Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Etymology of "Witch" and witches

I was brewing beer late last night since it is the season for brewing and hunting, which I do happily.

As I was boiling a large kettle of wort, I thought about how this was done in ancient times, surprisingly or not the domain of women.  In almost every beer society brewing was done by women, probably older women.  Later on Christian monks assumed much of the market and still later, professional guilds.

The symbolism of older women brewing over large black cauldrons goes back at least to the Bronze Age.  That got me thinking about the original "craft" and the interesting etymologies of the word "witch" in Western Indo-European languages.

Here's some possible, non-linguist etymologies for various Western words for "witch", just for fun. 


De Lamiis et Phitonicis Mulieribus, 1493 [Cornell]

In the Iberian Romantic languages, a witch is called a bruja or bruxa [bru-ha], which could very simply descend from Proto-Indo-European brewwaną.  These may descend from Celtiberian or a more basal collection of pre-Celtic languages in the Peninsula.

Non-Iberian Romantic languages use the pure latin form of the striga, from which Italian Strega descends.  The etymology of this word originates most likely with strix, the screech-owl and possibly a sacred grove.  If you know anything about Late Neolithic symbolism, this should raise your antennas plenty.

It would suggest that the imagery of witches or priestesses in Southern Europe (Italy) never decoupled from Late Neolithic oculados or owl imagery.  This connection between a mother goddess represented by the Omega symbol, Owl imagery and Beer creationism has some non-random parallels elsewhere.

Two Basque words for witch are sorgin and beragin.  The Basque etymological dictionary suggests origins meaning [to give life + maker] and [grass + maker] respectively.  Basically, you have roots for sorcery and beer + maker.  (obviously a non-IE language)

Germanic languages use the word wicce [witch].  Wicce could descend directly from Proto-Indo-European, to mean to bend, modify or change.  Convenient because she is a shapeshifter, or does conversion mean fermentation, which curiously denotes a process after the boil?  When you try and unscramble the egg with the very complicated sound changes in Pre-Pt Germanic, more possibilities come to the surface.

Pitch, as to pitch yeast during brewing descends from PIE pech which variously gave us words for pitch, as a plant resin used to modify, also pitcher as a small beaker for drinking (not for pouring koolaid) or for black.  The word bitch possibly also descends from pech as describing a she-wolf or a whorish woman, which may have frozen in Lappish pittja.

In Irish, Welsh and Scottish there are several words for witch/hag/wretch that have meanings that are curious.  Báirseach and cailleach are two words in Irish referring to witches.  A direct etymology is possible for the first (beer + leach) or (maid + leach).  The proper name would be Cailleach Bhéara or Cailleach Bheur.  The mash process (or the conversion) is basically when sweet liquor is leached from the barely mash.  The proper etymology refers to a place where witches reside, however looks like beer to me.  Whatever. 


I would imagine that within the social framework of early cereal cultivating societies that beer brewing often fell to older women.  Brewing beer may have earned them a place in society that they otherwise wouldn't have had.  Since beer was not hopped originally, other interesting herbal adjuncts (in addition to the ones we already know about) may have given beer other mystical effects that truly made them witch's brew.

**Update 12/14 - I was watching a program on early Scandinavian brewers using brewing 'magic sticks' kept in cool places to maintain yeast cells.  This works in a cool climate with lager yeast, itself probably native to Northern Europe.  I haven't found a clear answer to how top feeding beer (ale) yeast cultures were maintained in warmer climates.  It seems a starter may have been made using old bread or old wort, more likely.  Wild yeast seems less likely, however the wild yeast of Europe may be more suitable that my ruined American beers.

Along with "pitch", the word "beaker", as in glockenbecher or klokbeker, also descends from pech.  In non-largering regions, pitching the yeast may have been somewhat similar to what we do now with a starter, which is pitched into the wort.

A history of the study on etymology for Old English wicce is given in Anatoly Liberman's book on English etymologies [beginning on page 215].  Excite, stir, one-who-knows, modify, change.  All words proposed as meanings of the original word.

7 comments:

  1. The stereotypical witch's hat is very akin to that worn by Tocharian women in the Tarim Basin and probably by other women of the South Eurasian Steppe, suggesting that witches were associated with the Indo-European superstrate population.

    Also notably, all of the places where you provide a "witch" etymology are places where the Indo-European languages probably arrived ca. 1300 BCE or later, rather than ca. 2000 BCE as they did in the Eastern part of the Indo-European range.

    This suggests that it may not have merely been old women in grain societies, but Indo-European old women who had access to superior Indo-European metal work facilitating brewing, like large iron cauldrons, who gained the association as witches that was passed down in collective legendary history. These old women might have been not just brewers but priestesses in Indo-European society dispensing the Indo-European paganism that replaced the religion and culture of Old Europe.

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    1. Also, there are words in Celtic that also have a root with the word 'owl' as in latin 'Striga'. That Italo-Celtic connection with owls, beer, moon, omega and mother goddess has parallels elsewhere.

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  2. According to linguist Roslyn Frank (private conversations), Spanish "brujo" ("warlock" and by extension its femenine form "bruja" = "witch") should come from Basque buruzai, meaning leader. This has nothing to do with the genuine Basque word for witch, which is sorgin, from sor-gin = creator, which is genderless but usually applied to women.

    Per Basque mythology, which is clearly at the origin of many "witch" related symbols like the black he-goat (documented as deity since Aquitano-Roman times but mythologically rather an animal icon of the Goddess Mari = Gaia), sorginak (witches) are both spiritual beings (and as such aides of Mari) and human beings - and as such surely "priestesses" of the old religion, which was a gender-dualistic monotheism similar to Shiva-Sakhtism or Daoism, or also the primitive gods described by Hesiod emerging from Chaos: Gaia and Eros (notice that Gaia is a word that makes total sense in Basque, meaning: matter, substance but also ability/potential: "gai izan" = "be able", "ezkon-gai" = "marriage-able" = "bride/groom", etc.).

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  3. Note: Belagin (=beragin) would translate as herbalist. Grass and herb are called similarly in both Basque (belar, bedar) and Spanish (hierba). Sorgin seems to translate literally as "creator" (sortu = to create) but it may well be related to birthgiving, in which case it could just mean midwife.

    While sorginak are most commonly perceived as humans (typically but not always women), some mythology supports a double role as mythical servants of goddess Mari, what surely imply some ancient religious role. In some legends they are associated with selfish sorcery, in most with pagan celebrations (akelarre=sabbat) but occasionally they appear imparting social justice against those who cheat the community.

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    1. The most likely origin of the word 'witch' is Welsh gwich: a shrill noise; a crack, a crash; a squak or squeal; the weazand. (Owen-Pughe dictionary). The first witches in Britain and Ireland were necromantesses who in initating the spirit of the dead who possessed them would squeak and gibber like bats and rodents. Homer in The Oyssey describes the dead as squeaking and gibbering. Not enough homage is given to Welsh as the real origin of many British words and phrases.

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    2. I think it's highly likely that "mom" and "dad" are Brythonic vestiges, and probably other family ties as well.

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