The latest episode of The Folklore Podcast, in which Mark Norman talks to Slavic witch Natasha Helvin, got me thinking about the different ways hereditary witchcraft and family folklore traditions are portrayed.
Natasha Helvin, the author of Slavic Witchcraft: Old World Conjuring Spells and Folklore, describes herself as a Slavic hereditary witch.
In the podcast, she mentioned that she came from a long matriarchal line of hereditary witches, yet the descriptions Natasha gave of her families practices didn't seem that different to some of the traditional folklore practices I learnt from my mother, grandmother and auntie. However, none of my family called themselves witches.
In England in the mid 20th century, when I was a child, the word 'witch' was generally a rude term. It was what you might call someone if you thought they were mean and nasty, looked like a hag, or went around cursing people. Children did sometimes call my aunt a witch behind her back - she did look the part, with a long nose and a silver streak in her grey hair - but they would never call her that to her face. When my aunt used traditional folklore practices for things like weather prediction or growing plants, she simply described them as 'old wives tales'. Then she should would often say: 'I know a lot of old wives tales, my dear, but those old wives knew a thing or two...'
Yet Natasha happily uses the word witch to describe herself and her family. I did wonder whether it was due to translation. Natasha comes from eastern Europe and English is not her first language. Nowadays, the word witch is used for all kinds of magical practitioners, from modern pagans to those practising older cunning crafts. It isn't a rude word any more. Maybe 60 years ago, Natasha would have simply said her mother came from a long line of wise old wives, like my aunt.
The podcast has made me interested in reading Natasha's books. As well as the one on Slavic witchcraft, she has also written Russian Black Magic: The Beliefs and Practices of Heretics and Blasphemers, which is due to be released in November.
You can listen to The Folklore Podcast here: http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com/
You can view Slavic Witchcraft: Old World Conjuring Spells and Folklore on Amazon and view Russian Black Magic: The Beliefs and Practices of Heretics and Blasphemers on Amazon.