Witch Goddesses in Mythology and Folklore From Around the World
Goddesses of Magic and Witchcraft
Throughout known history, stories and legends tell us of ancient gods and goddesses that ruled the earth, sky, and sea. Some of those stories paint a picture of deities that practiced magic and taught magic to their followers. Certain ancient goddesses in particular were said to have done this. And certain goddesses were known as witch goddesses. They were the original witches and some were even said to have had a following or cult of witches.
These witch goddesses can be found in folklore and mythology from all around the world—Russia, Egypt, Ireland and more. Let us learn more about some of the more famous witch goddesses and why they have made a name for themselves in history and in time.
Baba Yaga: The Slavic Witch of Folklore
Perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of Slavic folklore is the story of the witch goddess Baba Yaga. It is said that originally Baba Yaga was a well-respected and revered witch goddess in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As the years passed and Christianity spread throughout the continents, Baba Yaga was diminished from a goddess to an ugly old hag that lived out in the woods and ate little children.
It is possible and very likely that Baba Yaga was originally a triple-goddess. Newer pieces of folklore collected in the nineteenth century depict Baba Yaga as three witch sisters, showing us that she may have had three personalities similar to that of the Morrigan of Irish legend or of Hecate in her triple form.
But why has Baba Yaga been demoted from a witch goddess to simply a revolting witch of folklore? When Christianity arose as the main religion in Europe and parts of Asia, the old religious beliefs in gods and goddesses were shunned and the old deities made to look like demons and evil spirits of the earth. It is no doubt this is exactly what happened to Baba Yaga.
One interesting and plausible theory is that Baba Yaga was originally a witch goddess of the forest, a wild woman of the green wood. The newer folklore tells us that Baba Yaga is a repulsive witch with a hideously long nose who flies around in a mortar and pestle. She is said to live in a "chicken-legged hut" that moves around the woods, and when children go near enough to it they are said to be eaten by Baba Yaga herself. This part of Baba Yaga's legend is very similar to the fairy tales told to children as warnings (i.e. Little Red Riding Hood's warning of not venturing into the woods and talking to strangers).
Other stories of Baba Yaga paint her not as merely an evil witch in the woods but also as a helper to those who are "pure of heart". One must be prepared to approach Baba Yaga with manners and with kindness and know what one wants but never to be forceful or Baba Yaga will not help. She is known to share her wisdom with those who are deserving, however.
Baba Yaga—nasty witch or misunderstood witch goddess?
Cailleach: The Winter Witch Goddess
Cailleach is a witch goddess from the countries of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. She is called the Old Woman, the Winter Crone, the Veiled One, the Old Hag, and the Old Crone depending on the person and the region. While Cailleach is almost always depicted as an "old hag" archetype, she has long been honored and respected for her powers over the land and the weather during the winter months in Ireland and Scotland. It was believed that Cailleach brought Winter on the eve of Samhainn (All Hallows' Eve, October 31st) and then withdrew Winter in the Spring as late as Beltane (May 1st) when the Bride (goddess Brigid) would take over the Spring and Summer months.
In mythology, Cailleach could be seen as an old hag with long robes and sometimes in plaid, but she would also reveal a beautiful side to herself if the right man showed her kindness of heart. When it snows in Ireland and Scotland, people will still say the Cailleach has unleashed her magic upon the land. There are actually many places in Ireland and Scotland named after the Cailleach or associated with the Cailleach. The mountains and hills in particular are said to be this witch goddess's domain, as legend says that Cailleach made the mountains as her stepping stones in ancient times. This also means that Cailleach could have been once known as a giantess and creator goddess, as well.
Cailleach is not just an Old Crone of the Winter, she is also seen as an ancestress to many people in Ireland and Scotland as well as a sister to some of the most ancient goddesses of Irish and Scottish lore. She is the embodiment of Winter and all that it brings: snow, ice, cold, death and then eventually rebirth.
Hecate: The Witch Goddess at the Crossroads
Hecate is a well-known witch goddess of Ancient Greece that is still worshiped by modern-day pagans. She dates back as far as Ancient Greece but many believe she is even older than that. Hecate is the lady at the crossroads—usually at a three-way intersection or simply put a fork-in-the-road. Often she is depicted with having three heads or being guarded by a three-headed white dog. Some say she is a psychopomp, which is why she guards the crossroads as it is a place between here and the other world. Her three-headed form is seen at pagan festivals and fertility rites as it shows us her triple-goddess form of maiden, mother, and crone.
Hecate is a witch goddess that prevails over the Moon, menstruation, intuition, dreams, the cycles of life-death-rebirth, as well as over witchcraft. She is said to be the supreme witch over which there are no others. In Kala Trobe's Invoke the Goddess, she says that Hecate is the "patroness of prostitutes, thieves, and beggars not to mention witches...and protects those on the outskirts of society. She represents the objective eye searing through the façade of mainstream society. She is the original socialist."
This illustrates for us the black-sheep archetype of this witch goddess and most-ancient deity. As a psychopomp in mythology, Hecate was said to have been the only witness to Persephone's kidnapping by Hades of the Underworld. She became a companion and helper to Persephone's mother, Demeter. She was the one who tried to aid Demeter in reclaiming her missing daughter. She leads us to and from the other side.
Isis: Egyptian Goddess of Magic
While not usually referred to as a "witch goddess", Isis was indeed an Egyptian goddess of magic and the occult arts. She is said to preside over ritual magic, but is also a supreme female deity. She is as ancient as time itself, and she has been said to be the embodiment of the Feminine Divine (basically all of the goddess deities rolled into one). In Egyptian mythology, we read that Isis gained her magical knowledge by tricking Ra into telling her his names. From then on, she knew the great secrets of the Universe and how to use them to aid her husband (Osiris) in his fight against his evil brother (Seth).
Isis could be considered a witch goddess, but she is so much more than that. She is a great mother goddess and perhaps you have seen a picture or statue of her suckling the sacred baby Horus. She gave birth to him by taking in the seed of her dead husband, Osiris. That is how powerful Isis' magic could be. She has the ability to shift shapes and is often shown on temple walls and in papyri with the great wings of a large bird. Wrapping these wings around us, she is a protector of women and children. Isis is the Great Mother of all.
Morgan Le Fay: The Fairy Witch Goddess
Deeply rooted in mystery and legend, Morgan Le Fay has long been an associated character in the Arthurian legends. Some say she was an evil witch, while others say she was the sister and aid to King Arthur himself. In some versions of the Arthurian legend, Morgan Le Fay saves King Arthur by taking him to the Isle of Avalon after he has been cut down by his evil son Mordred.
In her witch goddess form, Morgan Le Fay is said to be a master over herbal and elemental arts. She was thought to have been part fairy (hence her name Le Fay), as she was a resident and visitor to the magical Isle of Avalon and personally knew the Lady of the Lake. She was said to be able to part the mists between this world and the next world (Avalon). Other names for Morgan Le Fay include: the Queen of the Fairies, Fata Morgana, the High Priestess of Avalon, and some even say she was the Lady of the Lake.
There has been speculation as to whether Morgan Le Fay was her own self or whether she was a British/Welsh aspect of the shapeshifting Irish Goddess The Morrigan. Perhaps we may never know her true origins.
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More Witch Goddesses
I did not go into full detail on every witch goddess in mythology and folklore in this article. Suffice it to say there are actually quite a bit of witch goddesses to learn and write about. Here are just a few others that I did not discuss: Diana, Aradia, Artemis, Minona, Nephthys, The Badbh, Circe, Irodessa, Freya, Maria Padilha, Cerridwen, Jezibaba, Lilith, Befana, Kybele, Herodias, Leto, and Medea.
Some are hated and some are loved. It is a theme that dates back centuries—do we love and revere the powerful woman or do we hate and disfigure her?
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© 2015 Nicole Canfield