The Witch’s Cottage

It’s almost Spooky SZN (read that as the word “season” because we hear that’s what the youths are saying these days)! As such, we wanted to share a bit more about the history of one area of Trench 5b: the Witch’s Cottage. The base of the Tower of Elmund’s Well was repurposed in the late 18th century as the framework of a cottage rumoured to belong to a local “witch” or possibly several generations of witches. Most likely the house belonged to a male apothecary which does raise eyebrows for us, because it doesn’t fit neatly into the often gendered history of witchcraft. While this structure is post-medieval and over a century removed from the worst witch persecutions in Europe and across the pond, we wanted to share a little bit about how magic and witchcraft evolved in western Europe over the last two millennia.

The top left corner is the outermost past of the West Ward, and visible in the centre is the archway down into the outworks. The bottom right corner shows part of the tower-turned-cottage still partially standing in the 1950s.

What even is magic? There are thousands of pages asking that very question, but the best combined definition I could piece together is that magic consists of practices used by individuals or groups to explain and/or control the world around them. Magic could be the specialty of men, women, or non-binary practitioners, but a common thread of illicit magic in primary sources is the association with women and foreigners. Magic could be a tool of inclusion, or one of exclusion: socially-acceptable magical ritual was put at odds with magic that could threaten or subvert established social order. Particularly this is seen most clearly in the way gender and power dynamics are held up or challenged by the practice of magic.

In the 19th century, anthropologist EB Tylor articulated a common theory from the period about cultural evolution (which placed Western Europe as the zenith); in his work Primitive Culture (1871), he addresses three concepts: magic, religion, and science. Another anthropologist, James George Frazer, goes a step further, considering magic the lowest tier of cultural understanding of the nature of things, religion as a step higher (likely due to Christianity’s dominance contemporarily to the development of the theory), and finally science as the pinnacle of human rationality. It’s easy to see from our perspective how this avowed evolution from “primitive” to enlightened can be extremely problematic. In some cultures, they each may be interpreted as a hierarchy, but projecting our rigid categories onto past societies is often folly. One person’s magic may be another’s religion, and still another’s science. There was so much overlap, and so much wiggle-room, among those three terms for centuries, even up into the medieval period!

We always like to look at proper terminology on our blog so let’s look at the roots of some words associated with magic and witchcraft to situate ourselves. The word “witch” itself comes from the Old English wicca (a masculine noun) meaning sorcerer or soothsayer .Folk etymologies suggest a connection to the Hwicce people of early medieval Britain, but that has largely been abandoned as a route of serious linguistic inquiry. “Magic” derives from the Greek mageia, which itself comes from Greek accounts of Persian priests referred to as magos. An outside body of authors is thus writing about the society of a rival, and, over time, the related terms became pejorative, implying trickery and charlatanism.

Since much of the earliest language has been borrowed into English, there is a definite influence of Classical (Greek and Roman, in particular) conceptions that persist to today. There was doubtless magic and ritual in prehistoric periods, but it’s a bit harder to pin down because (1) we don’t have documents from the practitioners themselves (no documents at all in the earlier periods or only material written by outsiders in the later), and (2) archaeologically we can get some clues, but unknown functions of artefacts or entire places are often attributed to this nebulous idea of “ritual.”

Medea and her chariot pulled by dragons on a 5thC BCE Greek krater (container for mixing wine and water). Yes, we are aware they don’t LOOK like our modern concept of dragons, but just go with it. From Oxford Classical Art Research Centre, originally Sotheby’s.

The Greeks, however, did write extensively on what we might today call magic beginning in the 5th century BCE. Scholars such as Kimberly B. Stratton posit that the idea of magic and its role in asserting or denying legitimacy is tied to the development of democracy and empire in tandem. Greek notions of magic and witchcraft include very specific terms for specialist approaches that have changed connotation over time: pharmakon was used as healing drugs or poison depending on context, but evolved into an almost exclusively negative term. Witchcraft and magic during the rise and height of Greek empire is presented in numerous tragedies like that of Medea or Deianeira, who are reacting to the infidelity of their husbands (Jason and Heracles, respectively). They are justified to an extent, but still bound by customs that equate male honour with the sexual behaviors of women with which they are associated (wives, mothers, daughters).

Roman witchcraft was most often associated with older women; again this is illicit magic that challenges social norms regarding women’s roles and particularly their sexuality, which was seen to threaten Caesar Augustus’ ideal family dynamic that he attempted to codify during the beginning of empire. Instead of being defensive or reactive, Roman witches called sagae were described as predatory. Witch tales describe hideous old women with wild hair and bare feet sneaking into cemeteries to gather human bones for love spells to bewitch younger men. Many of these Roman traits ascribed to witches are passed down through late antiquity prompting accusations of heresy (again putting magic and religion at odds) in later Christianity.

Part II to follow where we discuss early and late medieval witchcraft in western Europe.

Further Reading:

Stratton, K. B. (2007). Naming the witch: magic, ideology, and stereotype in the ancient world. Columbia University Press.

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