Part I: Legendary Accounts

Copyright 2000 Max Dashu

A significant legend about early Germanic witches appears in the History of the Goths, written around 570 by a Gothic christian named Jornandes or Jordanes. It says that king Filimer, while conducting a survey of Gothic customs, discovered the existence among his people of witches called haliorunnae.

The king was hostile toward these haliorunnae, wrote Jornandes, and banished them to the distant reaches of Scythia in order to remove their influence from the tribe. This implies that the haliorunnae were well regarded by a significant number of Goths. The meaning of their title bears this out: the Gothic language itself named these priestesses after the "holy mysteries." [Baroja, Lea, Grimm, et alia] The existence of priestesses among the pagan Goths is borne out by a runic inscription at Pietroassa referring to the Guntaniovihalig, a holy treasure in their keeping. [Boyer, 625]

Jornandes' account claims that the Huns sprang from the halorunnae, fathered by evil spirits wandering the steppes. In spite of the pejoratives attached to the haliorunnae by rulers and christian recorders, the name survived in Germanic culture. The name appears in early medieval manuscripts as Alyrunae and Alarinas. [Grimm, 210] Folklore connected it with the witch-herb mandrake and cave-dwelling spinner goddesses.

Magyar Stories about the aliorunna

Hungarian tradition preserved its own version of the Gothic rune-women, conflated with medieval faery-mistress themes. A 19th-century poem, "The Stag" by Arany János, gives its outlines. The beautiful chieftainess Ened had two sons, Hunor and Magwor. They hunted a stag which got them lost in the forest. There they saw the aliorunna dancing, feasting and doing magic. The brothers abducted these faeries, who held aloof for a time, but finally reconciled with them.

They became the ancestors of the Huns. After a time, the group that became the Magyars separated from the others in their wanderings. The legacy of the priestess-ancestors was that magic and beauty would pass down through the female line, but the boys would be stocky and bowlegged. Tradition assured Hungarian girls that because they were descended from these faeries, they inherited a certain superiority over the boys. [Z Budapest, personal communication, 10/6/95]

Czech Witches Ruled

The Czechs preserved a legend that witches governed their country before women were deposed from power. The three daughters of the first chief Krok, said to have founded a school of pagan wisdom, mastered this knowledge and were chosen to succeed him.

libusche with birch bundleKazi (also called Brelum) "knew the healing powers of various herbs and plants and the use of magic incantations and she treated the sick from far and wide." [Jirasek, 7] Teta (Tekta, Tecka) was a pagan priestess, a diviner who could locate lost or stolen things. Libushe, the youngest sister, was a prophetic sibyl with a vast knowledge of witchcraft. It was she who was chosen as the Czech leader at Krok's death in 690.

Libushe judged cases sitting on a rug-covered platform under a linden tree. A man who had lost a land dispute bellowed out a challenge to her authority, holding the Czech men up as an international laughingstock: "Where else does a woman rule over men, except here?" None of them spoke up to defend the priestess. She then called an assembly of the clans and told them to choose a duke whom she would marry. She warned her people that they were giving up compassionate government for lordship:

You did not appreciate the freedom that I gave you... You want a man, a duke who will take away your children to serve him, who will choose the best of your cattle and horses for taxes according to his whims. [Jirasek, 9-10]

The Czechs elected the man Libushe had chosen, directing them to follow her white horse to a field where Premysl labored at the plow. The new duke told the Czechs that he and his descendents would rule them with a rod of iron. Though he made harsh laws, Libuscha still retained great authority. One evening she fell into a trance and prophesied the rise of Prague, instructing the Czechs where to build its founding castle. She also foretold where various minerals would be mined: "The voice of the gods will speak through me/To show what is hidden deep down in the earth."

The old priestess often resorted to a deep riverine pool beneath a cliff. While "gazing into the swirling stream" Libushe saw troubling visions of the country's future because of that same mineral wealth. She prophesied villages in flames, battles of "brother against brother" as foreigners came to dominate the country. Libushe sent her son's cradle to the depths of the Vltava river, saying that it would reappear as an omen of Czech recovery from this conflict. Kazi died and was buried in a mound in southern Bohemia. Teta too was buried on a sacred hill. Then at last Libushe died. Her treasure remained hidden in the rock. [Jirasek, 12-17]

After Libushe's death, the women saw that they were no longer respected by the men, who heaped ridicule on them. The women took up arms, led by Libushe's chosen successor Vlasta. They built the maiden castle Devín, saying, "Let the women rule while the men attend to the fields!" Women came from all over, leaving their husbands to fill up Devín castle and swearing to be faithful to each other.

The men continued to mock, but Premysl was worried by recurring dreams of a male defeat. The men marched to Devín castle. The women rode out on horseback to meet them. Vlasta roused them with the knowledge that they would be slaves if defeated. Her companions Mlada, Svatava, Hodka, Radka and Chastava fought by her side. The men stopped laughing as hundreds of them were cut down. The rest fled into the forest.

This war went on for a long time. The women stuck together, sending out spies and laying traps for the men. A male party found Sharka tied to a tree, claiming that the amazons had taken her by force from her father and had placed mead and a bugle out of her reach. The men helped themselves to the wine and then drunkenly blew the horn. An army of women descended and killed them. (Sharka valley is named after this Czech amazon.) In the end, Vlasta was separated from her warriors and picked off, leading to the women's defeat and the razing of their castle. [Jirasek, 18-21]

In Baroja's version of this legend, "women had become so accustomed to directing affairs that they refused to submit to the rule of men again." Vlasta appealed to them to take power, declaring her own witch powers to be like those of the three sisters, and the women agreed with her. Baroja says that Vlasta gave them a potion to make them hate men and war against them, beseiging Premysl in his castle. [Baroja, 50-1]

The Czech Amazon legend directly connects witches' powers to female political sovereignty before written history. The tradition is a historical memory of shamanic offices held by women among the tribal Czechs, who opposed lordship, took women's part and were in turn supported by them. The theme of their struggle against Przemislaw speaks to this. The legend interprets witchcraft as a repository of female power which women used to resist male domination.

Julio Caro Baroja writes that the women ruled for seven years before Przemislaw regained control of the government. The legend inverted the prevailing order of male dominance and violence toward women, portraying a female attempt at public power as a war against men by women who have magically become man-haters. It functioned as a justification for the suppression of women's political power during the Przemislad dynasty.

Lords Attacking Priestesses

Several centuries later, oral tradition in the Celtic west of Europe alludes to warlord attacks on priestesses. In many legends, hostility is directed at demonized forms of the crone goddess, but other myths refer directly to desecration of woman-led communal sanctuaries.

An medieval Irish legend presents Erne, "free from venom," as the leader of a company of women "who knew no art of wounding." This priestess is the guardian of magical talismans of the goddess Medb: "her comb, her casket unsurpassed, with her fillet of red gold." (Abraham Brown pointed out that the word translated here as "casket" is críol, the chalice of the goddess which later became the Holy Grail.) "Women not a few obeyed her will." These divine maidens live in "thick-wooded Rath Cruachu."

The warrior Olcai threatens the women and causes them to flee under the lake waters. The legend explained how lake Erne came to be named after a priestess of a forest sanctuary. [Condren, 70] In another version, a king carries off one of the maidens, prompting Erne and her women to go live in a palace under the lake.

Other stories of sexual attacks on holy women entered medieval French literature by way of Breton tradition. The Elucidation describes a wave of rapes and looting that drove away the priestesses of holy wells, who once provided drinks of the blessed water to all comers.

The maidens generally served well and gladly all those who wandered along the roads and came for food to the well. King Amangons broke this custom first, who was evil and wicked... he did violence to one of the maidens, against her will he violated her, and took away from her the golden cup and carried it off with him. Then he caused himself to be served out of it. Well ought misfortune to come to him. Therefore never maiden served nor issued from the well for any traveller that came there and sought for food... The other vassals of the court, when they saw their lord's behavior... all the others did violence to them and took away the cups of gold. Never any more from the wells did appear maidens, nor did they serve any more...

The legend indicates that the rapes were not isolated incidents, but a pattern of attack by aristocratic men that destroyed a social institution of priestesses at sacred wells. There is no dating this cultural sea-change, though it could well have resulted from the breakdown of inviolability of pagan shrines during christianization. As the old religion fell, the old taboos against violence in sanctuary were overridden, and new taboos came into being, such as those forbidding females to approach certain holy wells. Numerous Irish legends refer to christian monks barring women from wells, or women divinely punished for transgressing sanctions (some involving female chastity, others forbidding them from opening the well) by being drowned in the waters.

But even in the 12th century, when the Elucidation and other legends were written down in the Grail cycle, the tellers still imagined divine reprisals against those who blasphemed against the animist holy places. The waters dried up, plants ceased to sprout and flower, and the meadows and forests shrivelled away. The theme of the wasteland in Celtic literature grows from this violation of the life-nurturers and the goddess without whom nothing grows. Her priestesses are the Grail-Bearers, her prophetesses wild-women like the dark sorceress Kundry who knows the Mysteries.

Kings Versus Witches: the Laws of Persecution

Herbs, Knots, and Contraception

Excerpt from Secret History of the Witches (forthcoming)

Copyright 2000 Max Dashu

Suppressed Histories Archives / Articles