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Witches: Their Habits and Manners – A Non-Factual Treatise on the History of Witch Behaviour

(This is the answer to an indirect challenge by a friend, who posted a picture of witches using modern kitchen appliances in the deep dark woods and answered my lengthy list of well-thought-out questions (e.g. “Where would they get the electricity and WHY would they meet in the woods ANYWAY?”) with the information that she was on a campaign to confound me. I picked up that glove and here I am, presenting you with my research on the habits and traditions of witches – and just in time for Halloween as well! – founded exclusively on half-an-hour of deep pondering.)

A long time ago, witching was a job like any other in the public service sector. People would ask for help, and witches provided solutions and received payment in the form of a leg of mutton or possibly a basket full of apples (depending on the season and the magnitude of the problem solved, of course – in harsh winters, payment might also be in the form of firewood or similar). This was the golden age of witching. Things, however, changed…

Due to migratory movements and growing population numbers, witches fell under suspicion. This was mainly because people in new settlements brought their own witches, who naturally deemed themselves better than the ones originally settled there (“Her methods are sooo eleventh century!” Hildegunde, witch of the then-newly built settlement of New Tal, about her colleague in the village of Tal, AD 1102). Rivalry amongst the witches themselves, as well as feuds between the villagers about who had the better witch led to so many clashes, that the fact of having a witch in the village slowly became something negative. People started to turn on the witches, who they thought brought only strife and violence.

In a historical council, held one autumn night on the Blocksberg, a mountain in Central Europe, the witches agreed to settle their differences and adopted a ten-point policy that would ensure their safety. This was, of course, not settled on easily, and much glaring, cursing and sulking was involved. One particularly serious discussion is still on record, detailing the insults traded between two particularly powerful witches – Bartholomea from the village Sprotz and Aldreda from the village Nethelred – but they cannot be repeated here, since nobody has ever been able to read them without turning into a frog.

This paper encompassed the first and most important point, that of the formation of the Union of Witches (UW), membership of which was compulsory for all witches aiming to earn their living from witchcraft. The other nine points covered basic procedures for mutual identification and general protection. Amongst the former category was the obligatory wearing of a black, pointed hat, the possession of at least three warts on a visible part of the body, and the keeping of a familiar off a list of further detailed animals (toads, cats, ravens, goats and the consequently much unfavoured caterpillar (further research into its unpopularity is necessary to establish exact facts, but one theory points towards the solution of caterpillars not necessarily staying caterpillars, forcing the witch to train a new familiar each year).

The latter category, that of protection, was headed by the three doctrines of 1) remoteness, 2) unobtrusiveness and 3) lying. This led to witches removing from villages to cottages all alone in the woods and only visiting their villages on rare occasions and favourably at night and, of course, being untruthful when asked if they were a witch. At that time, these measures seemed the most sensible ones to ensure protection, yet in hindsight, it can be pretty firmly established that this policy did not bring about the desired effects.

Instead of the villagers perceiving them as harmless old biddies who lived in the woods, they became even more suspicious about them, reasoning that anything that necessitated them to move into the woods meant that they were up to nefarious deeds. “Instead of stealing into the woods at dead of night to cook up their brews, which meant that anyone with even the worst eyesight could see their fires through the trees and the foul stench could be smelled miles around, it would have been so much easier to just stay at home and pretend to be a really bad cook if company came to call at the moment when the witch had a cauldron full of frog spawn on the boil,” explains Annabelle Miller, senior researcher at the Institute of Fantastical History, University of Sprotz (founded, incidentally, by the witch Bartholomea, whose highly efficient curses still retain such power today).

Although their policy was counter-productive to the extreme, the witches continued it, because on the one hand, witches are, as is widely known, traditionalist and will always stick to the “old ways” (even if those old ways aren’t necessarily that old) and on the other hand, because none of them could face another council meeting like the one on the Blocksberg that had established the UW. “I’d rather be burned than come face to face with those old biddies again!” (Rohese, of the settlement of Chardonnière).

For centuries, these procedures were carried out faithfully by the generations of witches, adhering to the guidelines of the Union to maintain maximum distance between themselves and their sister witches. In recent years, however, there has been a major change. Starting in the 1960s, on the wave of liberation, free thinking and free sex, witches started to come out into the open. Because the necessity of protecting themselves had been instilled into them for generations, they started using a number of camouflage terms, like ‘esoteric’, ‘wicca’, ‘new pagan’ and so on. This deflected attention and allowed witches to slowly become a part of mainstream culture in western countries once more.

Nowadays, it is rather the norm than the exception for witches to conduct their business in their modern, big-city flats, where they have fully equipped kitchens. Necessary ingredients like snake’s eye, frog tails and cockroach wings are ordered through highly-specialized online shops and only those witches living in rural areas still harvest their own herbs and plants. These New Witches, as they call themselves, are frowned upon by those traditionalists that still remain, causing the witch community to be once again deeply divided, although time is slowly taking care of this problem as the old traditionalists are literally dying out.

Popular perception of witches as wart-covered, hunchbacked old women, cooking over open fires in the woods is now being increasingly criticized by the New Witches. “We feel that this cliché seriously hurts our business and lifestyle, and we are in the process of launching several awareness campaigns to challenge people’s stereotypical thoughts about witches”, says Matilde Bonhom, spokeswoman for the New Witch Association. It remains to be seen how society will react to this new policy, but the author of this treatise hopes to have done her part in shedding some light on an issue that has for too long remained in the deep, dark woods.