A local member of my community asked where she could find the story of the first witch, the Ragana. I realized I had never posted my version of the story where Velnias the Swamp God creates the first witch. So as we move towards the dark time of the year, let me share with you, my own retelling of this tale.
How The First Witch Was Made
Long, long ago in a time before time, when all things were not yet formed as they are today, the Gods walked the earth. They fought and loved and formed the mountains and the valleys with their striving. They wrought the rivers with their blood and gave the first sacrifices, ensuring that the gifts of reciprocity would always be with us. In this long ago time there was a woman.
She was not a witch. She was, however, clever and strong. While walking through the woods to the neighboring village she noticed an oncoming storm. But unlike us modern humans she didn’t have an umbrella or a plastic coated raincoat or really anything that we might have thought of as protecting oneself from a storm. She figured she was just going to get wet, which meant that Petras who lived across the road from her grandmother was going to be ogling her again. Last time she had visited her grandmother there had been a rip in her skirt from some brambles. But the berries had been perfectly ripe and well worth the whistle and waggling eyebrows from Petras. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he had been kind or handsome, but she had caught him rolling the flaming sun wheels at goats and small children last Midsummer. After that she was done with Petras the Cruel and his bushy eyebrows.
But that was a tale for another day.
For now she was walking through the Swampy Wood. Most people stuck to the more reliable but longer paths through the Hilly Wood, but she preferred the darker way. She knew the paths and the plants to avoid, her grandma had been a healing woman for years and had taught her daughters and granddaughters the secrets of the bathhouse and the beehive. She often gathered herbs in these woods and never had feared the tales that the townsfolk told.
If the devil spirits wanted to tease her they would have to work hard to lead her off the path, and she knew better than to accept more money than what something was worth. It was one thing to drive a sharp bargain and another thing to take a sweet deal from a stranger. Humans had earned her distrust far more than the spirits ever had. The invisible folk had their own business to attend to, just as she had hers. As she crested a hill on the path she looked over her shoulder to see the landscape behind her. It was dulled by a grey cloak of rain occasionally illuminated by the Striker’s Ax. Right now her business involved staying ahead of that rain.
She descended down the ridgeline into the lowlands again, breathing in the hot moist air. The birds had stopped their singing, the muskrats were secure in their dens, and even the frogs were silent in anticipation of the storm. The forest felt emptier than ever and in that moment it was as if the Striker’s light had illuminated her mind as well as the woods. She could simply strip and stay dry.
There was no one here. No Petras to see. No mother to nag. No grandmother to look sad and disapproving. The idea of naked skin in the storm thrilled her anyway. So she bundled her clothes and put them in with the medicines and fine embroidery thread in the box she had been carrying to her grandmother.
The wind almost immediately picked up, whipping her hair against her skin and driving the first few drops of the storm into her with angry force. It was as if Vėjopatis was chastising her in place of her parents. But she wasn’t afraid of Wind Father any more than she was afraid of Velnias. The rain was a thousand touches of a lover’s hand and the wind could only rattle the leaves in angry recrimination.
When the storm had passed she was quite soaked, but some mullein leaves she found in a meadow made for a bit of velvety toweling. She donned her clothes with no one the wiser than a buck delicately moving through the meadow. Even the spirits were quiet after the rain.
But there was someone abroad who noticed the young woman walking jauntily through the woods. As the path once again dipped down into the swampland the smell of rot and vegetation rose up. On a rotted log she discovered a tasty looking bunch of mushrooms and stopped to pick them. While she was picking, an old looking spirit man came up to her. She knew better than to run. He had horns on his head and was draped with vegetation that hid little of him. He smelled of loam and bitter herbs.
A dark velvety voice said, “So, Girl, did you feel the storm that just came through? It was a storm like a sword, it was.”
“Indeed it was. I kept moving then and I’ll keep moving now.” And true to her words she started walking away from this rather disturbing stranger.
He stepped to intercept and spoke again, “Moving you must have been, but to my eye you seem amazingly well put together. Panelė, Miss, how did you stay dry?”
“That magic is my own. I am off to my relatives house, may the gods all bless me.”
And at that answer, his bushy eyebrow rose upward in a curve like a birds wing. He walked with her in silence for a while, graceful at first and then more and more wildly leaping about, jumping off of fallen logs and running his hands through his wild hair.
“You must teach me this magic!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, must I? I don’t see how I must do anything at all except get where I’m going, Sir Velnias! I see your squinting eye, your wild spirit self. I will call upon Perkunas Thunder Lord if I have to!”
At that, all of his grace and charm left him and he lept awkwardly into the air attempting to look in all directions at once and falling down rather awkwardly onto the ground. “Sweet darling, please don’t do that. Instead, teach me your magic and I will teach you mine. You will know how to summon the birds and the beasts, how to bring wealth to your life, how to curse and how to heal. So many things I can teach you! Just tell me. Tell me how to avoid the Thunder Maker.”
She stopped and looked down at him, considering his words. They were tempting. She almost laughed with the idea of showing him her “magic”. Velnias was a trickster himself. To trick a trickster; that sounded grand. She could give Petras what was coming to him. She could find magic to heal her grandmother’s eyes and bring wealth to her family. But could she trust a trickster to teach?
“You show me yours and I will show you mine.”, she said with a sly smile.
“Do you swear it? On the sacred stone of Laima Fate Weaver?”
“Yes.”, she answered, with determination in her voice.
With a fierce and wild grin he jumped up again all swift moments like a bounding stag. Grabbing her hands he spun her about in a triumphant dance. He frightened her in that moment and she wondered what exactly she had gotten herself into. But it was too late for that. She had sworn an oath.
He released her and she staggered away with the strange smell of spice and swamp in her nose. When she looked up he had changed again. Now he seemed older again, with a grim look on his face. The forest itself seemed to bend and shimmer around him as it might look through the air above a fire. He reached out like a striking snake and grabbed her temples in a powerful grip. She felt her spine stretched upward almost to the point where she would have been lifted off the ground. There was a buzzing sensation like when she had moved that swarm of bees to her parents property and the smell became a thousand times more intense as he pulled her into him and kissed her forehead.
It was as if she had been dropped into a raging river.
She was drowning. She was sure of it. Drowning in knowledge. Images and incantations flooded her. Ideas that she hadn’t even had the vaguest inkling of were now spinning in a whirlpool of paradox and contextual truth. She felt it changing her. Dear Gods, she thought, Laima Fate Weaver, preserve me.
Then it was done, and he was standing across the path from her, watching her with his dark, wise eyes. She blinked and tried to adjust to this new thing. Everything seemed at a distance now. Petra and his waggling eyebrows seemed incredibly unimportant. She looked at him with knowledge residing behind her own eyes and sorrow in her heart. She no longer wanted to trick the trickster, but that was all that was left. So she did. His rage was terrible to behold, but now she understood. She had seen the spinning of the balance of order and chaos and did not envy him his lot.
Everything and nothing changed that day. The importance of secretiveness was obvious. But over the years she took students. She shared the knowledge she had gained. They spread slowly through the land and legends sprang up about strange summer rites where witches dance and young men never return. In the dark of winter the folk told tales of legends of women and men known as witches.
If you’re interested in reading more of my mythological retellings:
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