Tuesday 26 May 2009

Night Witches

Flying witches have long been part of popular consciousness. In The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe Brian Levack points out two roots to this belief. The first, traceable to classical times, was that women could transform themselves at night into screech owls or strigae, who would devour infants. These night witches are to be found across time and across cultures, from Germany in pre-Roman times to modern Africa.

The second belief was that women went out on a night hunt with the Diana, goddess of the chase the moon and the night, often identified with Hecate, goddess of magic and the underworld. In Medieval Germany Diana often takes on the additional guise as Holda or Percheta, who could be both nurturing and terrifying. It was Holda who was held to lead a ‘furious horde’ of those who died prematurely through the night sky.

Belief in these night witches was so widespread that it even made its way into the Canon Episcopi, a set of instructions written in the tenth century by Regino of Prum that eventually became part of canon law. The Canon specifically singles out;

…some wicked women, perverted by the devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons…believe and profess themselves in the hours of night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth an to obey her commands as their mistress and to be summoned on her service on certain nights.

And so it went on. In the Second World War the Russian female pilots, who flew over the German defences in the dark, were so effective in unsettling the enemy that they were known as, yes, you guessed it, Night Witches!


  1. I just noticed last night that a comment had appeared on my last post and I thought, "I don't remember authorising any comment". Of course, I'd forgotten that authors of the blog don't need to have their comments authorised.

    I've neglected the blog; I've been writing a couple of posts but I haven't got them past edit stage yet.

    Feel free to post something, anything (recipe, joke, poem, whatever). I was wondering what happened to your nuptial plans and political aspirations..I would have emailed but I didn't want to be pushy.

    I actually considered copying some of your stuff from Wikipedia and posting it as a sort of tribute site. Looks like you had the idea in principle also. I've discovered in detail what an uphill battle it is to actually entice people to read a blog and I really ought to revive it out of respect for those who have bothered.

    I'm just a li-i-itle puzzled by something...you don't seem quite to be the Anastasia I was acquainted with...

  2. Ah, Retarius, that Anastasia was obliged to lay down some false trails for reasons she would rather not discuss. This is me, the real me, as you will discover. No need for false trails; no need to shake off repellent stalkers; much more confident in every way. :-)) Ana

  3. I remembered that I wrote this and came back to see if you'd replied here..boy did I have a job finding it..(I don't use email notification for replies.)

    By all the gods you can write! And in spare moments??!!! I couldn't believe how much material had piled on top of this post in the past few weeks.

    And so much of it looks interesting too..I'll never find enough hours to read even half of it :( You surely seem keen on the witches..I thought you looked a bit witchy sitting on Jim Morrison's tomb (That was you wasn't it?)

  4. Yes, in spare moments, all in the cracks of my time! Oh, Retarius, I could tell you so much about witchcraft, things I could not reveal on Wikipedia. Yes, that's me, witchy and fatal. :-))