Thursday, 18 January 2018

The skilful one

In my post "Wratch" I talked about an interesting linguistic "coincidence":

In Cornish and Welsh the word "wrach" means old woman, hag, witch. Fraic as in the placename Leitir Fraic is said to be an old obsolete Irish word for a woman. In Serbian, the word "vrač" pronounced "vrach" means doctor, physician, shamanistic priest, witch doctor, magician, warlock. The verb "vračati" means to cast spells, to divinate, to perform any magical action. The word is found in all South Slavic languages. 

In Serbian villages the role of "vrač" was usually performed by an old, wise, experienced, skilful woman who was then called "vračara", feminine form of "vrač". Vračara was the healer, midwife, amulet maker, spell caster, fortune teller, and basically keeper of "magical" and other ancient religious traditions and taboos. 

Basically "Vračara" performed the role of the good village Witch. 

Now what about the etymology of the word "witch"? 

On the Wiktionary page for "witch" we can read this about the etymology of this word:

"The word witch comes from Middle English wicche, from Old English wiċċe (“sorceress, witch”) f. and wicca (“witch, sorcerer, warlock”) m., deverbative from wiccian (“to practice sorcery”), from Proto-Germanic *wikkōną (compare West Frisian wikje, wikke (“to foretell, warn”), Low German wicken (“to soothsay”), Dutch wikken, wichelen (“to dowse, divine”)), from Proto-Indo-European *wik-néh₂-, derivation of *weyk- (“to consecrate; separate”); akin to Latin victima (“sacrificial victim”), Lithuanian viẽkas (“life-force”), Sanskrit विनक्ति (vinákti, “to set apart, separate out”)."

However on the Oxford University Press blog page "The Oxford Etymologist goes Trick-or-Treating"  written by Anatoly Liberman, we can read this about the etymology of the word "Witch"

"The etymology I find acceptable connects wicca with the verb wit “know” (as in to wit, the noun wit, witty, unwitting, and witless). Yet this derivation, arguably the best we have, is not flawless either. It presupposes the existence of witga (pronounced witya), the form that later developed into witch. The difficulty is that the combination tg (= ty) yielded (t)ch in extremely few words. However, the verb fetch was probably one of them. Old English had wita “wise man” and witega “wise man, prophet, soothsayer.” Witga, a third member of this family, would have meant approximately the same as witega, but with the accent on occult practices and knowledge of things hidden. If so, the negative meaning of witch developed later, under the influence of Christian teachings. Both wita and witega died out early, whereas witch has continued into the present. This reconstruction of the prehistory of witch has the support of Slavic: the Russian for witch is ved’ma “she who knows” (My comment: actually she who has knowledge ved + ima = knowledge + has). A similar form exists in several other Slavic languages like Polish where we find wiedźma.  Here ved– “know” being an easily recognizable cognate of wit."

Now here is something else which supports this etymology wit (knowledge) - witch (knowledgable):

In Serbian (South Slavic languages) there are two words that mean skilful, knowledgable, adept: "Vičan" (pronounced "vitchan") and "Vešt" (pronounced "vesht"). The word "Vešt" is the root of the Serbian word for Witch: Veštica, which means skilful, knowledgable woman. The word "Vičan" which means skilful knowledgable, and which also comes from "ved, vid" meaning "know", could have the same root as the word Witch meaning skilful, knowledgable woman... 

After all that is exactly what witches used to be...


  1. Witchcraft also includes the concept of magic specialists who have the knowledge to use malevolent and malicious supernatural powers to harm others. I have to admit that the concept of maleficium was not profound until the mid 15th century. Meaning that by the late 15th century the only aspect that remained of a magical specialist (witch) was that of a person who has the power or knowledge to cast malevolent magic. Which reflects human nature. If you look at late 14th century Swiss (proto witch trials) magic trials, there’s one stereotypical aspect that connects them all - (which would lead to the burning witch in century’s to come) neighborly quarrels… The complainants always had the perception that they were attacked by magical means to explain some personal misfortune. A pre-Christian example of the concept of malevolent magic and Christians inserting the devil in it can be found in a set of laws issued appx. 785 in Paderborn, debating the matter of the Christianization of the Saxons, making idolatry punishable by law, as well as the belief in the existence of witchcraft. Ironically it forbids the belief in witchcraft and the lynching of a supposed witch and most interestingly it forbids the eating of their flesh. Which can be seen as a form of ritual cannibalism in which the powers of the witch were transferred. There are other early examples where witches were associated with the making of bad weather, which lead to their lynching and this practice(belief&lynching) was criticized by Christian clerics as maintaining the way of the pagans.

    "Law against falsely accusing someone of being a witch and burning or eating him:"
    If any one deceived by the devil shall have believed, after the manner of the pagans, that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and on this account shall have burned the person, or shall have given the person's flesh to others to eat, or shall have eaten it himself, let him be punished by a capital sentence. (Law no. 6)

    "Also interesting"
    Witchcraft: India's Deadly Superstition | The New York Times

  2. It is believed that Slavic "ved'ma" (Russian) or "vid'ma" (Ukrainian) comes from verb "vedat'" or "vidaty" (correspondingly) (be wit? Or to know but not rationally). The same Indo-European word root is for Rigveda.

  3. Slightly off topic, but it still fits into the meta of the subject . There’s a treatise labeled "Tractatus de supersticionibus" written by the Silesian-German theologian, Nikolaus Magni von Jauer in 1405. As the titling implies the text is directed against superstitious beliefs (misbeliefs) and clarified through the means of demonology. Based on older traditions Jauer views old women as the carriers of a superstitious folk culture (or as I see it, them old hags just wanted to improve their non-existent pension). One aspect of the treatise is of interest. It comments that people look to the sun and the moon for healing or some sort of blessing. In detail Jauer mentions that he knew an old woman who considered the sun a goddess; she called the sun the holy mistress and under her invocation made blessings on the sick. He goes on; even today, there are people, layman and clerics, scholars and unschooled ones alike,who worship the new moon when they see it for the first time. They fall to their knees and respectfully greet it (pray to it), indeed, many fast on the day of the new moon, even if that is a Sunday, on which day, according to ecclesiastical ordinance, it is forbidden to fast for the joyful remembrance of the resurrection, and even on the day of the Lord's birth. To conceal their sin, they pretend to fast not in honour of the moon, but in honour of the saints, who are celebrated on this month.

    It’s more likely that the woman worshipped the sun as Mary the mother of God, but in a manner that represented (a debri) a former pagan system of thought.

    1. “Forgot to post this”
      There’s a wonderful early 16th century woodcut that visualizes this conflict and it reflects a shift of perception; witches as carriers of malevolent and harmful magic.

      The hag (with herbal sack?) vs. The scribe
      (Hans Burgkmair - 1514, Maximilian I between white and black magic.)

      ~Link to image~