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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in Hwicce
Tribe of Witches, or: Which Witch is Whitch?

I wish I could remember which book I first read it in.

(A friend later confirmed for me that he, too, had read the same book, and mentioned some details that I had forgotten, so I know that I'm not making this up. Alas, he couldn't remember what book it was either.)

(I'm pretty sure it was one of the Second Generation of Craft books, and that it was by one of the Mothers of the Modern Craft: probably Doreen Valiente or Pat Crowther. Anyone?)

So: supposedly, there's this group (read: coven) out there that claims descent from the Hwicce, the original Anglo-Saxon Tribe of Witches. They claim to be practicing the old tribal religion. When you're initiated into this group, you become a member of the tribe, and a participant in the ongoing life of the tribe.

Now, I have to say: If true, this is one of the most compelling stories that I've come across so far in the modern pagan narrative. Everybody wants a tribe to belong to, pagans as much as anybody.

In 2008 maverick British archaeologist Stephen J. Yeates published his Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce, which makes a similar claim: that modern witchcraft descends from the old tribal ways of the Hwicce: Goddess, Horned God, and all.

Personally, I'm not convinced of the historicity of this claim. It looks to me as if Yeates started, not with the Hwicce, but with modern Wicca, and worked backward. The Wikipedia article on the Hwicce even cites me on this.

Linguists mostly agree that witch and Hwicce come from different roots. Exactly what the tribe's name originally meant is unclear. What we can say is that hwicce is also a common noun in Anglo-Saxon meaning “chest, barrel.” (This seems an unlikely source for an ethnonym, but who knows?) In fact, this word survived into Middle and Early Modern English as whitch. Draw your own conclusions.

The Anglo-Saxon Hwicce inhabited the basin of the Severn River. (The Severn is still counted as the Sacred River of the Witches, and we still name our daughters Sabrina in her honor.) As it happens, we can make both an archaeological and a genetic case for continuity of both population and culture between them and the Keltic Dobunni, who lived in the same area. According to novelist Parke Godwin, Artos the Bear—him that the cowans call King Arthur—was himself a Dobunni lad. J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to one of his sons, claimed Hwiccan ancestry (from Wychwood, no less: the "forest of the Hwicce"). Some of my own family hail from that part of the world, for what it's worth.

So the historical Tribe of Witches (or Whitches) was a mixed people, Keltic and Anglian, just as the modern Wheel of the Year (for example) is a mixture of Keltic and Germanic. Well.

Now, tribes are interesting things. You can be born into a tribe, but that's not the only way to belong. You can marry in, you can adopt in, you can initiate in, or you can enculturate in.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I finally got a copy of "The Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce" by Stephen J. Yeates. It was interesting.
Why Does the God of the Witches Wear Antlers?

 “...for witchcraft is as the sin of rebellion....”

 

Why does the god of the witches wear antlers?

Well, there are reasons, and reasons. Here's one.

In the a-borning days of the Younger Witchery, soon after Billy the bastard came with his accursed Franks, he made it known that all deer in the realm belonged to the nobles, the Nor-men, and only to them, and that it was now forbidden for anyone else to hunt them. (For this reason, for deer meat, we say, to this day, venison: a Norman word.)

For a yeoman to “poach” a deer, then, meant blinding, or the loss of a hand. You need good eyes to hunt, and two hands to draw a bow.

Let no one think that this stopped us. Since the dawning of days, the Horned gave us deer, which run free and cannot be tamed, to be our food forever.

Like the deer, we People of the Deer run free, and cannot be tamed.

In the old days, the god of the witches, our champion, wore horns of many kinds—bull, goat, ram—and sometimes he still does.

But mostly in our day he wears the antlers of a buck.

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Fain

 “...ye who are fain to sorcery...”

 

There shall ye assemble, ye who are fain to sorcery, yet have not won its deepest secrets: to these shall I teach such things as are yet unknown.

So speaks the Goddess of Witches to her people in Doreen Valiente's foundational masterpiece, The Charge of the Great Mother.

Valiente's evocative phrase is based, nearly word-for-word, on Charles Leland's English rendering of “Madalena”'s Tuscan text: She who fain would learn all sorcery yet has not won its deepest secrets, them [ i.e. the deepest secrets] my mother [i.e. the Goddess of Witches] will teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown.

Fain. Already in 1899, when Leland published his Aradia: the Gospel of the Witches, fain read archaically, mysteriously.

Don't confuse it with fane: that means “temple,” from the Latin fanum. Nor (speaking of homonyms) is it the same as feign, “pretend, fabricate” (< French feindre). (Which is not to say [snarkiness alert] that we all haven't met some who are feign to sorcery.)

No, fain is a good Old English word. In the dialect of the Hwicce, the original Anglo-Saxon Tribe of Witches, faegen (pronounced, more or less, fain) meant “glad, joyful, rejoicing.” (The Old Norse cognate, feginn, means “joy” tout court.)

As a verb, fain means “to rejoice in, enjoy; to take to gladly.” As an adjective, fain is “disposed, inclined or eager toward, willing.”

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Stallion of Three Tails: A Fantasia on Historical Themes

 You are a Stallion, lord, greatly to be praised:

worthy of sacrifice, lord of life and death.

(Ceisiwr Serith)

 

Among the more interesting titles of the God of the Witches is “Stallion of Three Tails.”

The three-tailed stallion features prominently on the coinage of the Dobunni, the Keltic people ancestral to the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce, Stephen P. Yeates' “Tribe of Witches.” Yeates suggests that this figure—in effect, the symbol of the Dobunnic people—represents the tribe's patronal god.

The god of Witches is well-known for his association with horned animals, but as Lord of Beasts he not infrequently takes the form of other animals as well. The stallion is a well-known symbol of virility and ferocity: equine society centers on the herd-stallion with his “harem” of mares, and woe to the younger stallion who encroaches on the territory of the King of the Herd.

In fact, the stallion is associated with kingship across the Indo-European world, and the sacrifice of a stallion marked the king-making among many Indo-European-speaking peoples, including many Keltic peoples. As the stallion is father to his herd, so the king is—metaphorically, one presumes—father to his people.

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To Those Who Would Ask, “But is It Historical?”

 Well now, there's history

and history. And if it were

indeed that we were once

one people, of this-and-so

a time, and this-and-so

a place: now, would that not

be a fine and shining fire

to warm your heart at,

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A Silver Stater of the Dobunni, Circa 30 BCE

 Heads: the diademed Silver Lady,

Mother, looks to the left.

Tails: tails flying, Sire,

the Stallion of Three Tails

gallops to the right.

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In Praise of Cackling

Zombies shamble. Werewolves howl. Witches cackle.

I'm not sure just when witches first began to cackle. Personally, I suspect the cackling witch to be a fairly recent development, perhaps even as late as the “Twentieth” Century. It may even be that we owe our cackling—as with so much else—to the Great Green-Faced Mother of Us All, the immortal St. Margaret Hamilton.

Still, whenever it is that we first began to cackle, we've made the sound our own. You hear “cackle” and you think “witch.” It's pretty delightful to have a verb of one's own.

It was not always thus. “Cackle” is an old word—all the Germanic languages have some version of it—denoting (probably imitatively) the sound made by a hen when she lays an egg.

The ancestors were astute observers of the world around them. If you've ever actually heard a hen cackle, you know what a distinctive sound it is: shrill, brittle, with a note of triumph to it.

The underlying metaphor here, then, is witch : hen. This actually makes a good deal of mythological sense. The sacred bird of the God of Witches is the—well, let me be coy here and say “rooster.” A cock's head figures on the coinage of the Dobunni, the Keltic tribe ancestral to the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce, the original Tribe of Witches. Witches, so they say, are hens to the Devil's cock, cows to the Devil's bull.

Oh, those earthy ancestors.

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