8 Famous Witches From Mythology and Folklore

Painting by Salvatore Rosa
Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

Ancient mythology and folklore is filled with witches, including the Bible's Witch of Endor and Russian folklore's Baba Yaga. These enchantresses are known for their magic and trickery, which is sometimes used for good and sometimes for mischief.

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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 trouble when he sought assistance from the witch and asked 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 for help, but God stayed mum…and so Saul took it upon himself to seek 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 to revive the dead prophet Samuel so that he might tell Saul what was going to happen.

Who was the witch of Endor? Well, like many other biblical figures, no one really knows. Though 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.”
02
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Circe

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 group 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, 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 on a side quest to the Underworld.

After Odysseus’ death, 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 during the 1800s 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 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.

To make matters even worse, young Betsy Bell started to experience physical encounters with a specter, claiming it had slapped her and pulled her hair. Although he originally told the family to keep things quiet, 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
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. 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.

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.”

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Medea

Illustration of Jason and Medea

Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

As we see in the story of Odysseus and Circe, Greek mythology is filled with 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 an attraction to Jason, and after seducing and eventually marrying him, this enchantress helped her husband 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 10 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.

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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 the heroine of a tale—and sometimes she manages to be 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. Baba Yaga 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.

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 punishments meted out.

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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, and 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 a glass of wine or plate of food left out by parents as thanks.

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

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Grimhildr

Sorceress
Lorado / Getty Images

In Norse mythology, Grimhildr (or Grimhilde) was a sorceress 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 didn't like the idea. She said that she would only marry a man who was willing to a cross a ring of fire for her. So Brynhild created a circle of flames around herself and dared her potential suitors to cross it.

Sigurðr, who could cross the flames safely, knew that he’d be out of trouble 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 body-swapping work out? Grimhildr, of course. Brynhild was fooled into marrying ​Gunnarr, but it didn’t end well; she finally figured out she’d been tricked, and ended up killing Sigurðr and herself. 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.