Witches in Mythology and Folklore

Painting by Salvatore Rosa
Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

There are plenty of people practicing modern witchcraft, and for most of us, magic is pretty much par for the course. However, not all witches are your next door neighbor or that nice lady who works at the grocery store. In fact, there are plenty of witches who exist only in mythology and folklore from around the world.

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The Witch of Endor

Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1526
Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1526. Found in the collection of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Artist : Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Jacob (ca. 1470-1533). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

The Christian Bible has an injunction against practicing witchcraft and divination, and that can probably be blamed on the Witch of Endor. In the first Book of Samuel, King Saul of Israel got in some hot water when he hooked up with Endor’s hottest medium, asking her to predict the future. Saul and his sons were about to march into battle against their enemies, the Philistines, and Saul decided it was time to get a bit of supernatural insight as to what was going to happen the next day. Saul started off by asking God what was up, but God stayed mum on the whole thing… and so Saul took it upon himself to seek the answers elsewhere.

According to the Bible, Saul summoned the witch of Endor, who was a well-known medium in the area. Disguising himself so she wouldn’t know she was in the presence of the King, Saul asked the witch, “Hey, how about you bring back Samuel the prophet from the dead for me, because I’d really like to know what’s happening at the big showdown tomorrow?”

The witch called upon Samuel, who – probably to everyone’s surprise – showed up and told Saul that he’d pretty much be a goner the next day. After all, just by working with the witch of Endor, Saul was directly disobeying God, and that never goes over well. Sure enough, Saul, his sons, and Israel were defeated at Gilboa.

Who was the witch of Endor? Well, like many other biblical figures, no one really knows. She did caution Saul that she wasn’t really supposed to be doing the whole mediumship/necromancy thing, but he offered to protect her. Regardless of the fact that her identity is lost to myth and legend, she has managed to appear in more contemporary literature. Geoffrey Chaucer makes reference to her in The Canterbury Tales, in the tale spun by the friar to entertain his fellow pilgrims. The Friar tells his listeners:

"Yet tell me," said the summoner, "if true:
Do you make your new bodies always so
Out of the elements?" The fiend said, "No,
Sometimes it's only some form of disguise;
Dead bodies we may enter that arise
To speak with all the reason and as well
As to the Endor witch spoke Samuel.”

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Illustration of Women on the Island of Aiae
Circe goes to the shore of the sea to receive Ulysses. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

One of the best-known mythological mistresses of mayhem is Circe, who appears in The Odyssey. According to the story, Odysseus and his Achaeans found themselves fleeing the land of the Laestrygonians. After a bunch of Odysseus’ scouts were captured and eaten by the Laestrygonian king, and nearly all of his ships sunk by large boulders, the Achaeans ended up on the shore of Aeaea, home to the witch-goddess Circe.

Circe was well known for her magical mojo, and had quite the reputation for her knowledge of plants and potions. According to some accounts, she may have been the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and one of the Oceanids, but she is sometimes referred to as a daughter of Hecate, the goddess of magic.

Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs, of all things, and so he set off to rescue them. Before he got there, he was visited by the messenger god, Hermes, who told him how to defeat the seductive Circe. Odysseus followed Hermes’ helpful hints, and overpowered Circe, who turned the men back into men… and she then became Odysseus’ lover. After a year or so of luxuriating in Circe’s bed, Odysseus finally figured out he should head back home to Ithaca, and his wife, Penelope. The lovely Circe, who may or may not have borne Odysseus a couple of sons, gave him directions that sent him all over the place, including a side quest to the Underworld.

After Odysseus’ eventual death at the hands of his son, Telegonus, Circe used her magic potions to bring her late lover back to life.

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The Bell Witch

Abandoned Log Cabin In Woods
The Bell Witch haunted a Tennessee pioneer family. Stefanie Wilkes / EyeEm / Getty Images

We typically think of folklore and mythology as originating in ancient, far-off places, but some of it is recent enough that it’s considered urban legend. The story of the Bell Witch, for instance, takes place as recently as the nineteenth century in Tennessee.

According to author Pat Fitzhugh of the Bell Witch website, there was “a sinister entity that tormented a pioneer family on Tennessee’s early frontier between 1817 and 1821.” Fitzhugh explains that settler John Bell and his family relocated to Tennessee from North Carolina in the early 1800s, and purchased a large homestead. It wasn’t long before some really weird stuff began to happen, including sightings of a strange animal with “the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit” out in the cornfields, the three Bell children saying that someone or something had yanked their bedcovers off in the night, and bizarre whispering sounds in the house.

To make matters even worse, young Betsy Bell started to experience physical encounters with the spooky specter, claiming it had slapped her and pulled her hair. Although he originally told the family to keep things hush-hush, Bell finally confided in a neighbor, who brought in a party led by none other than local general Andrew Jackson. Another member of the group claimed to be a “witch tamer,” and was armed with a pistol and a silver bullet. Unfortunately, the entity wasn’t impressed with the silver bullet – or, apparently, the witch tamer – because the man was forcefully ejected from the house. Jackson’s men begged to leave the homestead and, although Jackson insisted on staying to investigate further, the next morning the entire group was spotted heading away from the farm.

Troy Taylor of PrairieGhosts says, “The spirit identified itself as the "witch" of Kate Batts, a neighbor of the Bells’, with whom John had experienced bad business dealings over some purchased slaves. "Kate" as the local people began calling the spirit, made daily appearances in the Bell home, wreaking havoc on everyone there.” Once John Bell died, though, Kate stuck around and haunted Betsy well into adulthood.

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Morgan Le Fay

Merlin presenting the future King Arthur, 1873
Merlin presenting the future King Arthur, 1873. Private Collection. Artist : Lauffer, Emil Johann (1837-1909). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

If you’ve ever read any of the Arthurian legends, the name Morgan le Fay should ring a bell with you. Her first appearance in literature is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin, written in the first half of the twelfth century. Morgan has become known as a classic seductress, who lures men in with her witchy wiles, and then causes all kinds of supernatural shenanigans to take place.

Chrétien de Troyes’ The Vulgate Cycle describes her role as one of Queen Guinevere’s ladies in waiting. According to this collection of Arthurian tales, Morgan fell in love with Arthur’s nephew, Giomar. Unfortunately, Guinevere found out and put an end to the affair, so Morgan exacted her revenge by busting Guinevere, who was fooling around with Sir Lancelot.

Morgan le Fay, whose name means “Morgan of the fairies” in French, appears again in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, in which “she was unhappily married to King Urien. At the same time, she became a sexually aggressive woman who had many lovers, including the famous Merlin. However, her love of Lancelot was unrequited. Morgan appeared also as an indirect cause of Arthur's death.”

Malory tells us that Morgan was Arthur’s half-sister, but that didn’t mean they got along well at all. In fact, depending on which legend you read, Morgan has been portrayed as seducing Arthur and giving birth to his child, trying to steal Excalibur from him, and basically using all kinds of nefarious sorcery to bring down her brother’s rule as King.

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Illustration of Jason and Medea
Wikimedia Commons

As we see in the story of Odysseus and Circe, Greek mythology is chock-full of witches. When Jason and his Argonauts went on a quest for the Golden Fleece, they decided to steal it from King Aeëtes of Colchis. What Aeëtes didn’t know was that his daughter Medea had developed a bit of a thing for Jason, and after seducing and eventually marrying him, this enchantress helped her fella steal the Golden Fleece from her father.

Medea was said to be of divine descent, and was the niece of the aforementioned Circe. Born with the gift of prophecy, Medea was able to warn Jason about the dangers that lay before him in his quest. After he obtained the Fleece, she took off with him on the Argo, and they lived happily ever after… for about ten years.

Then, as often happens in Greek myth, Jason found himself another woman, and cast Medea aside for Glauce, the daughter of the Corinthian king, Creon. Not one to take rejection well, Medea sent Glauce a lovely golden gown covered in poison, which led to the death of both the princess and her father, the king. In revenge, the Corinthians killed two of Jason and Medea’s children. Just to show Jason she was good and angry, Medea killed two of the others herself, leaving only a son, Thessalus, to survive. Medea then fled Corinth on a golden chariot, sent by her grandfather, Helios, the sun god.

Medea spent many years just a few steps ahead of the enraged Jason, fleeing first to Thebes and then to Athens. Eventually, she returned to Colchis, where she found that her father had been deposed by her uncle, ​Perses. Medea killed Perses and restored Aeëtes to the throne.

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Baba Yaga

Portrait of woman at Yarmarok, traditional fair.
Aldo Pavan / Getty Images

In Russian folktales, Baba Yaga is an old witch who can be either fearsome and scary, or be the heroine of the tale - and sometimes she manages to do both!

Described as having teeth of iron and a frightfully long nose, Baba Yaga lives in a hut on the edge of the forest, which can move around on its own and is depicted as having legs like a chicken (the hut, not Baba Yaga). She does not, unlike many traditional folkloric witches, fly about on a broomstick. Instead, she rides around in a giant mortar, which she pushes along with an equally large pestle, rowing it almost like a boat. She sweeps the tracks away from behind her with a broom made of silver birch.

The Tale of Baba Yaga

According to Folk Tales from the Russian, published in 1903 by Verra Xenophontovna and Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, there is a story in Russian folklore that illustrates the many facets of Baba Yaga all at once.

It seems, so the tale goes, that once there was a woodcutter who lived near the forest, and he and his wife had twins, a boy and a girl.

When they were still small, the woodcutter’s wife died, and although he was very lonely and missed her, he knew his children needed a mother, so he married again.

The stepmother was envious of the woodcutter’s love for his children, and so she treated them badly. If he was away from home, she would lock them outdoors for hours. She refused to feed them, and didn’t care if their clothes fit or if they were cold. Finally she decided to get rid of them altogether, so she could have the woodcutter all to herself. She told them to go see an old woman who lived deep in the woods, in a house that had magical chicken-like feet, and the old woman would give them treats.

The children, however, knew that something was amiss. Their stepmother had never offered them a kindness before. So instead, they went to the home of their dead mother’s mother, and she warned them not to go to the house on chicken feet because it belonged to an old witch named Baba Yaga. She fed them well, and told them to be good to anyone they met, and sent them on their way. But on their way home, they got lost and found themselves at the witch’s house anyway.

The children had a number of adventures, many of which have similarities to other well-known European fairy tales, that you can read about here. By the time they returned home, the woodcutter realized his new wife had no love in her heart, and sent her away so he and his children could live happily and in peace.

The Beautiful Vassilissa

Another tale relates the story of the young Vassilissa, whose father is a merchant and whose mother dies early (not an uncommon theme in folktales, to be sure!), leaving only a tiny doll for Vassilissa to remember her by. As Vassilissa grows up and her father takes a new wife, the story expands to include two evil stepsisters, and a series of tasks assigned to the young girls. Naturally, those who are wicked end up getting what is coming to them, at the hands of Baba Yaga.

Other Aspects of Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is sometimes portrayed as having assistants such as three mysterious riders who help her out. These strange horsemen represent sunrise, noon, and night. In some takes, she is aided by her daughter, Marinka.

In general, no one ever knows whether Baba Yaga will help or hinder those who seek her out. Often, bad people get their just desserts through her actions, but it is not so much that she wishes to rescue the good as it is that evil brings its own consequences, and Baba Yaga is simply there to see these results meted out.

She is often representative of a watcher or guardian of the forest and all it contains, although this may in part be due to her similarities to other Eastern European and Slavic folkloric figures, many of whom are identified by names that translate into "Forest Mother." Such characters appear in Bulgarian, Serbian and Slovenian mythology and legend.

Some Slavic tales feature Baba Yaga as a trio of supernatural sisters—all with the same name —who threatens to eat unwary travelers and small children, although they always seem to manage a timely escape.

In modern Neopaganism, there seems to be some speculation that Baba Yaga was a goddess who was worshiped by ancient Slavic Pagans. However, despite some of her similarities to other European goddesses, such as her appearance in triplicate, there is little academic evidence that Baba Yaga was deified. A more likely scenario is that she was, as originally noted, a folkloric character who has taken on a life of her own in the minds and hearts of modern Pagans.

For some wonderful ideas on how to create a Baba Yaga costume, visit Take Back Halloween: Baba Yaga.

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La Befana

Witch puppets at the Christmas Fair on the Piazza Navona, Rome. Image by Jonathan Smith/Lonely Planet/Getty Images

In Italy, the legend of La Befana is popularly told around the time of the Epiphany. What does a Catholic holiday have to do with modern Paganism? Well, La Befana happens to be a witch.

According to folklore, on the night before the feast of the Epiphany in early January, Befana flies around on her broom, delivering gifts. Much like Santa Claus, she leaves candy, fruit, or small gifts in the stockings of children who are well-behaved throughout the year. On the other hand, if a child is naughty, he or she can expect to find a lump of coal left behind by La Befana.

La Befana’s broom is for more than just practical transportation - she also will tidy up a messy house, and sweep the floors before she departs for her next stop. This is probably a good thing, since Befana gets a bit sooty from coming down chimneys, and it’s only polite to clean up after oneself. She may wrap up her visit by indulging in the glass of wine or plate of food left by parents as thanks.

Tessa Derksen of Our Little Italy says, "In the time when our grandparents were children, Befana was tremendously popular and was awaited with a mixture of joy and anxiety. Children hung hand-knitted stockings on the fireplace and wrote long letters to her expressing their wishes. Often they were disappointed as their families had little money to spend on gifts; however, sometimes they found little hand-sewn dolls and puppets in their stocking. If they had been bad, their stockings were filled with onions, garlic, and coal. Although there were no traditional dishes to celebrate this day, people would gather together and eat chestnuts, nuts and fruit pancakes."

So, where did La Befana come from? How did a kindly old witch become associated with the celebration of the Epiphany? Many of the stories behind La Befana involve a woman who is searching but unable to find the newborn infant Jesus.

In some Christian legends, it is said that Befana had been visited by the three Magi, or wise men, on their way to visit the baby Jesus. It’s said that they asked her for directions, but Befana wasn’t sure how to find the newborn infant. However, being a good housekeeper, she invited them to spend the night in her tidy little home. When the Magi left the next morning, they invited Befana to join them in their quest. Befana declined, saying she had too much housework to do, but she later changed her mind. She tried to find the wise men and the new baby, but was unable to; now, she flies around on her broom delivering gifts to children. Perhaps she is still searching for the infant Jesus.

In other tales, La Befana is a woman whose children have died in a great plague, and she follows the wise men to Bethlehem. Before leaving her house, she packs up some simple gifts - a doll that belonged to one of her children, and a robe sewn from her own wedding dress. These plain gifts are all she has to give to the infant Jesus, but she is unable to locate him. Today, she flies around delivering gifts to other children in hopes of finding him.

Betsy Woodruff at Slate describes yet another version of the story, in which King Herod’s soldiers kill her son: "Delusional with grief, she leaves her home to search for him. Instead, she finds baby Jesus and gives him all her son’s belongings. He blesses her, and now she travels the world blessing good children and punishing bad ones."

Some scholars believe that the story of La Befana actually has pre-Christian origins. The tradition of leaving or exchanging gifts may relate to an early Roman custom that takes place in midwinter, around the time of Saturnalia. Befana may also represent the passing of the old year, with the image of an old woman, to be replaced by a new year.

Today many Italians, including those who follow the practice of Stregheria, celebrate a festival in La Befana’s honor.

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Lorado / Getty Images

In Norse mythology, Grimhildr (or Grimhilde) was a smokin’ sorceress who was married to King Gyuki, one of the Burgundian kings, and her story appears in the Volsunga Saga, where she is described as a “fierce-hearted woman.” Grimhildr was easily bored, and often amused herself by enchanting various people – including the hero Sigurðr, who she wanted to see marry her daughter Gudrun. The spell worked, and Sigurðr left his wife Brynhild. As if that wasn’t enough mischief-making, Grimhildr decided her son Gunnar should marry the spurned Brynhild, but Brynhild was having none of it. She stubbornly announced, “Nope, because I’ll only marry a guy who’s willing to cross this ring of fire I’m setting up around myself. Good luck, boys!”

Sigurðr, who could cross the flames safely, knew that he’d be off the hot seat if he could see his ex happily remarried, so he offered to switch bodies with Gunnarr and get across. And who had enough magic to make the old body-swapping work out? Why, Grimhildr, of course! Brynhild was fooled into marrying ​Gunnarr, but it didn’t end well; she finally figured out she’d been catfished, and ended up killing Sigurðr and herself. Really, the only one who came out of the whole debacle relatively unscathed was Gudrun, whose malicious mother ended up marrying her off to Brynhild’s brother, Atli.