Witches and wizards are icons of many great fantasy worlds. From the good - Dumbledore, Gandalf, Glenda - to the dark - Voldemort, Saruman and the Wicked Witch - these mystical figures wield great power, and make for very interesting stories! But do they only exist in the realms of fantasy?
You don’t have to dig too deep into history to find real-life remnants of witch and wizard lore. The great Druids of Celtic tradition share much in common with the typical ‘wizard’, and many people who practise the modern-day sacred movement of Wicca identify as ‘witches’. But there are some individuals who stand out more than others in the history books as 'real-life' witches and wizards, whether for their divinatory prowess or mathematical genius. Let's take a look at a few of them:
Mother Shipton, also known as Ursula Southeil, was a famous 16th-century English prophetess. She published a number of extraordinary prophecies of world events under the guise of rhymes and verse, in order to escape persecution for occult practices. Her legendary prophecies included the Great Plague of London, the Great Fire of London, and the Spanish Armada—all of which unfolded with eerie accuracy. While many alleged ‘witches’ of the earlier ages met terrible ends by the noose or the stake, Mother Shipton quite uneventfully died of natural causes at an elderly age, but her legacy lives on as one of the world’s greatest 'real' witches.
Paracelsus was a 16th-century Swiss genius, famed for his work in alchemy, astrology, medicine and botany. He is one of many great mathematical and scientific minds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance who have been linked to magical pursuits in the history books—from Nostradamus to Nicholas Flamel, and many in between. Paracelsus’s reputation as a real-life ‘wizard’ stem from his development of the ‘Alphabet of the Magi’, an occult language that calls upon spirits to help in the healing of medical patients. Paracelsus was said to carve the symbols of the alphabet into talismans, which were used for healing and protection. His esoteric approaches to medicine and science caused much debate and discussion, but wizard or not, his legacy is undeniable.
Marie Laveau, also known as the ‘Voodoo Queen’, was a 19th-century Louisiana Creole woman famed for her Voodoo spiritual work. Laveau was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans as a free woman of colour, and went on to develop a wide-spread reputation as a Voodoo practitioner. People of all races and classes would flock to Laveau for her help with health, relationships and more. Interestingly, Marie Laveau was said to be a devout Catholic, and believed that her Voodoo pursuits were in line with her Catholic faith, rather than at odds with it. Whether the Voodoo Queen was really the mystical ‘witch’ like figure of legend, or simply a shrewd spiritual healer, she certainly had an impressive amount of influence over 19th-century New Orleans and its communities.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was definitely a Renaissance ‘jack-of-all-trades’, famed for being a polymath, physicist, soldier, theologian and occult writer. The last of these in particular has led to him being considered one of history’s real-life ‘wizards’. Agrippa wrote a number of books about the occult arts, the most famous of which is called De Occulta Philosophia Libra Tre. This text formed a link between practical ‘magic’ like alchemy and astronomy, and the higher magic of summoning spirits and communicating with other worlds. Sadly, Agrippa gave up his pursuit of the occult before his death. He worried that studying these arts would take him to ‘hell’, showing a common historical conflict between religion and the occult.
It’s impossible to look at real-life witchcraft throughout history without discussing the terrible Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The trials took place in Massachussets, USA, and were a result of mass hysteria spreading through a heavily Puritanical New World America. The hysteria was said to have began when a pair of young girls suffered from an inexplicable illness, which a doctor diagnosed as being an effect of witchcraft. In a frenzy to find the perpetrators, a trio of local impoverished women were accused of witchery and sentenced to execution. By the end of the infamous Trials, over twenty people had been executed as punishment for ‘witchcraft’. This is definitely a dark blot in the history books, demonstrating how the label of ‘witch’ can be used to ostracise and persecute, when it should denote power, wisdom and respect.
Aleister Crowley is one of the more contemporary real-life ‘wizards’, practising at the turn of the 20th-century. A controversial figure, Crowley was an English occultist and ceremonial magician, who was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and went on to found his own religion called Thelema. Thelema is a new religious movement with influences from Ancient Egyptian spirituality, Qabalah and yoga. Crowley definitely forged a powerful legacy in the world of the occult, with many of his writings and philosophies leading to modern movements like Wicca and and chaos magick. But he was also a controversial figure, with shady views on race and gender that made him a number of enemies. Whether Crowley falls into the category of ‘good’ wizard or ‘bad’ wizard depends on who you ask.
They often say that truth is stranger than fiction, and that seems to be the case when you start delving into the real-life stories of famous witches and wizards. These are just a few of the mystical icons throughout history whose tales seem like the stuff of storybooks. Do you know any others? Let us know in the comments!
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