Oh sure, they've been reduced to cartoonish characters, social stereotypes and the de rigueur butt of mother-in-law jokes, but there was a time, boys and girls, when witches - real witches - were both powerful and organized. In those pre- Bewitched days, witches were not a counterculture to be snickered at and marginalized. They were, if anything, a more enlightened, stronger parallel culture to the often atomized, ill-managed, largely illiterate world of mere mortals.
But that was then. Let me, on this eve of Halloween, tell you a story of the cultural height of witchery, a little-known quadrennial gathering of the clans, a chance for witches from around the world to come together in spirited camaraderie to showcase their skills and powers against others who, like them, believed they were the best at their particular craft.
The time was long ago; in Christian time, perhaps the mid-700s. While witchcraft was practiced with zeal around the world, the true hotbed was in the Tyrol area of central Europe. Europe wasn't really Europe then, of course. For most of the world's inhabitants, it was as unknown as darkest Africa was a mere 150 years ago. People's own concept of place rarely expanded beyond a day's walk; their fealty and loyalty stopped at the physical boundaries of whatever petty noble they laboured to keep in the style of the day, their own life coming nowhere near anything that could be called style.
In a word, they were ignorant.
Witches, on the other hand, possessed knowledge and powers unfathomable to those they, by necessity, lived among. They could, if not read, remember the wisdom of those who lived before them. Hence, their neighbours often came to them for help with whatever tribulations were visited upon them by lives lived in filth and darkness. Witches were valued for their ability to heal the sick, both human and animal. This was naturally a two-edged sword. Heal the cow and a witch was treated like a true savior. But if the ministrations and incantations were unsuccessful, the vengeful, unlearned peasants were liable to turn against the witch, fearful in ignorance that the very malady they'd sought help in healing was actually the doing of the very witch who proved powerless to remedy it.
And so, witches cautiously withdrew from the rest of society, such as it was. They became insular and seemingly obsessed with perfecting their powers. They spent long days and weeks and lifetimes practising their craft, repeating their incantations over and over, conjuring for days on end, raising the dead until they emptied the graveyards, becoming... elite.
In the natural course of things, it became only logical for them to seek out others who, like themselves, were totally committed to a witchy life. At first, their gatherings were informal. They'd meet in safe places and boast of their skills. Now, boasting among gifted performers naturally leads to challenges and it wasn't long before one witch would challenge another witch to prove the skill of which she - and occasionally he - boasted. Rising to the taunt, a witch would display her ability at, say, invoking spirits or flying or souring milk. "Ha," another witch would inevitably mock, "You call that conjuring? Watch this." And the other witch would one-up the first.