17 March 2024


Simon Webb. The Origins of Wizards, Witches and Fairies. Pen and Sword Books, 2023

This book contains a mass of information and conjecture; all of it diverting, some of it convincing, much of it discredited. The author takes time (55 pages to be precise) to set the context, and to introduce his wide-ranging selection of traditions, concepts and images common across Northern Europe. 
"All these customs [which] are part of our common cultural inheritance. So pervasive we hardly even notice them". He asks questions and then offers a series of theories to answer them.

He asks what inspired Tolkein and C S Lewis; where do we get the pervasive and instantly-recognisable images of the solitary wandering wizard, of Dwarves, Elves and Fairies, Little People, woodland and water-dwelling deities?

His key and recurring theory is that we should be looking East for our answers, to an ancestral home and people. This theory of common ancestry from the East, of traditions brought by Bronze Age migrants (the Yamnaya) into Northern Europe, is based on tracing linguistic origins, though to my mind scant supporting evidence is offered.

It is a theory of half-remembered stories, oral traditions passed down through time, first formally recorded by the Anglo Saxons. The author draws a fair parallel with Troy and the Trojan Wars, which were historical fact, Troy a real place. That story was so embellished after 'only' 600 years of oral retelling before being written down, it was long assumed to be fiction.

He picks an eclectic series of common threads and examines them in turn. Some tasters follow.

The European tendency to create gods in their own image. Gods who take human form and walk the earth unrecognised, often as beggars. A child with mysterious parentage. The author is not a big fan of Christianity, and cites King Arthur, but there are similar Biblical examples - Moses, Isaiah - the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger /traveller, in case it is Isaiah -  even Jesus himself. Or a human elevated to the status of a god, like Julius Caesar.

The recurring 'Rule of Three' (Francis Young, in Twilight of the Godlings, notes this as a particularly British obsession). 'Christmas' traditions in Northern Europe which are claimed to have origins with the Norse Gods. Putting shoes and stockings out for gifts; food for Santa's reindeer (the bearer of the deity).

The recurring idea of a sacrifice in exchange for wishes. Odin, exchanging his eye for wisdom. Customs we are all familiar with - placing a lost tooth under the pillow, exchanged by the fairies for a coin. Throwing coins into a well or fountain and making a wish. Blessing a ship with a bottle of champagne.

These last practices also hark back to veneration of water sources (another particularly British obsession). Remains have been found of piers and platforms built out into the water for religious purposes, sometimes with valuable offerings such as 'sacred' swords in the water nearby. [1] And then there are the peat or bog bodies, who the author claims were ritually drowned, not just unfortunate travellers who took a wrong path. I was particularly interested in the reference to the Dagenham Idol, [left] a breathtakingly ancient wooden devotional object found in the mud by the River Thames. My own grandfather found a precious golden torc in the same area in the 1930s, which may have also been intended as a watery offering.

Simon Webb describes fairies as potentially dangerous if crossed, and not tiny, more child-sized; dressed in natural colours. The theory he then offers for the origins of fairies and the Little People is primitive Neolithic forebears, earlier occupiers of the land, who were displaced by the invaders from the East. Still, or until recent times, living hidden in the margins of society, camouflaged into the landscape, stealing foods, tools which they were unable to make for themselves and babies to boost their gene pool. This theory is enticing, but is not new and has been soundly discredited by other authors, including Francis Young.

One area where the author does not try to make a case for continuity of folk memory from ancient times is wizardry and witchcraft. Paganism and Wicca are dismissed as modern re-inventions, not echoes of old practices and beliefs. He highlights ancient discoveries of ceremonial items that we nowadays associate with witches and wizards such as wands/staffs and cauldrons and identifies them as originally symbols of plenty.

Roman and Celtic beliefs were not always in conflict, he offers the example of Bath; dedicated to Sulis (Celtic) Minerva (Roman). This cultural appropriation of local gods ended with Judeo-Christian exclusivity, the idea of the 'One God', and with it the (regrettable to the author?) bans on magic, fortune-telling and mediums.

Interestingly, the author observes that the well-known Christian ploy of demonising the old gods extends to how the popular image of the devil is localised to resemble the gods originally worshipped in that region. The Southern European /Middle Eastern devil resembles Baal: human-like with wings and a thunderbolt. Whereas in Northern Europe the devil is more Pan-like: with horns, a tail, and cloven hooves.

The author devotes a sobering section of the book to the perverse continuation of some of these 'quaint' traditions and practices. Staking bodies at crossroads, especially murderers and suicides, continued into the 19th century. Even more disquieting are accounts of ritual sacrifices and lynchings; killing a human being, possibly branded as a witch or wizard, to break a curse, to appease the fairies, or to restore a good harvest. Who can forget the Wicker Man film?. He recounts the unsettling tale of Bridget Cleary - you can look it up for yourselves, or read the book! [2] Primitive ideas persisting into in the 'enlightened' modern era.

He looks at the Victorian-era Romantic revival of a yearning for the magical realm in Britain and Germany, with legends of King Arthur and the building of fantastic fairy-tale castles, yet much Nazi ideology was a sinister consequence of this fad.

Just think, next time you throw a coin and make a wish, you are copying your Bronze Age ancestors.
  • Carol Carlile

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