I am He-Witch!

With thanks to contributors on a recent Facebook conversation an old dialogue was brought forward. A friend at The Witch’s Attic wanted to know what his shop’s name would be in Irish. Now he’s happily found his rendition so we’re all good now but some interesting concepts came up that I wanted to discuss concerning the term Witch when translated into Irish. Going through this article I found myself fixating on one term that could assert my masculinity and that was He-Witch… watch out He-man and She-ra theres a new Master of the Universe in town!

Lets take a look at what came up during the conversation on Facebook:

Modern-Irish (Nua-Gaelige)
cailleach (n f2) – hag, witch
bandraoi (m4) – witch (though specifically a female witch; I would argue that its not enough to remove prefix ban- to make this masculine or gender neutral since draoi has other connotations as well)
draíodóir mná (m3) – women wizards (draíodóir or wizard being synonymous with magician or aslaraí)
Suggested alternatives:
Pisteogaí – charm-setter; this is a construction that was suggested presumably on the etymological grounds that people often employ folk-charms. Originally a pisteog was a type of curse or ward you can put on a place by leaving a dead animal there, usually a crow, sometimes a fox. So I would wager that this sort of believe could lend itself to the modern understanding of pisteoga as superstitions.
Cailleach Phisteogach

Old-Irish (Sean-Gaelige)
Ammait (n) – witch, spectre, hag
Caillech (n) – old-woman, nun, hag, witch
Túathaid (n) – witch, magician
Personally the term Túathaid wins out for me since technically I am both a witch and a magician. But I think even this cursory look at the growth in terms shows us that what was once understood clearly no longer is. Before we muddy the situation by bringing in language I could have looked at some on-going discussions about the term witch versus warlock. I know that to many modern witches the term warlock holds specific terminology relating to their Tradition but often one or three Traditions don’t possess enough weight to change public consensus – in such cases we often just have to mind our pees and queues. So Etymology.com defines both as;


O.E. wicce “female magician, sorceress,” in later use especially “a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts,” fem. of O.E. wicca “sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic,” from verb wiccian “to practice witchcraft” (cf. Low Ger. wikken, wicken “to use witchcraft,” wikker, wicker “soothsayer”). OED says of uncertain origin; Liberman says “None of the proposed etymologies of witch is free from phonetic or semantic difficulties.” Klein suggests connection with O.E. wigle “divination,” and wig, wih “idol.” Watkins says the nouns represent a P.Gmc. *wikkjaz “necromancer” (one who wakes the dead), from PIE *weg-yo-, from *weg- “to be strong, be lively.” That wicce once had a more specific sense than the later general one of “female magician, sorceress” perhaps is suggested by the presence of other words in O.E. describing more specific kinds of magical craft. In the Laws of Ælfred (c.890), witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman’s craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the W. Saxons:

Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban.”

The other two words combined with it here are gealdricge, a woman who practices “incantations,” and scinlæce “female wizard, woman magician,” from a root meaning “phantom, evil spirit.” Another word that appears in the Anglo-Saxon laws is lyblæca “wizard, sorcerer,” but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, since the root of the word is lybb “drug, poison, charm.” Lybbestre was a fem. word meaning “sorceress,” and lybcorn was the name of a certain medicinal seed (perhaps wild saffron). Weekley notes possible connection to Gothic weihs “holy” and Ger. weihan “consecrate,” and writes, “the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents.” In Anglo-Saxon glossaries, wicca renders L. augur (c.1100), and wicce stands for “pythoness, divinatricem.” In the “Three Kings of Cologne” (c.1400) wicca translates Magi:

Þe paynyms … cleped þe iij kyngis Magos, þat is to seye wicchis.

The glossary translates L. necromantia (“demonum invocatio”) with galdre, wiccecræft. The Anglo-Saxon poem called “Men’s Crafts” has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means “skill with horses.” In a c.1250 translation of “Exodus,” witches is used of the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: “Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben.” Witch in ref. to a man survived in dialect into 20c., but the fem. form was so dominant by 1601 that men-witches or he-witch began to be used. Extended sense of “young woman or girl of bewitching aspect or manners” is first recorded 1740. Witch doctor is from 1718; applied to African magicians from 1836.

At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ [Reginald Scot, “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” 1584]

While the same website defines Warlock as:


O.E. wærloga “traitor, liar, enemy,” from wær “faith, a compact” (cf. O.H.G. wara “truth,” O.N. varar “solemn promise, vow;” see very; cf. also Varangian) + agent noun related to leogan “to lie” (see lie (v.1)). Original primary sense seems to have been “oath-breaker;” given special application to the devil (c.1000), but also used of giants and cannibals. Meaning “one in league with the devil” is recorded from c.1300. Ending in -ck and meaning “male equivalent of witch” (1560s) are from Scottish.

Perhaps I am being unfair but the part of both definitions I hone in on is the devil and accusation thereof. Why in modern age are we so against Warlock as a breaker of Oaths and yet when the Witch is accused of the same we forgive her? Some might point out the fact that Warlocks are [habitual] breakers of Oaths and that then as now Oaths need to be considered in high esteem for them to be of worth. The trouble with this is in the Medieval Period that noted these definitions down the relationship between men and women was something else. First, men were generally the ones who COULD legally make a compact or enter a covenant. Women didn’t really have as much leeway, though we do hear tell of them kissing Satan’s butt but we’re pretty sure this is someone’s titillation running amok, right?
Anyway, I could blog for Ireland on the equality of the Witch v. Warlock debate but it won’t bring us closer to a conclusion for the Irish-terms. What I hope I’ve accomplished in doing is illustrating the temporal side of the debate i.e. that part of the debate that relies on people assuming terms are the same no matter what point in time they crop up in. Watching an old BBC-style Documentary on Witchcraft and I was reminded of all the names preferred by people for what they specifically do. For instance, and this relates to a term in Irish we have above, one person compiling information on Cornish practices insisted they be called “charmers”, presumably to distinguish from those like myself who cast circle and do all sorts of unimaginable evocations and invocations to the Lord Spaghetti Monster. So a ‘Charmer’ could be on par with our Pisteogaí or Charm-setter.
A friend has proposed that perhaps modern Witches who don’t practice charms in the old-fashioned sense of the word might consider a ‘bearlacais”, or Irish spelling of an English word. So Witch, like it’s Saxon forebearer, ‘wicche, wicca and wicce’, might be rendered Bhuite or maybe even Buiteoir to emphasis the act of doing. A new word for a new meaning? For many people this won’t really make an ounce of a difference, especially if you are Wiccan and have terms from own path. In the case of the latter I would be quick to say LOANWORD! Sorry but before some purist comes and pollutes my meaning Loanwords happen all the time and Wicca may as well be one of them. Ireland’s been trading with Britain for yonks (years) so go for it!
One of the great things that still draws me to Wicca is it’s lack of stagnancy. Rather than it coming to Ireland and subverting Irish trends its come and blends and moves with the culture as a whole. Anyone thats studied cultural flows knows that when a philosophic or cultural trend migrates it brings with it its collective history. Sometimes to survive it kills of the indigenous culture while other times it cross-pollinates. Its a harsh reality but true nonetheless. I know Wiccans who have blended elements of their path with Irish (as opposed to “Celtic”) culture and then I know some who have blended elements of their path with traditions of local witchcraft which often predates Traditional Wicca. Further to this some are very limited in what gets blended (I’m not pre-supposed to assume nothing is blended but I’m sure others will disagree).
I focus on Wicca since it’s the main suspect in throwing up the meanings of words into faces of Irish speakers. [Sorry Wiccans but ye are!] Truth is the issue exists for any tradition coming into Ireland brand new. Irish just doesn’t have terms of Thelema or Thelemic that mean Law in the same sense of the word. I can translate Golden Dawn to Camáir Órdae (old-Irish).
I’d love to hear how others have rectified the issue of translation and meaning.

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