Deep in the heart of Somerset, not far from Glastonbury, lies a system of limestone caves known as Wookey Hole. If local folklore is to be believed, these caves were once home to a malevolent witch. But was there ever such a witch? Is there any truth behind the myth?
The legend that you can see reported on the Wookey Hole website is a common version of the story.
In medieval times these caves became the lair of an evil witch. Cattle sickened and died, crops failed, some people even disappeared under sinister circumstances. People began to suspect that there were dark forces at work. And the locals were increasingly convinced that the much feared witch of Wookey Hole was to blame.
Desperate, the locals sent to nearby Glastonbury Abbey for aid. The Abbott duly despatched a monk, Father Barnard, to investigate. On entering the caves, the good Father soon found himself confronted by the witch. She tried to curse him, but God’s power preserved him from harm. Taking some water from the River Axe, as it flowed through the caves, he blessed it and sprinkled it over the witch. As he did so he made the sign of the cross and recited the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer).
The witch let out a blood curdling scream and then fell suddenly silent. The holy water turned her to stone. A sinister looking stone ‘statue’ can still be seen in the caves today, commonly referred to as the Witch stone. Thus, the witch was vanquished and the surrounding countryside freed from her dark curses.
(In case you are wondering, this stone is in fact a strangely-shaped stalagmite.)
The History of the Witch
There are other versions of the tale, but all follow the same basic theme. It is an old story. But what are its origins? And what truth (if any) is there in it?
If we look for references to Wookey Hole in the historic record, we find it was clearly regarded as a special place during medieval times. Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies it as one of the four wonders of Britain in his Historia Anglorum of the 1130s.
Sixteenth century documents refer to it, at that time, as Owky or Ochie-Hole. Camden’s Britannia of 1586 identifies it as a place associated with many old tales and compares it to the caves of the Apennine Sibyl. The Sibyl was supposedly an ancient pagan oracle dwelling in a lost cave high in the Italian Sibillini mountains. Camden’s makes no specific mention of any witch, but it is easy enough to see the implied connection between pagan oracles and witchcraft.
The first definitive reference to a witch appears in 1628, in a collection of manuscripts compiled by Bulstrode Whitlock. Here, he identifies the famous stone feature as ‘the witch of Ochies Hole’.
More detailed and complete versions of the story start appearing from this time onwards. By the mid-eighteenth century we can find written versions of the legend like those commonly in circulation today.
Herbert Ernest Balch was an archaeologist and a keen caver in the early C20th. In 1906 he began an archaeological study of the caves. During this work, he uncovered finds of pottery, weapons, ornaments, and coinage, showing that the caves had been in use in pre-Roman times.
In 1912 he found a skeleton which dated back to medieval times (the eleventh century). It can currently be seen on display in the Wells and Mendip Museum. At the time, it was thought that it could be the skeleton of a real witch of Wookey Hole. Perhaps, we are invited to speculate, such a person was indeed living a hermit-like existence in the caves in medieval times.
.Of course, the skeleton does not exactly tie in with the legend (where the witch is supposedly turned to stone). However, it’s not implausible to speculate that a hermit may have lived in the caves, practising folk magic in early medieval times. Could this be the truth behind the myth?
Subsequent forensic analysis has revealed that it is the skeleton of a 25 – 35-year-old man. Not the evil hag of the legend then. Although, one might argue, it may only be our cultural presumptions that lead us to assume the witch was female.
In 2007, a detailed archaeological study of Wookey Hole revealed numerous ‘witch marks’ in the third chamber. They appear mainly in the vicinity of a feature known as the witch’s chimney. These curious markings had previously been dismissed as graffiti. However, they are now thought to be protective markings, designed as wards against witchcraft and malign satanic forces.
Many take the form of what looks like a capital W or its inverse, a capital M. Some of these marks are thought to signify Latin phrases designed to ward off evil. For example, the W symbol is believed to represent a double conjoined ‘V’. It stands for Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins) and its magical function was likely intended to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary. Other symbol combinations might have been intended to invoke the protection of Christ.
Markings of this sort were in common use between around 1550 and 1750 at the very height of the European witch hysteria. Of course, their use was itself a form of magic – a magical protection against malign forces. That being the case, we have firm evidence for the presence of people practicing protective magic in the caves during the early modern period. The people who made these markings were attempting to ward off malign spirits, demons and any witches who might be in league with them.
William of Worcester
We have one other significant account of Wookey Hole from the medieval period, aside from Monmouth. It was written by William of Worcester, following a visit to the caves in 1480.
William tells us that medieval visitors to the caves were in the habit of addressing one of the more distinctive rocks near to the entrance. This rock was known to the locals as the Porter, and it was the accepted custom to ask the Porter’s permission before entering the caves. William goes on to describe the stalagmite now commonly referred to as the witch. However, he makes no mention of the witch. Instead, he describes it as follows:
“…the figure of a woman clothed and spinning with what is called in English a distaff held beneath her girdle.”William of Worcester
Not a witch then – just an ordinary woman.
Furthermore, William tells us, a natural well lying deep within the caves was considered a holy well at this time.
So, what happened? How is it that an ordinary woman, busy at her spinning, became a witch? And how is it that a place with a holy well became associated with malign supernatural perils? What had changed between William’s visit in 1480 and the first recorded reference to the Witch of Okies Hole of 1628?
“Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live”
If you read a King James Bible, you will find it mandates the death penalty for witchcraft:
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”Exodus, 22:18
However, this is an early modern English translation (from the early seventeenth century). This is not a biblical teaching that would have been familiar to any medieval Catholic. The medieval Church used the Vulgate Bible, which was a Latin translation. In the Vulgate, Exodus 22:18 was translated differently:
“maleficos non patieris vivere”Exodus, 22:18
This would equate to something like “thou shalt not suffer an evil witch to live”. The clue is in the word ‘maleficos’ which relates to the word ‘maleficia’ meaning ‘evil deeds’.
Clearly the way in which the early modern world chose to regard magic and witchcraft was more absolute and inflexible in its condemnation than the earlier medieval world.
Even as William of Worcester was setting quill to paper, the world around him was changing.
For most of the Middle Ages the practice of magic was regarded by the Church as a relatively minor problem. Magic, in fact, was widely practiced throughout the Middle Ages by all sections of society, including many clerics. A significant number of common spells blended Christian liturgy with magical incantations. This made it hard, in some cases, to distinguish spells from prayers. Is a man who recites excerpts from a psalm to protect his cattle from disease praying or casting a spell? At what point does a prayer cease to be a prayer and become a spell?
The Church nevertheless disapproved of magic, associating it with pagan superstition. Anyone who confessed to its practice would be required to do penance. However, there was no systematic persecution of witches during the Middle Ages. Very few people were subjected to capital punishment for practising magic unless they were also guilty of other crimes. The Church Inquisition’s official policy was to ignore witchcraft except where overt heresy was also involved. Indeed, in England, no law against witchcraft existed at any time during the Middle Ages.
However, by the late Middle Ages these attitudes were in the process of changing.
Forms of Medieval Magic
Most people who practiced magic in medieval times, practiced it casually. Common forms of ‘magic’ might include herbal remedies over which a simple spell might be cast, or perhaps you might know a simple charm against sickness. A local midwife might know a few spells of this sort. However, she was very unlikely to be a ‘vocational’ witch. She was just an ordinary working woman who acted as the local midwife and occasionally brewed an herbal remedy or two. She probably spent most of her time spinning with her distaff and making woollen cloth to sell.
However, there was also what we might call ‘learned’ magic. This was different. Learned magic involved more complex magic rituals and spells recited in Latin. It might even require complex astrological calculations to be undertaken. This form of magic required a formal education, time, and expense. Hence it was most often practiced by wealthier individuals who’d received a clerical education (i.e. mostly all men). Only a minority of learned magic practitioners truly dabbled in darker forms of magic – ritual necromancy and demonology. And, unsurprisingly, it was this latter form of magic that was of greatest concern to the Church.
Heresy and Witchcraft
The primary concern of the medieval Church (and the primary focus of its Inquisition) was on rooting out heresy, not witchcraft. However, medieval trials of heresy, especially when directed against a group such as the Templars, often padded out the charges of heresy with other charges such as sexual perversion and the practice of darker forms of magic.
The first significant witch persecution, on any scale, occurred in Valais, in Switzerland in 1428. What had begun as a persecution of Waldensian heretics, morphed into a persecution of ‘witches’. In this instance the witches concerned were not only accused of maleficos but also of murder, heresy and entering pacts with the Devil. A few were even accused of being werewolves!
What was new about this witch hunt was firstly its sheer scale and secondly the connections being made between magical practice and diabolical pacts. It was also innovative in so far as the Valais persecutions implied an insidious widespread conspiracy of devil worshippers, organising themselves into secret covens.
However, there was still one crucial difference between the Valais witch trials and those of the early modern period. Two-thirds of the Valais witches were male. Female witches, at least at this time, were in the minority. But this would change.
In 1487, two German Church Inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published Malleus Maleficarum. It sought to forge a coherent narrative around many of the prejudices and paranoias that had been festering over the course of the fifteenth century.
Malleus created an effective manual of witchcraft that would provide the witch hunters of the early modern period with a template for persecution. Most notably it defined and described witchcraft in a way that irrevocably and directly associated it with devil worship and evil.
Malleus warned the Christian world that witchcraft was, in fact, a far greater threat than have previously been supposed. Contrary to what many people still believed in the late fifteenth century, Malleus asserted:
- That witchcraft and devil worship were intimately interconnected.
- That all forms of magic, however harmless they might appear, drew their power and inspiration directly from Satan.
- Anyone who practiced magic was therefore also, by definition, in league with the Devil.
- And that, finally, contrary to what many people of the time imagined, most witches were women (who, according to Malleus, were more prone to vices of this sort than men).
In 1487 this was radical thinking indeed. It certainly did not represent the mainstream view of the Church. However, it reflected a growing paranoid radicalism that was spreading across Christendom. Malleus simply codified it and, thanks to the invention of the printing press, promoted it widely across Europe.
The Witch and the Dragon
Malleus and the hysteria it inspired created the definitive image of the ‘evil witch’ in the European psyche. This witch practised black magic, made pacts with demons, met in secret covens, performed horrific black sabbaths, practiced human sacrifice and even cannibalism. She became a symbol for the personification of satanic evil.
Hence, during the early modern period, whenever Europeans thought of malign satanic forces, the image of the witch increasingly came to mind. This was new.
If we look at medieval myths and legends in which evil and satanic forces are encountered, they rarely appear in the form of a witch such as Malleus envisaged. They might appear in the form of demons, as you’d expect. However, when evil magic is involved, the protagonist is often male. Even when the protagonist is a female Enchantress (such as Morganna Le Fey), her magic is portrayed as fey and pagan rather than black and satanic. Certainly dangerous, pagan, fey and even diabolic but not so overtly or purely satanist.
When medieval writers wanted to represent a truly evil satanic power, they often favoured myths that featured dragons. It was the dragon rather than the witch that most closely evoked an image of the Devil in the medieval mind. After all, Satan had assumed the form of the Great Dragon in the book of Revelation.
The Iconography of Evil
The transition from medieval to early modern also saw a transition in the way Europeans regarded malign forces closely associated with Satan. In the Middle Ages the primary image of satanic evil had been the dragon, spewing forth infernal flames or insidious, plague bearing poisons. But in early modern Europe the primary image of satanic evil became the witch.
This shift in the iconography of evil provides us with important clues as to the origins of old folk myths. Folk myths in which satanic evil is personified in the form of a dragon are far more likely to be authentically medieval in origin. However, folk myths that feature the classic image of the Satan worshipping black witch are far more likely early modern or later in origin.
In the case of the Witch of Wookey Hole, we are almost certainly looking at a folk myth that originated in the sixteenth century.
A New Mythology of Evil
The transformation of William of Worcester’s spinning woman of 1480 into Whitlock’s witch of 1628 encapsulates this change with frightening clarity. For the medieval man, the Wookey Hole stalagmite reminded him of an ordinary spinning woman. In the eyes of the early modern man, only 150 years later, that same stalagmite was a witch.
The change in the way this rock was viewed was symptomatic of a changed mythology of evil. The real tragedy was that this new mythology had very serious consequences for real women as well as stalagmites.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading some of our other articles concerning medieval myths and legends:
Keep up to date with our stories:
If you like reading our work and would like to keep up to date with the latest stories and news from our blog page, you can follow us on Facebook. We always announce any news and promote new stories as they are published here:
References and further reading
Cover image of the Witch of Wookey Hole – A Visit to the Witch 1882 Edward F Brewtnall (Wiki Commons)
Father Barnard confronting the witch – cropped from the New York Public Library Digital Collections, taken from the Legends of Britain, series 50, Churchman’s cigarette cards.
Skeleton in Wells and Mendip Museum: photo by RodW (Wiki Commons)
Torturing and execution of witches in medieval miniature C14th (from Wiki Commons)
Malleus Maleficarum front page – J. Sprenger and H. Institutoris, Wellcome collection (Wiki Commons)