The word witch is normally accepted to derive from the Anglo Saxon word, wicca or 'wise person', these people were well versed in herbalism, healing remedies and the old ways. Witches are usually associated with old women, living on their own with one or more pets. They were usually respected for their 'knowledge' and in some cases feared in the light of the 'spells' they could cast. As a youngster, we had in the village a so called 'witch'. 'Old Vera' lived alone in a huge old farm house, she always dressed in black and talked 'funny', for company she had a mangy old black cat. I can't remember who first told me she was a witch but deep down we were petrified of her. We used to taunt her something awful but always to a point which we not cross. Once I was dared to climb into her orchard and 'scrump' some apples which I duely did and she came rushing out and caught me up the tree, I was absolutely petrified as to what spell she would cast on me. A few years later my father explained that both her mother and father had died and left her the farm, she sold all the land and kept the house. The reason she talked 'funny' was that she had a cleft palette and the black clothes she wore were the same as every woman would have worn fifty years earlier. She was always a shy, old fashioned, reclusive lady and that was why she lived alone. I think this is a good example of how easy it is to earn the undeserved reputation of being a witch. Today nobody would dream of calling an old lady living on her own, who had a poodle as a pet and dressed funny as being a 'witch'. those days have long gone.
However, there is no doubt that witchcraft or paganism is still practiced on Dartmoor, visit any of the stone circles and see the charred remains of fires that have been lit. The picture below was taken just after the week of Beltane 2005 and shows the fresh remains of a fire that had been lit in the central kist of the Ringastan Stone Circle.
Central kist of the Ringastan - 2005
This stone circle was excavated in 1903 and was found to have had a false floor in it, under this two coils of human hair were found. These were taken to be of modern origin and associated with witchcraft. As this stone circle is so close to the road it is a favourite site for strange activities and so to stop any further damage to the Bronze Age kist the Dartmoor National Park Authority filled back-filled it in 1994. Clearly this has not had the desired effect.
In November, 2005 six sheep were found with their necks broken and their eyes removed on land at Moortown near the edge of Dartmoor. Four of their bodies were arranged in a regular square shape, another two were lying next to a pattern of stones.
In January 2005, seven sheep were found just half-a-mile away in the same eerie shadow of Vixen Tor. Again their necks were broken, and this time chillingly arranged in the shape of a heptagram - a seven-pointed star symbol, linked for centuries with the dark arts and Black Magic rituals.
The police are connecting the incidents with the presence of an ancient Pagan sacrificial altar, the stone remains of which are located just to the east of the tor. "Our understanding is that this place used to be some sort of meeting place for Pagans," said a spokesman for Devon and Cornwall police.
"To the east of Vixen Tor there is evidence of an ancient stone sacrificial altar.
They added: "We are investigating this as a matter of criminal damage.
"People obviously have their right to practice their religion, but when that involves damaging, or in this case killing, other people's property, it becomes a crime."
The dead sheep, worth £600, were still warm when they were found by their owner, farmer Daniel Alford, on Sunday morning. "There were the four sheep and then 10ft or 15ft away there were another two, which were laid next to three stones which had been arranged in a pattern," he said. "The stones looked like a kind a of gateway, a similar thing that had been found in January. In this case, the eyes were completely removed from the sheep, and there were no signs of the messy pecking that could attribute the loss to an attack by birds.
There are still people on the moor that will have warts removed by the 'wart charmer' as opposed to the doctor. The big difference now a days is that the 'witch' or 'pagan' or 'wart charmer' don't wear pointed hats and dress in black, you would probably pass them in the street and not give them a second thought. Any town will have at least one health food shop where you can buy herbal remedies, lotions and potions. Three hundred years ago the owner could have been burnt at the stake for selling such wares. Imagine in 1645 what Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General would have made of Anita Roddick?
It is also worth remembering that up to about 150 years ago, remote areas such as Dartmoor did not always have the luxury of a local doctor. Even if they had one it did not mean that everybody could afford his services so anybody who had a knowledge of natural remedies and cures would be greatly sought after. This could be the reason why belief in the 'old ways' still lingers on in the traditions and memories of the moor folk. Today if you visit an old Dartmoor farm have a look at any old keys that are left in the locks, you will probably see a stone with a hole in it tied through the end. These are 'hext or hag stones' and were/are thought to protect the barn, shippen etc from witchcraft. The chances are that somewhere near the farm house is a rowan tree, again these were for protection against witches.
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