With Halloween (or All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain, or whatever you want to call it) rapidly approaching, there probably isn’t a better time to talk about one of history’s most notorious villains — the witch. They were once considered so dangerous — so purely evil — that they were literally hunted, their covens and cabals the subject of legal trials as late as WWII. Accusations that witchcraft and its practitioners stand behind everything from evil vaccinations to (of course) Dungeons and Dragons continue to the present day, though modern spiritual movements and at least one popular fantasy roleplaying game have blunted the sense of unadulterated darkness once associated with the term.
Still, the idea that your friends and neighbors may secretly command dark forces used to subvert the world’s natural order is a powerful one, even if it’s not actually possible. Or is it?
DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD
There is ample evidence that our ancestors considered witches and witchcraft to be absolutely real. Archaeologists in Italy searching for the grave-site of a Catholic Saint (whose miraculous powers reputedly included a mystical influence over bears) recently uncovered Italian graveyard containing the bodies of an entire coven of witches apparently executed for their crimes. One can’t help but wonder what mysterious modern forces are directing the search for the remains of this powerful holy man, but there’s got to be something behind the fact that the search actually led to a burial ground filled with women devoted to the powers of Hell. According to the Daily Mail, seven iron nails were found driven through the 800 year old corpse of one of the women’s jawbones.
Archaeologist Alfonso Forgione, from L’Aquila University, who is leading the dig, is convinced that the women were suspected witches because of the circumstances in which they were buried…’She was buried in bare earth, not in a coffin and she had no shroud around her either, intriguingly other nails were hammered around her to pin down her clothes. This indicates to me that it was an attempt to make sure the woman even though she was dead did not rise from the dead and unnerve the locals who were no doubt convinced she was a witch with evil powers…The way the bodies were buried would seem to indicate some form of exorcist ritual and the remains will be examined to see if we can establish a cause of death for them.’
The women were also found with dice in their graves; the archaeological team examining the site is convinced that the dice were probably meant to signify nothing more than a transgression of a cultural prohibition against gambling, in your game they might have signified these women’s (now-broken) power of the laws of chance (rather like the mythological Moirae).
A MODERN SPIN
Though there are tons of stories to be derived from ancient sorceresses (sorceri? sorcerae?), many people believe that witchcraft is still a going concern. There are whole camps of accused witches forcibly isolated from the rest of the population of Ghana in the present day. In real life, these are simple refugee camps meant to help women and children separated from the families by an insidious superstition. In your game, they could be home to secret covens of powerful mystics pulling the strings that control the world, or places where children suddenly displaying mysterious powers first interact with others of their kind.
SORCERCY & SUPER-SPIES
That last might have superheroic overtones, but you can also mix witchcraft and espionage. The British accused, tried, and convicted housewife Helen Duncan of violating the Witchcraft Act of 1735 in the closing months of WWII. Courtesy of Frost’s Scottish Anatomy:
Duncan, a mother of six, was a celebrated medium performing seances for the wives and widows left at home during the war. Her technique was to go into a trance and produce ectoplasm through her mouth and nose which would form human shape and speak. However, on 19 January, 1944, during a sitting in Portsmouth, Duncan conjured up a sailor from HMS Barham to talk to his surprised mother – who didn’t know he was dead. The sinking of HMS Barham had been kept a secret by the navy for three months for operational reasons.
Fears that Duncan could be a spy led to an investigation by MI5 and Naval Intelligence who were alarmed by her access to secret information. The authorities were terrified about potential security leaks and Duncan was in danger of disclosing military secrets during her seances.
At least one researcher familiar with the case has suggested that Ian Fleming (the creator of fictional super-spy James Bond), then working with both MI5 and Britain’s Naval Intelligence division, was responsible for this mid-century (literal) witch-hunt. Fleming’s Bond isn’t known for fighting the supernatural (Live and Let Die notwithstanding), but it is possible that Fleming was using his famous novels to encode information about a centuries old battle between agents of the crown and the supernatural servants of darkness. After all, Bond’s codename is 007 — the same as the number of iron nails driven into an 800 year old Italian witch’s jaw to keep her bound to her grave.