The Folkloric Witch's Tools
Every Witch Has Her Tools...
Whether they come from a fairy tale, folklore, or history, every witch has her special magical tools. For some, it's a magic wand. For others, it's a broom. Others use poisoned apples, scepters, pointed hats, and staffs. Therefore, it is no surprise that the folkloric witch also had her own special tools. Some might not be what you expect, while others are rather obvious. Whatever the folkloric witch needed was often right at her fingertips, including easy-to-acquire tools that possibly only required a quick trip to the garden, forest, or village. Most of the folkloric witch's tools were homemade or traded for, and many also had multiple uses, such as the broom and cauldron.
Here we discuss the tools used by the folkloric witch throughout Europe and the United States. Come fly with me through time to a land where witches gathered on the hilltops under the Full Moon for magical workings and to honor the old gods.
A Witch's Flying Gear: Broom, Distaff, Animals, and More
In modern times a witch is usually depicted flying on her broom; however, if we study European and Slavic folklore, witches didn't often use their brooms for flying. They would typically use a distaff or a farming/housework tool of some kind. Truly it depended on the region where the witch lived, but brooms are rarely mentioned in comparison to distaffs and other household objects. The broom would come to be popular as a witch's flying apparatus in more modern times.
The distaff is a tool used to hold unspun fiber and frees up both hands for the action of spinning. The spinning wheel made its historical debut in Europe during the late Medieval years, but didn't become an essential part of a woman's daily chores until the Early Modern Period. Women used spinning wheels to spin yarn, which was then used to make clothing and linens for the household. The folklore of spinning relates to many goddesses and figures who "spun" the fate of humankind. A few of the popular spinning goddesses are the Greek Fates, Athena and Arachne, the Norse Norns, Frigg, and the Germanic goddesses Berchta and Holda. Let us not forget the popular fairy tales featuring a spinning wheel—Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty. Because of its importance to a woman's life, and because many peasant women were accused of witchcraft, the distaff (spindle) came to be the object used by witches to fly to their sabbaths.
Isobel Gowdie, one of the most famous Scottish witches, purportedly confessed to all sorts of devious and mystical activities, including flying out the window on magical horses. Gowdie used her broom to instead fool her husband into thinking she was still in bed by charming it and lying it next to him.
In addition to using a broom or distaff, often witches were said to ride on the backs of animals such as goats, sheep, horses, and sows. As you will notice, these were the domesticated animals often seen on peasant farms. Goats were particularly popular with witches because of their association with the Devil (the Devil himself having cloven hooves and two horns on his head like that of a goat). Isobel Gowdie confessed the small magical horses she rode on were gifted to her by the fairy-folk and/or by the Devil himself.
There are other tales of witches during the Witch Trials that learned how to fly on the tops of beanstalks and other tall plants. Again encouraged and taught to them by the fairy-folk. Eggshells and bubbles were other whimsical additions to the folkloric witch's flying tools.
No matter the apparatus used to fly to the witch's sabbaths, most accounts tell of particular charms and herbal unguents as a requirement to leave the ground. These spells and recipes were given to witches via the fairies, familiars, or the Devil himself.
The Witch's Garden: Herbal Salves, Potions, and Unguents
Probably one of the most prominent and least-discussed tools of the folkloric witch was the witch's garden. Why was the witch's garden so important to her trade? It provided a means of food, medicine, and magic all in one. The folkloric witch could grow vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots, flowers, poisons, and herbs around or near her cottage and have a plethora of ingredients at her fingertips for whatever her needs might have been.
It is well documented that many accused witches were also midwives, herbalists, and cunningfolk. They were wise people who knew how to use herbs and items from nature in which to ease someone's pain or symptoms, deliver babies, and sometimes cure illnesses. This was a skill often taught to one person from their parents or grandparents—knowledge passed down in families of which utilized herbs and plants from the garden or local wilderness. Townsfolk were known to ask these "witches" for cures and medicines, and sometimes those same people would accuse the town's healers of being witches.
There is documentation from Medieval Times of certain herbal salves and ointments used by witches and magical individuals to help them "fly". These are called flying ointments and usually include a variety of dangerous ingredients including plants from the nightshade family, mandrake root, poppies, and hemlock, among others. These herbs were infused into an oil then made into an ointment or salve. Some recipes called for gnarly ingredients as the base of the flying ointment such as the fat of a baby or hangman, though scholars believe this to be based off of superstition or possibly written to disguise the actual ingredients from laypeople. Keep in mind much of what the wise people did in private was kept private because of witchcraft accusations in the Middle Ages and Modern Early Period. The witches would then use the flying ointment to anoint themselves and then "fly" out of their bodies to other places and times. This is equivalent to the modern sense of "getting high" off of modern day drugs. "Fly" and "getting high" sound awfully similar, don't they?
Witches used herbal salves, potions, and unguents in various different forms and manners to both heal and harm. While the "good witches" used herbal preparations to help those who came to them in need, there have always been stories of witches who also used their knowledge of herbs to harm others. While society and Hollywood paint a picture of witches using their powers for evil, could it possibly be that they used their knowledge instead to simply survive in a time when anyone who was different put their life in danger?
The Witch's Cooking Tools: The Cauldron and Mortar & Pestle
The folkloric witch is nearly always depicted standing behind a bubbling cauldron. Similar to the idea that witches always have brooms in hand, witches were often regular women with regular everyday duties like cleaning and cooking. The cauldron is a large, cast-iron pot that was once used in nearly every household to cook a meal over an open fire. Because of the cauldron being a woman's daily tool, it was eventually associated with witches. This could also be because of its significance in pagan literature and beliefs—think of Shakespeare's play Macbeth and the three witches over the bubbling cauldron. Also, the cauldron is mentioned a few times in the Welsh prose The Mabinogion as being a tool of the gods used for renewal and rebirth. The goddess Cerridwen is directly linked to the cauldron. Via folklore, witches needed some sort of vessel to cook their herbal concoctions, so the cauldron was an important tool. Not only could a witch cook a meal in her cauldron, she could also prepare herbal potions.
In addition to using a cauldron, the folkloric witch used another tool from the kitchen—the mortar and pestle. A mortar and pestle is a small, solid bowl typically made of wood or stone along with a mallet made of the same material. These are used to grind herbs, roots, and nuts down into finer powders. These are still in use today by chefs and herbalists, but the folkloric witch no doubt needed a mortar and pestle to grind down some of those harder roots and herbs into a powder as a preliminary step to making her herbal potions and unguents. Baba Yaga the Slavic witch-goddess flew through the air in a mortar and wielded a large pestle.
Participate in a poll:
Do you own any of these folkloric witch's tools?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Nicole Canfield