Halloween Countdown Day 6 – Six Witches Flying
“On the sixth day of Halloween my true love sent to me six witches flying, five apples bobbing, four soulers souling, three nuts a cracking, two cats a mewing and a vampire in a coffin.”
Halloween and Witchcraft
Halloween has been called the Night of the Witches or the Witch’s Night and to many Halloween and witchcraft are inextricably linked.
October 31st is a liminal time, a time of transition from summer to winter, from lightness to dark, it may have been the date of the Celtic New Year. It is believed that this is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin, when the mounds of the dead will be thrown open, when contact can be made with the world of the spirit. As witches commune with the world of the spirit and their power is said to be derived by their contact with the Otherworld then this would naturally seem like a time for witchcraft to be prominent and as many people performed divination rituals on this night of the year only (this was an activity usually reserved for magical practitioners).
October 31st is also mentioned in several witchcraft trial records and these mainly suggest that Halloween was the night of the year when witches met. This evidence was later used by Margaret Murray in her 1921 to suggest that Halloween was one of the four sabbats of “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” (a Pagan belief system that she suggested had existed for thousands of years).
Halloween in Witchcraft trial records/confessions
North Berwick, 1590 – the Devil had the witches dig up corpses on Halloween and cut off different joints or organs which were then attached to a dead cat and thrown into the sea in order to call up the storm which had nearly shipwrecked the King’s ship.
Aberdeen, 1596 – a great number of witches danced and conferred with the Devil on Halloween. Some attended the meeting in the form of a cat or a hare.
Ayrshire, 1604 – at Halloween the witches assembled on a hill and met with a devilish spirit.
Pendle, 1633 – a great meeting of witches was held in the Forrest of Pendle on All Saints Day (November 1st)
Forfar, 1661 – Issobell Smyth said she met with the Devil every quarter “at Candlemas, Rud-day, Lambemas, and Hallomas [Halloween].”
Protection from Witchcraft on October 31st
Many Halloween customs seem to be concerned with protection from witchcraft. In Pendle, Lancashire (where the famous Pendle Witch Trials occurred), the local residents were reported “leeting” or “lating” (meaning scaring or driving out) witches on Halloween. This involved carrying a lighted candle around the hills and fells for from eleven pm to midnight on Halloween. If the candle stayed lit throughout then the person would be protected from witchcraft for that year. If the candle went out then this was an evil omen. The most difficult place to pass was said to be Malkin Tower (pictured below) as this was where the witches were said to assemble on Halloween and they would try to blow out the candle as it passed by.
In 1874, Queen Victoria celebrated Halloween at Balmoral Castle (pictured below). Her servants dressed as hobgoblins and fairies. They processed through the grounds of the Castle in a cart towards a large bonfire where they removed “the effigy of the hideous old woman or witch called the Shandy Dann…” The effigy was accused of witchcraft and the crowd was asked if anyone would speak for her. No-one did and she was thrown on the fire to complete “the ancient practice of burning a witch.” After she was burned to ash, bagpipes began to play and the crowd danced. Excerpts from The Guardian, 11th November 1874.
In Aberdeenshire, boys in the 19th century went about the villages saying “Ge’s a peat t’burn the witches.” Witches were thought to be out on Halloween stealing milk and harming cattle. Torches were used to counteract them and were carried west to east against the sun. In Moray, “…boys begged for fuel for their fires from each householder in their village commonly with the words ‘Ge’s a peat t’ burn the witches’. Once the blaze was started, ‘One after another of the youths laid himself down on the ground as near to the fire as possible so as not to be burned, and in such a position as to let the smoke roll over him. The other ran through the smoke, and jumped over him.” Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun.
Witches in early 20th century Halloween postcards
By the early twentieth century, witches were clearly associated with Halloween in the popular imagination as they appear in the Halloween postcards which began to be commercially produced in the 1860s and became immensely popular in America in the twentieth century.
Far from being figures of fear or hatred, the witches in these postcards seem to wish people well, some of them smile and dance, playful images of the night feature prominently. Some are the stereotypical old witch but others are young, attractive, even cute. There are cats, broomsticks and pointy hats but there is also a lot of colour. Many of the witches wear red (especially red capes) which is a more traditional colour (it wasn’t until the film the Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 that the uniform of the witch in top to toe black was established). One of the most commonly used phrases is “A jolly Halloween”. People at this time saw Halloween and witchcraft as unthreatening and fun.
Countdown day seven tomorrow…