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.
Things went on like this for centuries; gatherings were loosely organized at best and contests of skill took a backseat to the general camaraderie of just getting down and being witchy. Being only human, despite what the Inquisitors charged, the challenges grew and grew and the contests became spirited, no pun intended. It wasn't long before the witches realized they were on to something and needed to organize these gatherings not just to show off their skills - acts sure to dazzle and awe the peasantry - but to answer the burning question: which witch is best?
So a few of them got together, formed the Witches Organizing Committee, laid down some organizing principles, elected a president for life and hammered out events at which they'd compete for personal glory. The earliest Witch Games, held in a Tyrolean village whose name has been lost to history, took place around 1340. Events included sorcery, magic, spells, conjuring, invoking of spirits, shape-shifting, clairvoyance, flying, astral projection and killing at a distance. It's reported one of the most popular events, becoming invisible, was dropped after the first Games because it was both impossible to judge and because at least one contestant claimed she'd "won" even though it was proven later she wasn't even in attendance.
According to legend, the Games were a success. So much so the WOC president proclaimed them "The best Games ever!" Alas, the witches' timing was not as prescient as their highly-vaunted ability to see the future. A few short years later, Europe was plunged into the Black Plague, killing upwards of half the population. Naturally the witches were blamed for it.
The Games were resurrected in 1480, held again in the Tyrol, considered by then the permanent home of the Witch Games. Again, they were quintessentially successes in individual triumph. And, sadly, again they were ill-timed. It was only six years later that Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, two of the meanest, torch-wielding Inquisitors ever spawned by the One True Religion, published their treatise on persecuting witches, Malleus Maleficarum . With a codified rulebook on identifying, trying and executing witches, that part of Europe became highly hostile and the Games were once again disbanded.
Oddly enough though, the book gave rise to what would become one of the premier events when the modern Witch Games were started up again in the late 18 th century in Coventry, England: crying. Malleus was adamant that, in prosecuting witch trials, women who did not cry were automatically assumed to be witches. Crying became a natural defense to a charge of witchery and in an ironic tweaking of the nose, witches morphed it into an esteemed practice.
Sadly, the modern Games were a mere shadow of their ancient forebears. They fell into steep decline with the advent of strong nation states. Witches who were happy to compete on their own suddenly became representatives of their respective countries. Nations sought false honour in the successes of their resident witches. Seeking an edge, some resorted to subsidizing witches so they could spend all their time training for the Games instead of going about their witchy ways and training in their spare time.
But the real downfall came when the Witch Games caught the eye and imagination of early transnational businessmen. "Hey, we can make a pretty pound off this," they cried. And soon, the Witch Games were more about national pride and money than about the ever-popular sport of, for example, baking children.
And so it goes. Witches today reduced to mere Halloween props, ha!