THE WITCHES OF SANTHARIA

APPEARANCE - TERRITORY - ORGANIZATION - WITCHCRAFT: THE EIGHT CRAFTS OF WITCHES
BELIEFS AND MORAL CODES - RELATIONS TO SANTHARIAN SOCIETY - MYTH/LORE

Few groups of humans have been detested as universally as the witches. Accused of using magic to foul ends, they have been hunted, imprisoned and butchered for as long as history remembers. Yet as a group, the witches have survived, which is due partly to the secretive and close-knit networks of solidarity they have developed, and partly to their usefulness: ordinary people keep requesting the witches' magical services, despite the fear and contempt they hold for them.

Witchcraft is a type of magic that relies on the attainment of a state of ecstasy, or rapture, that allows the witch to look beyond appearances and perceive the fabric of the world, where everything is connected with everything else. The performance of witchcraft is always linked to an art or craft, which is why witches are skilled craftspeople as well as sorcerers. Folk beliefs, whose mothers are fears and whose fathers dreams, tend to exaggerate the magical abilities of witches, many of whom reach the limit of their talent after mastering a handful of minor spells. It is not true that all witches fly around on broomsticks, and it is not known whether any do. Nonetheless, Santharia is home to some very powerful witches, who often conceal the true nature of their craft and live as respected – and in some cases, illustrious – subjects of the kingdom. And when witches gather in their secret covens, they are able to combine their powers to wreak charms or curses whose potency far exceeds the sum of what each individual could do on her own.

The Powers of Witchery

View picture in full size Image description. It is said that exceptionally powerful witches are able to build tunnels in the fabric of reality that enable them to travel freely through space and time - and beyond. Picture drawn by Sheil.

Appearance. If you ask the average farmer, cobbler or tinker, he’ll tell you either of two things: that witches are beautiful young women who spend their nights dancing naked around bonfires, on which they roast the flesh of the men they have seduced – or that they are old hags with warts on their noses, whose hands look like gnarled branches covered in toad-skin, and who stink of nightshade and cat poo. Actual witches are rather pleased with these misconceptions, for thanks to their pervasiveness the witches get recognized far less often, and bothered far less intensely by witch-hunters and young men on a trial of courage than they otherwise might.

In actual fact, you cannot necessarily tell a witch by her appearance – or, indeed, by his: for contrary to widely believed lore, witches may be male as well as female, although it is true that of any thirteen witches you meet, nine are likely to be human women, and three human men, while the thirteenth may be either a gnome or a hobbit. Through millennia of prosecution, witches have learned to remain inconspicuous to the uninitiated outsider, though it is said that they know secret signs by which they recognize one another.

One characteristic that is indeed common to all witches is that every witch knows a craft. The eight Great Covens of Witches, of which we will have more to tell below, are distinguished by the art that their members practice. The eight arts are: Dancing, Singing, Poetry, Whittling and Carving, Sewing, Cooking and Brewing, Weaving, and Spinning. To the outside world, witches often pose as ordinary craftspeople, wearing attires typical for their trade. Yet there are certain types of characters who more than others draw suspicions of
witchcraft onto themselves: Think, for example, of a farmer in the remotest house of the village, who has the reputation of being the best cook in the duchy, and an uncanny knack for healing sick sheep. Or maybe you have heard the tale of the dance instructor at the New-Santhalan court, who rescued the life of a lady-in-waiting by calming the krumhorn beast of a Susilgerim ambassador, which had bolted and was going to trample the helpless woman to death? Finally, consider the Ciosan seamstress, who seems to live the simplest of lives, but late at night receives mysterious, masked customers that drive up in black coaches with veiled coats-of-arms, and upon leaving carry away big parcels, presumably containing specially commissioned needlework.

Since
witchcraft is always taught from witch to witch, another characteristic of witches is that they often have young apprentices living with them, who are called “witchlings”. At first sight, these boys or girls might seem to be learning nothing more than the mundane craft of the witch in question. But in fact they study many other things besides.

Finally, you may recognize witches by the supernatural understanding they often seem to have with animals. Bees and wopses do not sting them; wild birds have no fear of them and land on their outstretched hands; yes, in the presence of a powerful witch, the fiercest guard-dog becomes a meek puppy, turning to lie on its back, looking to have its belly tickled. Such, at any rate, are the signs that witchfinders claim help them identify witches. Whether these signs are as infallible as the witchfinders would like us to believe is not a matter on which we dare pronounce an authoritative opinion.
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Territory. This entry deals with Santharian witches only. Individual witches may well go abroad from time to time – crossing the sea to Nybelmar or Aeruillin, say, or venturing North beyond the Tandala Highlands. But as far as current knowledge goes, the Santharian covens have not extended their activities beyond the borders of the Kingdom. Within Santharia, you may find witches in any area where humanoids can live, and they may have any of a variety of relations towards the society of humans, gnomes or hobbits around them. Some witches lead hermitic lives, dwelling in a shack or a cave deep in a forest or high up on a mountain. Others hover on the fringes of human society, sufficiently remote not to bother respectable folk in their daily business, but close enough to make a living by serving villages that come with requests for advice or assistance. The village herb-hag and the Black Butterfly Rover fortune teller are archetypes of this sort of witch. However, most Santharians would be surprised to learn that a great many witches live right among them, in villages, towns and cities. They may be your healer, your cloth-maker, your mayor’s wife, or even an official in your Thane’s palace. None but the most discerning of observers recognize them for what they are. Their designs may be selfish or virtuous, avaricious or wise, vengeful or forgiving, just like anyone else’s. But of one thing you can be sure: when they wreak their magic, someone is going to notice the effect. Return to the top

A cauldron witch

View picture in full size Image description. A cauldron witch in her kitchen. The ingredients on her shelf suggest that she is cooking no ordinary soup. Picture drawn by Seeker.

Organization. Some witches, having as a witchling picked up some basic tricks of their trade, leave their teacher behind and never meet another witch except by chance. Such loners do not generally advance far in the magic arts. It is in the community of fellow witches that knowledge is exchanged, new spells are learned, and skills are honed. In order to understand how witches cooperate and learn from one another, it is necessary to grasp the concept of the “coven”. The word refers to four things:

Most simply, a coven may be any meeting of witches. Second, the word may mean a more or less loose network of witches, such as a group of friends who may or may not live close to one another and gather occasionally to gossip, trade, and help one another with problems large or small. Third, and more formally, a coven is an association of witches that holds regular “covens” (that is, meetings), and typically includes all witches from a small region within which travel is relatively easy. The boundaries between such regional covens are often fuzzy, and the same witch may belong to two, three, or even four such regional associations. Forth, and last, there are the eight “Great Covens”, each of which is defined by the particular craft that its members practice. These Great Covens are also referred to as the “Eight Legs of the Spider”.

The regular meetings of regional covens (in the third sense of the word, as explained above), signifies the closest that witches have to an organization. Covens will congregate at certain secluded places, such as clearings in forests, mountain tops, or caves. In the larger cities, they may also occasionally meet in a witch's house, although for larger meetings, even city witches will travel to the country side. The locations of these meeting places are closely guarded and revealed only to fellow witches. No non-witch is ever knowingly allowed to attend.

Such meetings serve the witches to exchange news and gossip, learn craft and
witchcraft from one another, and to introduce new witchlings to the coven. Also, it is at 'covens' that witchlings who have completed their apprenticeship are initiated into their new status of “spell crafter” (see the magic entry on witchcraft for an explanation of the hierarchy of achievement in witchcraft). Covens are also occasions for witches to wreak “coven spells”: magical acts achieved by a group of witches who combine their powers toward a common goal, and thereby achieve results that far exceed the sum of what each individual would be capable of on her own.

Any coven may be attended by witches from all Great Covens. Throughout their troubled history, witches could never afford to renounce the help and comfort of sisters practising crafts other than their own. Besides, everyone benefits from the lively exchange of knowledge; it is the reason why many witch spells can be achieved in more than one way, using either one craft or the other. Nonetheless, each of the Great Covens has its own peculiar nature and is suited to different types of spells than the others. It is to these peculiarities that we now turn.
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Witchcraft: The Eight Crafts of Witches. The general principles of witchcraft are explained in the relevant entry in the Compendium’s magic section. Here we will concentrate on introducing the eight Great Covens: their peculiar qualities, habits, ways of living, and knacks for crafting spells.

Beliefs and Moral Codes. Witches believe that everything in the world is connected with everything else, as though the world were an enormous tapestry made of countless threads woven together. And as a spider sitting on the edge of her web can know, by sensing the vibrations that travel through the treads, when and where the web has entrapped some creature, just so can witches know what happens in a place and even a time far removed from them. What is more, by manipulating and reweaving the threads that the world is made of, a witch can change the world. And that is called witchcraft.

According to the witches, the world is the work of Harash, the World Spider, who spins the dream threads of which everything is made. Ordinary people are unable to see these threads directly, and only perceive their effects – much like, when we regard a well-made tapestry, our eyes see only the picture the weaver has put before us, and fail to record the thousands of individual threads of which the picture is composed.

Harash the World Spider is not believed to pursue any particular purpose with her spinning; our world, which is so dear to us, is the result of her mindless, stubborn, chaotic and incessant busy-ness. There is no sense, no meaning: only existence. The witches therefore do not conceive of Harash as a deity; they do not worship her, pray to her, or claim to serve her. Rather, they are in awe of her, as much as they are in awe of the mystery why anything exists at all. To the witches, Harash is as incomprehensible as the endless sky and as profound as the deep sea.

Yet the Harash belief does have some practical consequences: a witch will under no circumstances intentionally harm a spider, or destroy a spider web. Witch houses are therefore often overgrown with cobwebs, and witches have been known to climb in and out of their home through a window rather than disturb a spider that has spun her web between frame and knob of the front door. Witchfinders know of witches reverence for spiders, and use it to their advantage by presenting people they suspect of witchcraft with a live spider and commanding them to kill it. If the suspect refuses, this is taken as proof that she is a witch.

In general, the witches do not recognize the Twelvern, or any other gods as gods. It is not that witches deny that Etherus and Seyella, Queprur and Foiros exist; indeed, rhyme witches rather frequently evoke them in their spell poems. However, the witches refuse to assign the gods a status any higher than that of other beings. The gods may live on a different plane of existence, and may be rather more powerful than, for example, humans or hobbits or hummingbirds, but that in itself does not, in the witches' eyes, make them especially important or worthy of reverence. It will not surprise our educated readers that this view has not endeared witches to the clerics of the Twelve.

The witches' disregard for things held dear by most humans extends to moral principles that are otherwise rarely questioned. To wit: a witch may not value a human life above that of an animal, or even that of a plant. As all things are connected, and all are part of the web, humans and humanoids are not necessarily worth more than other beings. In any case, death and suffering are inescapable parts of life, and a witch may not feel it appropriate to interfere to “prolong” (as she might put it) the brief and fickle life of a human at the cost of, say, disturbing the aeon-old peace of a tree. A witch's actions may therefore easily offend or appal non-witches, and conflicts of value have doubtless contributed to the mercilessness with which witches have been hunted throughout the ages.

It will come as no surprise to the attentive reader that witches do not accept the human social order. Nor do they respect the vast differences in status that the divisions between nobility, clergy, patricians, and peasants imply. In the eyes of a witch, a princess is no nobler than a peasant girl, the mayor of Marcogg no cleaner than the ratcatcher who works the city's sordid sewers, and a warrior no more glorious than a sickly child. It is clear, therefore, that the powers that rule Santharia are never short of examples for what they must perceive as the depravity of witches. And it is also clear that the most powerful and noble lord cannot count on a witch's loyalty. It is this, above all else, that incites the rulers' wrath and fear, and wakens their cruellest instincts, if there is even the faintest suspicion that a witch may have been involved in some mishap or other.

However, on closer inspection, we find nothing in the witches' world view that predestines them to unkindness or heartlessness. While vengefulness, lust and envy are probably as frequent among witches than among any other profession, there are few witches that have used their craft to amass riches or to summon armies of underlings to conquer lands or goods. In that respect, we may say that witches are probably harmless compared to markgravens, dukes and kings.

The witches' ideas of a good example of their kind are embodied in the figure of Dula the Witch, a colourful character of countless stories, known to witches and non-witches alike. Dula tales tell of a witch who is always wilful and never predictable, who is compassionate yet vengeful, serene yet capricious. She may appear as the saviour of a humble kuatu, as the nemesis of an evil step mother, or as the bringer of fateful charms to star-crossed lovers. Since this Dula never ages, since she travels through the land in a hut that walks on spider legs, and since her magical powers are without bounds, she is widely believed to be a figure of myth. Yet many witches insist that Dula is real enough, and that whenever it pleases her she walks into history in the guise of the scholar Hildula Hauntwell, writing books and pamphlets, wreaking magic, and generally interfering in human affairs as she pleases. Whatever the truth, there is probably no better introduction to the morality of the witches than the Dula lore that is told in all corners of the Santharian kingdom. The Santharian Compendium devotes a whole entry to summarizing what is known about Dula the Witch.
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Relations to Santharian Society. To shed some light on the ambivalent relations of witches to Santharian society, let's start with a quote by Jakob Huckster, the notorious witchfinder:

“The night storm broke the trunks of three trees that had stood tall and strong on the slope for as long as any villager alive could remember. Yet the bonfire on the mountain top flickered calm and big as if no breeze disturbed it. It looked like a fat old dragon. Around that dragon they danced, women and men, young and old, naked like demon children, their skins glowing with sweat and red light. Each dancer's hair waved and wriggled, snakelike, as if animated by its own magical wind. And even though the storm howled in my ears, like the wails that will be heard at the end of the world, I could distinguish a different sound also: a shrill baying as though of warg whelps. This is what it is to hear witches sing. The infernal din seemed to come not only from the contorted mouths of the dancers, but from everywhere around me, as though the leaves behind which I hid and the soil on which I crouched and the rocks, the bowels of the mountain, were all humming along out of tune. If the song had words, they were of no language that I had ever heard, or that I would wish ever to hear again, for surely it was the tongue of the Netherworld, of Khalkoroth and Tsalokath, and if that night it did not pierce my eardrums and wriggled through my brain and into my body and ate the goodness of my heart, I know it is only to due to the protection that the mighty and merciful Twelve afford me. Unworthy as I am, they know the purity of my cause: to rid the kingdom of these naked dancing fiends, to drive all witches to the Netherworld, where they belong.”

-- Witchfinder Jabok Huckster, “The Witch Axe Which Destroyeth Witches And Their Black Magic” (Voldar, 1637 a.S.)

In Styrásh, the elven tongue, the word “ouídsh”, denotes a charlatan, a practitioner of twisted magic. This word is undoubtedly the origin of the Tharian “witch”. It is itself derived from “ouishán” (to twist; to pervert; to contort; to wring) and “ouidshán” (short for "ouishán'dél'án": to practise twisted magic). Contemplation of these connections have led scholars of magic, such as the Archmage Kar-ii Turya Firebane, to speculate that the first witches may have been humans who had been taught magic by elves, but who later fell into disgrace in their teacher's eyes. The witches themselves, however, do not have a story of their origin. As far as they are concerned, their craft is as old as the world spider's web.

The following, however, is undisputed: witchcraft has been despised and witches have been persecuted for many ages, and at least since the Era of Consolidation, which began 10,000 years ago. For a brief account of the history of witch-hunts, we refer the reader to the Compendium entry on witchcraft, specifically to its historic section. As perusal of that entry makes clear, the ostracism of witches continues to the present day. Although no Santhran has ever sanctioned a witch-hunt, provincial rulers and town patricians have often found it expedient to blame the witches for all kinds of ill befalling their grand or petty realms. Droughts, plagues, floods, deadly hailstorms, troll attacks, wars, and even holes in a duchy’s treasure chest have been blamed on the witches’ machinations.

Witches often live at the margins of society – feared and hated, but just about tolerated on account of their skills. Therefore, a witch's best friends are often her fellow witches. Yet some witches join groups of other outcasts. In particular, many bands of Butterfly Rovers have a witch in their midst. This witch may tell people’s future from a glass ball, advise them on the trustworthiness of a young man who woos their daughter, and sell them potions against warts. Some of her work may be pseudo-magical humbug; some honest but non-magical; some genuine magic. In this way, such a witch may be a macanti as much as a practitioner of witchcraft. It is also clear that popular association of witches with outsiders such as the Rovers does not help the reputation of either group, as superstition and suspiction follow both the witches and the Rovers wherever they go.

The witches’ situation is not helped by the existence of the so-called witchfinders: men and women who claim expertise in the art of finding and identifying the secretive witches, and of extracting confessions from those suspected of witchery. Most witchfinders are solitary individuals, who travel the land and offer their services to anyone who will pay. Yet some dukes and lesser nobles have raised this occupation to a regular office, and keep a witchfinder at their court, in order to protect their family and their retinue from witches’ interference.

In short, being a witch in Santharia today remains a precarious occupation. In response to the persecution they encounter, witches have become rather secretive – which, while understandable, is liable to reinforce the mistrust against them. Return to the top


Myth/Lore. The witches' story of Harash, the World Spider, and the web of spider threads that is the fabric of the world, shares a certain poetic similarity with the views of the Weaver magicians. According to legend, the Old Weavers retreated from the universe of ordinary mortals and took abode in Delonaire, the Woven City, which exists in a world called “The Web”, woven of magic. Witches would find nothing unbelievable in this story. According to witchlore, all the world is a web, and they see no reason why there could not be several such worlds. Indeed, witches are convinced that the most powerful practitioners of their art, the Handmaids of Harash, can do more than just reweave a few threads of the world web (which is the business of ordinary witchcraft): they can leave our world and travel to others; yes, they can even vanish from our time and reappear in another, be it in the future or the past. Thus the Handmaids of Harash partake in experiences few mortals would be capable of dreaming. It is said that these travellers through space and time meet in the empty nooks between the woven worlds. In these no-man's-worlds, loose bits of thread, which were spun by Harash but discarded as waste, drift aimless beyond light and darkness, long forgotten by their maker. There the Handmaids, having left their bodies and their faces behind, converse in silent but ecstatic meditation, telling stories that are beyond truth and lie, gathering Harash's abandoned snippets, playing at making worlds themselves. Those that return from these journeys have seen and heard so much that they have lost their name. Some say that this is why they all assume the same new name: “Hildula Hauntwell”. And this may be yet another explanation for the “Hildula Hauntwell phenomenon” that has puzzled so many historians, including the great Artheos Mirabilis Federkiel.[3] Return to the top

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Footnotes.

[1] This is certainly what the famous Erpherionian witchfinder Jabok Huckster believes; see the section “Relations to Santharian Society” for a relevant quotation from his work “The Witch Axe”. [Back]


[2] One of the most surprising names on this list is that of Count Dekem Hammersfeld, whose son Dagolth became king after the dynasty of Santhros the Wise had apparently come to an end. The witches murmur that this royal succession would not have taken place without the active help of Dekem's seamstress, who was co-conspirator in an elaborate intrigue that involved deceiving the last queen in Santhros' dynasty into believing that her only child was dead. The recent discovery of the so-called Hammersfeld Parchments corroborated the basic outlines of this witch tale, although said parchments do not mention the involvement of a witch. [Back]

[3] For an introduction to the “Hildula Hauntwell phenomenon”, please refer to the Compendium entry on “Dula the Witch”. [Back]

 Date of last edit 19th Turning Sun 1673 a.S.

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