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. This word descends from Proto-Indo-European streyg (line) and includes in its descendants the word 'strike'.
I'm curious if streyg is related to another dark PIE work stug- or steu- from which the river Styx derives its name, being a gloomy boundary between worlds. The root of that word suggests striking as well. Maybe the image of primeval claden black, old flying crones "daughters of the Earth and night" derive from a particular conception of the Erinyes or Furies, having a special association with Athena.
To make this fully circular and removed from any sort of logic and accountability, the etymology of Erinyes is suspiciously interesting as to suggest 'raise, stir and excite', which is also a title of Demeter, mother of Persephone and giver of life a cereal corn.
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.