spell was now cast and that the new witch was immediately transported to the midst of a Sabbath.
For those without the innate talent or the patience to learn the ways of the witch, other fantastic rituals were said to allow one to possess magical abilities. For instance, anyone who ate the heart of an eel, warm from the body, was supposed to be at once endowed with the gift of prophecy. Possession of a four leafed clover, a seven headed ear of grain or the grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground was said to allow its possessor the ability to see what remained hidden from the eyes of others; the four leafed clover found under a gallows was held to be the most powerful of these rarities. The spores of the green fern, collected on the night of Midsummer, were believed to be effective in helping locate hidden treasures and to give the possessor the ability to read the deepest secrets hidden within the hearts of others.
When a person stood between two lands – their feet on the ground with a sod of earth held above their head – on a moonless night, they were believed to be granted the privilege of seeing things that were unknown to others. It was said that if a woman cooked an oak apple in the water of a fountain whose source watered a cemetery, she would be endowed with the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient fairies. Similarly, if one could cut the branch of the hazel tree which revealed itself as pure gold during the striking of the Christmas bell, one would have a wand equal in power to those wielded by the greatest fairies.
Belief in the power of the witch did not disappear here due to the evangelising efforts of local priests who, in Brittany, were often regarded as sorcerers themselves. Indeed, most people saw no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; surely protection against the dangers of the world would be better assured if one accepted both as a safeguard? Popular belief in the power of witchcraft and of healing magic faded as the isolated, inward-looking communities that had long sustained such superstitions changed forever under the guns of the Western Front and the bombardment of industrialisation.
170 thoughts on “To Become a Witch”
Excellent article about witches– and I’m glad to hear they were viewed pragmatically in Brittany, instead of with hysteria, as in some other places.
Re: the All Hallows Eve tradition of setting out food for the dead- I find it interesting that sometimes the departed were welcomed as honoured guests, and sometimes they were viewed as monsters to be feared (revenants, for example). I guess it had to do with when they reappeared and how long they stayed?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you very much! I am pleased that you enjoyed it! 🙂
Yes, attitudes to the dead were quite complex here. Essentially, the dead were said to have the same aspects in death as they had in life, so, a grumpy man became a grumpy ghost etc. It was believed terribly bad luck to see a ghost, so people tried to avoid them but out of respect rather than fear. The ghosts that were feared were the mean-spirited ones who took out their rage and frustration of being dead by causing noise and mischief around the living. These were the ones that people called in exorcists for – a practice that was very common here long after the official position of the Church had moved away from them!
You’re very welcome 🙂
Historical attitudes to death and the dead are fascinating. It’s a morbid subject, but gives a lot of insight into a culture.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Agreed! It is a fascinating subject! 😉
LikeLiked by 1 person