Sunday, January 13, 2013

A coven of witches and other unlucky 13’s

Following my recent notes on the unluckiness of 13, here are three more examples. The first is thirteen witches in a coven. This comes up a lot in documentation of the witch-trials of the seventeenth century, the first recorded mention being in 1662 in the Scottish trial records of Isobel Gowdie

Witches hold sabbats, and in a further instance of a connection to the Last Supper, some people interpret the 13 witches at the sabbat as a perversion of that sacred event, the witches gathering with Satan in place of Christ.

Here's a website for anyone who wants to learn about witchcraft, Wicca, and the true path of becoming a practicing witch.  Probably very few readers of my blog fall into this category, but you'll find useful discussions of covens and sabbats there.

Witches, a noose, and the Tarot “Death” card. Not sure of the provenance of the witches image. It looks 17th century to me. The caption as best as I can read it is: A Witch, a Spirit raised by the Witch, a Friar raising his [], a Fairy Ring, a Witch riding on the Devil through the Aire, a [] Candle
According to Wikipedia, the word coven remained largely unused in English until 1921 when one Margaret Murray promoted the idea, now much disputed, that all witches across Europe met in groups of thirteen which they called covens.

The word by the way originated in late medieval Scots (around 1500). It is essentially the same as the English word convent, and both words originally meant a gathering of any kind. Up to 1548 convent could specifically be a gathering of the 12 apostles, so perhaps when Scottish witches called their gatherings covens they had this meaning in mind.

Coven and convent are related to convene, and all three words derive from the Latin root word convenire, meaning convene. For a time in the Middle Ages the n was lost, which is how we get Covent Garden. It was later that convent came to be restricted to a body of monks or nuns.

Another instance of unlucky 13 is the hangman's knot.  Traditionally this was made by coiling it 13 times, so that the noose would be strong enough to snap the person's neck fast and not leave them still alive and in agony.  This grisly subject is one I don't intend to dwell on except to comment that my understanding is that in England up till the 18th century, it was considered very good sport to leave the hanged person alive and in agony as long as possible.  If I'm right, then I wonder how old this tradition actually is.

The third instance is the Tarot "Death" card.  In most forms of Tarot this card is 13. I'm not sure about how old Tarot is or the reason why the Death card is 13.  The link is to Wikipedia, and you can read it all there.

Many thanks to Jenny Butler, who lectures in folklore at University College Cork, for pointing out these three unlucky instances of 13 to me.

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