Myths and legends

Witches and wizards

A witchA witch Witches and wizards are people who possess magical powers or command supernatural forces. The word "witch" usually refers to a female, while their male equivalents are known as either "wizards" or "warlocks". In many myths and legends, witches are evil and dangerous to ordinary humans. Those who learn magic for the purpose of harming others are called sorcerers or sorceresses rather than wizards and witches. In some stories, people often meet old women, not realising that they are in fact witches. In these instances, the witch may reward kindness but punish rudeness. Belief in witches was widespread during the Middle Ages in Europe. They were said to be worshippers of the Devil. Thousands of women were tortured and executed after being accused of witchcraft. A witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 led to the execution of 19 people.



In the Odyssey, an epic by the ancient Greek poet Homer, the hero Odysseus and his men met a witch called Circe. The daughter of the god of the sun, Helios, and Perse, an oceanid (sea nymph), Circe had the power to turn people into animals using potions and herbs. Lions, bears and wolves—humans she had previously transformed by magic—crowded her island home of Aeaea. With her wand, Circe turned some of Odysseus’s men into pigs. Only Eurylochus, who suspected treachery, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Protecting himself from her magic by moly, a special herb, Odysseus freed his men.

An old print of a ducking stoolAn old print of a ducking stool

Persecuting witches

From the 1400s to the 1700s, some people in real life were accused of being witches. They were tried and condemned to death for witchcraft. There were a number of ways of "proving" whether someone was a witch. One was to torture her until she confessed. The deadly torture instruments included iron masks and spiked collars that were firmly locked into position. Another way was to duck the woman under water using a ducking stool. If she floated she was called a witch; if she drowned she was innocent—either way the unfortunate woman died. Many innocent people were cruelly treated because of people’s fear of witchcraft.

Burning at the stake (left) and an iron mask (right)Burning at the stake (left) and an iron mask (right)In the past, some people accused of performing witchcraft were burnt at the stake—once a form of execution for all kinds of crimes. The last person to be executed in Europe for being a witch was Anna Goddi. She was hanged in Switzerland in 1782.

Witches flying on broomsticksWitches flying on broomsticks

Being a witch

The traditional image of a witch in European and American folklore is that of a gnarled old woman with wrinkled skin, hooked nose, warts and a hairy chin. She usually has a black robe and a pointed hat and sometimes wears magic charms to keep evil spirits away. Witches communicate with evil spirits called "familiars", supernatural beings who take the form of ordinary animals, such as black cats or toads. They are said to travel through the night skies riding on magic broomsticks. In other cultures, witches can change into animals such as bats to prey upon their victims.

Walpurgis Night, Heidelberg, GermanyWalpurgis Night, Heidelberg, Germany



On 30th April Germans celebrate Walpurgis Night, when witches are said to ride to meet their master, the Devil. But the night of 31st October, Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, the day before the Christian feast of All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day, 1st November, is considered the biggest night of the witches’ year. It is the traditional time for witches to be at the height of their powers. Nowadays, children dress up as witches at Halloween. Known as “guisers”, They go from house to house “trick or treating”. Jack-o'-lanterns, carved and scooped-out pumpkins with lighted candles placed inside, are traditionally carried or displayed on Halloween in order to frighten away evil spirits.

Halloween may have had its roots in a Gaelic festival called Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the "darker half" of the year. Similar festivals are held at the same time of the year in other Celtic lands, and probably have pagan origins—the religion of the Celts.

Three witches

A witches’ covenA witches’ coven Three famous witches appear in Macbeth, a play by Shakespeare. These ugly, withered creatures with wild-looking hair and flowing, dark cloaks can foretell the future. As they cast spells they add nasty ingredients to a magical potion:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Eye of newt, toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing.

Hogwarts CastleHogwarts Castle

Harry Potter

In the series of seven fantasy novels books about Harry Potter, the British writer J.Κ. Rowling tells the story of Harry, an ordinary boy, as he studies at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry’s adventures, along with his friends Ronald Weasley and Hermione Grainger, involve dragons, magic potions and flying broomsticks, as he goes about his quest to thwart the attempts of the Dark Wizard, Lord Voldemort, to dominate the wizarding world and rule over the non-magical Muggle world.

The enchantress Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legend is a kind of witch. She tricks Arthur's magician Merlin into falling in love with her. Once she has learnt Merlin's secrets, she imprisons him behind invisible walls.

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